I think it was approximately a year ago that a certain trailer made the rounds amongst my zombie and video game loving friends. Everyone was out of their minds over this 3 minute video, a promotion for the upcoming game Dead Island. It was artistic. It was bloody, and tragic, and scary, and heartbreaking, and aside from the lack of chainsaws and shotguns touched on a lot of the bases that people wanting to indulge in a good zombie-apocalypse-as-it-happens tale are looking for. Sudden and inexplicable attack, things on fire, a desperate family in peril, a little girl who’s done got herself bit… all these elements are pretty much par for the course by now, but I can still appreciate the same ol’ same ol’ if it’s executed well. Besides, this game gave the hint of something different in the terms of the setting. Instead of spooky mansions and ruined cities, this was a vacation Nirvana gone to Hell. A literal “Paradise Lost”. I’ve told enough, though, so click here for a little show.
So that trailer was February-ish of 2011, and then the game released in Fall, to… not much fanfare, that I can remember. Everyone loved the trailer (Wired went so far as to call it “the best video game trailer ever made”), but I just wasn’t hearing the same sort of buzz once actual play began. And what with one thing or another (this comic being a big part of “another”) I never got around to a rental until just recently.
So here’s the thing: when I personally watched that trailer, I remember thinking “great cutscene, but what’s the actual game like?”. Because from the trailer, you’d expect some measure of survival horror poignancy, perhaps the man with the axe fighting through a sun-drenched nightmare after the loss of his family– I mean, I don’t know about you, but I figure tossing my little daughter out the window after she bit me like a rabid animal would be pretty traumatizing.
I start up the game and I’m greeted with a choice of four playable characters, none of whom seem like family people. In fact they each introduce themselves to you with an extended (and I do mean extended) voice-over of their backstory that drops more f-bombs than George Carlin stubbing his toe. Well, except for the Asian Stereotype, who perhaps considers naughty language to be dishonorable.
Listen, language-wise I try to keep things PG-13 for this site, but if you’ve ever read my Satellite Show blogs you’ll know I’m no stranger to turning the air blue. On the other hand, if I begin to feel like every other word is trying to justify “Rated M for Mature”, alarm bells go off in my head, because I’ve run into way too many bits of fiction where it seems like constant cursing has been used as a substitute for writing dialogue with actual resonance. For every property like Goodfellas where it works, there’s a lot more where it comes off like a five year old gleefully shouting the word they just heard daddy use because mommy makes funny faces when she hears it.
Then, despite all this back story they explain to you, none of it seems to matter in the actual game. It doesn’t matter that you’re fighting to restore your family’s honor, or out to recover your street cred, or just committed to the preservation of your fancy fauxhawk (the ex-football player Texan sports one, for some reason); dialogue and interactions play out exactly the same. Each character has different specialties (firearms, blades, blunt weapons, throwing), slightly different stats, and a different voice for saying variations on things like “Yes, I’ll do it!”… and that’s about it. You have skill trees as you level up which provide further customization of your gameplay, but as far as characters go, I just wasn’t feeling the sense of these people. I contrast that to the opening cutscene of Left 4 Dead, a game of far less RPG elements but one that paradoxically had me caring about Francis, Zoey, et al. much more, despite them not filling me in on their life stories before the game started.
Speaking of which, the opening cutscene of this game seems to cast you as a random drunk guy stumbling around, who is obviously not one of the four characters since you run into each of them briefly. In the playable prologue (which occurs after character selection), you wake up with a hangover in what’s very obviously the same bed he passed out in. Were you supposed to have been the random dude for that time? If so, why am I wearing high heels and hearing a woman’s voice when I talk? It seems like the wires got crossed a bit, here, and that lends to a feeling of the game being rushed despite having had a five year development period.
But anyhow, the game’s opener is very different than the teaser trailer, which may be the major disappointment. The trailer gave a certain set of expectations, but the actual game plays out like a strange combination of L4D, Dead Rising, and Grand Theft Auto. There is actually a logical, if semi-bizarre explanation for this disconnect, which is that the trailer was produced by a separate company that had almost no contact with the actual game development team. There is also reputably a movie in the works… and it’s based entirely on the trailer.
Actually if I had to pick one game that Dead Island most resembles, it would be Borderlands. Four characters with different specialties, on the fly co-op, level ups, sandboxy, lots of Diablo-style loot and weapons, vehicles, quests… there’s a lot of similarity here. I’ve heard others compare it to the Fallout series, but Fallout has a lot more customization of your character and branching decisions that make a difference… the comparison doesn’t work for me. If you liked Borderlands, you’ll probably like Dead Island. If you didn’t like Borderlands, or were ambivalent towards it, you might have some problems.
