Impressions: 15 Hours With Dead Island

Welcome to Dead Island. I'll be your holiday rep.

Dead Island was released (in some manner) in the US yesterday, and arrives in the UK, once it’s painstakingly paddled across the massive oceans of the internet, on Friday. I’ve been playing it for a long, long time, and yet still haven’t got anywhere near its ending. And as such, even though I’m about to tell you Wot I Think, in the interests of probity will offer you my Impressions.

When playing the great game of marital influences, the most obvious route to take with Techland’s Dead Island is “Left 4 Dead meets Dead Rising”. (And yes, “Game Z is a cross between Game X and Game Y” is lazy reviewing. But Dead Island really is that. Perhaps to a fault. It’s hard to credit the creators with too many original ideas of their own.) That makes a lot of technical sense. It’s an up-to-four player co-op zombie survival game, in which you’re given series of challenges from survivors to complete in an ever-growing hub-based island, packed with the undead. It pretty much falls exactly between the two games. But having spent a great many hours playing, and still being apparently only halfway through the game, I’m making a different, slightly more esoteric call. This is Borderlands meets that game YOU love that everyone else feels falls short.

It’s also a great game. A great game somewhat obscured by some fairly severe issues, that I suspect will never be quite realised for what it should have been for a couple of years, when the fans are done fixing it. But I also suspect that there will be such fans, because it’s a game that deserves them.

This isn’t the game of that trailer. It isn’t the frantic survival simulation many were hoping for. On an island where resources are essentially infinite, and cupboards respawn contents if you only go away for long enough, you can forget the lonely, desperate struggle that many (including us) had hoped the game would be. But its not being those things doesn’t mean it isn’t something else. And what it is, is a huge, dumb and intriguing game full of more gore than the combined works of Troma.

Playable as a solo game (which is how I approached it) or with up to four players in a team, you and your potential buddies are stranded on a large holiday resort island, which is ever-so-slightly populated by zombies. It turns out that you are one of very few people who are immune to the bite of the undead. You can still be injured or killed by them, but you won’t become one of them. And that makes you special. It also means that you’re the person everyone’s going to ask to do their odd jobs for them.

Beginning on a beach resort, you’re quickly gathering side quests, alongside main missions to reach a nearby lighthouse and another collection of survivors, while brutally caving in the skulls and ribcages of anything that walks with a shuffle.

Weapons are mostly found, and then augmented. A baseball bat, once you’ve discovered the modding details, can become the basis for a motorised spinning blade on the end of a club, for instance. The parts necessary are scattered about the island in bins and bags, or in the pockets of your victims, and can then be combined on workbenches scattered in the various safe zones. Each weapon very rapidly degrades, meaning they must be used judiciously, with repairs extremely expensive.

That’s combined with your own frailty. You’re pretty tough, as it goes (somewhat dependent on which character you picked and their personal skills), but you’re still human. Stamina plays a massively important role, meaning you can’t just endlessly swing a weighty axe into the faces on the oncoming hordes forever and ever. In fact, you’ll get tired extremely quickly if you play this way. Instead you must fight wisely, aiming your blows carefully, and using your equipment cunningly. For instance, randomly thwacking at a zomb is not nearly as effective as sweeping their legs out from under them with your mace, then brutally stamping their head in when they hit the ground. Your weapon lasts longer, and so do you.

Missions make sense for the setting. Someone may ask you to find a trapped loved one, kill an undead family member, or recover their teddy bear. Er, it’s quite a creepy adult women who asks for that one. And while you can spend too much time traipsing between them, there’s generally an awful lot to do.

Right, that’s the framework, here’s what actually happens:

I think it works. I think it works well. Except for, well, all the things that don’t work so well. I’m good at this writing lark. But the most important thing is, despite the collection of issues, despite the dumb decisions and leaden movement, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing it. I want to play it more. Although that’s not to say that I don’t have lots to complain about.

I think the most significant, immediate, and constant failing for me is the movement. It’s so, so sluggish. Oddly it gets sprint right where most games get it terribly wrong – you can run for a good distance, with the clever expense of meaning when you encounter some bads, your stamina will be lower for the fight. But the general air of the game is one of walking in custard, flinging your limbs around as if they’re bags on sand on the end of rope. And this becomes most frustrating when you sidestep. Walking forward goes at a slightly too slow pace, but dare to hit A or D and you’ll grind to a crawl. Which, you could quite reasonably argue, is realistic. Walking sideways does slow you down, after all. But let’s just say that Dead Island isn’t a game that lets realism trouble it all too often.

Good lord, it’s weird. This is a world in which it costs over $1000 to fix a broken baseball bat. Who is charging this money is never explained, and exactly what it’s being spent on is never made clear. But so it is that when it comes to repairing your favourite augmented weapon, the bill can be staggering. It’s damned strange enough that people are selling you the bare essentials for survival as it is. After all, you’re the only person who dares to go outside, and you’re working to save their lives. But still, they want over $3000 for that machete they have. But that you have to pay money to fix or upgrade your equipment is mind-boggling.

Of course, it’s a way to force more careful resource management. Money arrives from all over, in this peculiar parody of capitalism, with about half the zombies you kill carrying a pile of dosh, much more to be found in discarded suitcases, and then large wads of the stuff handed to you in return for completing quests. “But, if you’d just stop valuing your money in such a weird way during this apocalypse, this would be so much easier for everyone” I lecture the game.