So how is Dead Island for a man like myself, who grew bored of Borderlands after a few days and sent it whisking back to Gamefly? It’s hard to say. I’m still playing it, because finding my way around the zombies rewards a certain tactical mindset, but the developers obviously want me to care about what’s happening to the other people on the island, and I just don’t. It’s impossible to buy into people complaining of supply shortages when the game keeps renewing all the health items and loot containers every time you exit the game or sometimes even travel between areas.
The “continual quests”, where you get cash/items and XP every time you turn in certain things to a survivor, can be particularly immersion breaking. When you hand a certain lady 15 bottles of water in a row and she continues to whine at you that she’s cramping up from dehydration every time you pass by her, I begin to feel less sympathy and more “SHUT UP”. 50 cans of food to another guy? He’s still starving. Not to mention the people who keep sending me back to the same pharmacy to grab stuff I would have looted the first time had the game decided to let me. Early on there’s a doctor who complains about there being no painkiller and bandages in the infirmary you broke into, and as he does so you can see painkiller bottles and bandages on the table right next to him. And loot them if you want. Maybe that’s why he’s complaining?
In most games like this, the people you’re interacting with aren’t necessarily in dire straits, so no big deal. In Dead Island, you just have to throw in the towel after awhile and ignore the details, or perhaps just pretend you’re part of some weekend LARP session where there’s no actual stakes if Sheila doesn’t get her insulin (the ratio of severe asthmatics and diabetics amongst the survivors is quite surprisingly high). It doesn’t help that many of the character models are firmly in Uncanny Valley territory and often don’t focus on you when they’re speaking. Then there’s the issue of them referring to your female character as “him” or referring to you in the plural even though you might be very much alone. Well, except in some of the cutscenes where suddenly all four playable characters are inexplicably present. It’s just like in L4D, except in L4D they actually are there all along. Here, it’s sort of jarring.
This is not a small thing for me. It’s this matter of continually regenerating supplies and other gameplay elements that conspire so that, while I did have moments of dread, I never felt the kind of unrelenting suspense I experienced with both iterations of Dead Space. Remember in that game how, when you died, you were treated to an extremely graphic rendering of the consequences of your failure? In Dead Island, when you lose all your health you fall over, and then respawn a little ways away with full health a handful of seconds later, like you were playing a Halo deathmatch. Also any damage you inflicted is still present, which makes it entirely possible to zerg. Yes, you can zerg rush the zombies. You don’t even take equipment damage, you just lose a little cash off your total– which personally, I’ve been finding easy enough to replenish.
I suppose it’s an accomplishment that the game does manage to make encounters a hectic affair despite the knowledge in the back of your brain that “death” holds almost no consequences, even in a progression sense. But part of that is the combat itself can be frustrating at times. There’s reviews here and here which talk about that, and also a lot of the rest of what I’ve discussed in a possibly much more succinct manner.
One thing I really do love is how beautifully the environments are rendered in this game. Not so much now that I’ve moved on to Act II, which takes place in the kind of third-world cityscape I’ve already had some fill of in Resident Evil 5, but Act I is the super-expensive resort hotel and its surrounding beaches and bungalows, and I kept thinking “Oh my God I want to go here”. This thought kept occurring, no matter how many half-rotted corpses were either bloodily strewn about or trying to eat my flesh… I wanted to just set my machete aside, grab one of the ubiquitous health-restoring energy drinks, and pull up a deck lounger by the clear blue South Seas waters. Act I was almost more “Place I Will Probably Never Afford To Stay At: The Video Simulation” than survival horror, where I felt like killing the zombies mainly because they were in the way of the water slides, or their agonized growls were drowning out the sounds of surf and the soothing calls of gulls. Is it still effective survival horror when you keep wanting to be in the setting presented?
I’m still playing, which is more than I can say for Borderlands, but it definitely helps that I let the promise of the trailer go early. Much as the game itself does (as shown in this clip from the beginning prologue).
I will also not deny that chopping zombie arms off with the electrified axe you MacGuyvered together, running them down in trucks or drowning them in jacuzzi spas (yes, they can drown) is satisfying enough that it still hasn’t gotten old. This is what I think you have to focus on, not the ill-fated attempts at making you give a damn about your own character or the rest of the Island’s populace. For me it’s sort of like a Summer popcorn movie in gaming form; fun, with great effects, but not particularly deep or compelling from a story perspective. If you’re good with that, it’s definitely worth at least a rental. If not, then you’re better off looking elsewhere for your slice of Paradise.