Things get even more strange in your inventory. You are capable of carrying about ten weapons at the start, with more slots unlockable should you spend your skill points on levelling up on such things. But then you can also carry infinity bits and bobs for the recipes. Apart from bottles of alcohol, that take up a weapon slot. Even though they’ve visibly smaller than the bottles of water, of which you can carry hundreds. Sure, games and their inventories have always been bizarre, but here it really seems to go out of its way to be unhelpful. And perhaps I’m just Earth’s greatest genius, but I’m not convinced I need to collect a set of instructions to know how to drive some nails into the end of a baseball bat.

Perhaps a more serious issue appears in the combat, which is for the most part absolutely brilliant. Sluggish, yes, but the enforced thought that’s required to survive a crowd of zombies makes for something so much more interesting than the average first-person melee game. I love deliberately aiming my cleaver at the arms of one of the tougher baddies, a Thug, so he’s got nothing left to punch me with. And in the game. And wow, is it gory. So very, very gory.

I cannot remember a game this gruesome, and really any argument that gaming hasn’t desensitised me to fantasy violence is proven as nonsense by my willingness to tolerate the horror before me. As I’m deliberately slicing off the head of a fallen former-human, such that the neck stump gushes forth with vile, congealed blood, the viscera-smeared face rolling away in a fixed grimace of pain, I do wonder what’s become of me, and society. Then I do it again. Combined with the wonderfully hideous sound effects (so bad my squeamish fiancée left the room before she’d even looked at the screen, and even my cat became too upset by it all to sleep on my desk as I played), this is the most remarkable display of grotesquery I’ve seen.

Annoyingly, later on it starts to be a bit cheaty. On a micro scale, enemies seem to be able to hit you despite your clearly having hit them first, or reach you despite your having backed off considerably. Which if it’s a killing blow feels needlessly unfair. On a macro scale, the strange choice has been made to have the zombies level to match you, no matter where you go. Clearly this makes for a fair fight as you progress, and you’ll not encounter an area you’re not ready for yet if you choose to explore. But it also means that returning to those opening resort beaches to mop up a missed quest offers no satisfaction whatsoever. Heading back at level 20, I was really keen to give those level 1s to 15s what for. But the dead bastards were all 20 and 21 now, and I was offered no sense of having progressed or improved.

However, there’s a decent mix of zombie types, which at least keeps things more interesting. Walkers do exactly that (while also offering the entertainment of seeing my name above the monstrous rotting carcass of a bikini-clad horror), and will stumble menacingly, then freaking you out by lunging forward and grabbing you by the lapels. The Infected, who troublingly look more human, sprint. And they sprint fast, from around corners, while screaming. Timing the swing of a larger weapon becomes essential, or they’ll take a chunk out of you. There are Thugs, bigger boys who take much more tactical attacks. And there are the straight-jacketed beasts who ram into you, sending you flying. And so on.

It’s probably important to note that the review code I was working on is clearly not the same as the accidentally released dev code that came out in the States this week, and I’ve not found it to be a particularly buggy affair. There have been a couple of strange error messages popping up, but neither actually crashed the game nor seemed to make a difference. And while vehicles seem to be a bit prone to getting wedged in between the scenery, beyond this it’s seemed impressively stable.

And gosh, it’s beautiful. The island looks incredible with the PC settings cranked up, only spoilt by an unnecessarily short draw distance for grass textures. Water and fire are clearly shortcuts, which again is a bit of a shame, but otherwise it really does look spectacular. Which makes walking through the soup of victims’ body parts at the end of a larger fight all the more stomach-turning.

Back to my initial marriage. The Borderlands comparison is because this really is incredibly similar in design. Four-player co-op that scales down to solo, with hub-based quests, moddable weapons, and RPG skill trees and XP. The other reference is more… metaphorical. For me it was Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. While what I’ve encountered (to what I think may be only the midway point after about 15-20 hours of playing) has certainly not offered anything of the extraordinary writing, twists and intelligence of Redemption, and indeed hasn’t collapsed into unfinished madness (there’s still time), I can’t help but shake that sense that this is a game that will be much misunderstood, and horribly underappreciated.

That initial cinematic, the backward video of the death of the child, was always going to be something Dead Island couldn’t live up to. What’s good is that it doesn’t try. It’s sombre in places, and some of the quests are pretty tragic in tone, but it’s ultimately about plunging electrified cleavers into the screeching faces of recently revitalised corpses. While you perhaps spend too long in each hub, with different areas looking extremely similar, there are so many side quests being thrown at you that there’s always something to be doing. The map will intricately guide you to wherever you need to be, and there’s even fast travel between hubs for when you get sick of traipsing down the same streets.

For once here’s a game where I want to stick a score on the end of the review, just to make it clear that the 5s and 6s it’s been receiving are plain wrong. There’s enormous ambition here, and much of it is realised. It’s on a huge scale, extremely involved, and for all its illogical inconsistency it holds itself together well.

And that’s just the single-player. Like Borderlands, I find myself actually wanting to play with other people – a feeling so rare to me I wonder if I’m coming down with something.

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