Sep 102011
I’m a fan of zombies.  I’ve pretty much watched all of the zombie movies and played a good chunk of the more notable zombie games throughout the years.  I’ve sunk insane hours in to the Left4Dead games and am always willing to give a zombie experience a fair shot before casting it off as a painful exercise, such as the Dead Rising games.  So when Dead Island had that really great trailer earlier this year , it made my list of zombie things I need to try.This week I have had a chance to actually try out Dead Island, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised.   This being a “first impressions” piece means I have not played the full game (or close to it), so this is by no means a full review.  Just my thoughts as I play the game, especially in the light of the botched PC release and the negative press that ensued.

Of course, we all know by now that the version of Dead Island that was released on Steam this week was the wrong version.  Some internal development and/or testing build that was never meant to see the light of day.  Considering this version was horribly broken, according to those gamers who waited up all night to play the game, this was a massive blunder which will be difficult to overcome since bad press has a tendency to stick around.  Months from now, Dead Island will be known as the game that had the dev build released by accident, and not as a different and interesting zombie/action/rpg game.  The good news is that it was quickly fixed later that same day and had a follow up patch two days later further correcting some performance issues I saw.  Luckily for me, by the time I got around to sinking some significant time into DI, all the initial outrage inducing issues were addressed and I was left playing a relatively bug free game.  Naturally in the highly variable world of PC gaming, your mileage may vary.

So what is Dead Island?  It’s pretty much just a Left4Dead clone at a tropical resort, right?  Not even close.  Yes, it will be forever compared to L4D in that it’s a zombie game and that it supports 4 player co-op, but that’s where the similarities ends.   Since we naturally tend to compare new things to old things, I will expand that out by saying that Dead Island is most certainly an action rpg game that more closely resembles Borderlands than any other game.

The combat focus seems to lie heavily on melee, and it’s about as gruesome as it gets.  Those easily offended need not apply, although if that’s the case you’re probably not into zombies anyway.  You’ll be smashing and decapitating many skulls, breaking many limbs and dismembering zombies all day long.  It’s actually quite satisfying.  While L4D is mainly cartoonish in its violence, DI goes for a visceral, realistic approach and doesn’t hold back.  The first-person melee combat works surprisingly well, and you can target basically 5 different points on a zombie’s body, the 4 limbs and the head.  Breaking arms makes them hang limp and breaking legs limits them to crawling around.  Destroying the head will put them out of their misery, but on tougher zombies (or larger numbers) it’s not an instant kill, you may need to disable a few zombies before giving them a finishing blow — so only going for the head doesn’t always make sense.

There are four characters to choose from, each with their own specialty: bladed melee, blunt-object melee, throwing weapons and guns.  This does not limit you as to what weapons you can use, since all weapons are available to all the characters, it just limits where you can spend skill points on bonus abilities which favor those types of weapons.  Weapons do break down over time, and all weapons have their own stats, easily visible before you pick them up — also making it clear as to how it compares to your current weapon.  The weapon durability varies and the game does a good job of visually showing you what kind of shape your weapon is in.  After bashing a decent number of zombie skulls with heavy metal pipe, it will be pretty badly bent up not to mention completely covered in blood.  There’s also a straight up hud meter showing you how much “life” is left in that weapon.  Weapons can be repaired and modded at workbenches scattered around the game in safe houses, and for whatever reason cost in-game money to do so.  Luckily, money is literally laying around everywhere and is available for looting — again much like Borderlands.  Also, loot drops are regularly replenished so I doubt resources will ever be a problem unless you skip looting entirely.  The inventory system is fairly well balanced in that you can carry 12 weapon or health items with you at any given time, but you can hold unlimited amounts of weapon mod components encouraging you to loot everything and also ensuring you’ll most likely always have the various parts needed to make up some insane weapon contraption.

You gain experience by killing zombies, completing challenges which are in-game milestones similar to those in Borderlands (i.e. break down 10 doors, decapitate 10 zombies with a kitchen knife, etc.) and by completing main mission and side quests.  You can find quest givers throughout the environment which usually amount to finding items and bringing them back, or clearing out areas of zombies/enemies — again, very similar to Borderlands.  XP points earned level your character up, which then gives you points you can spend in skill trees boosting your characters combat styles (i.e. 10% damage boost, 10% weapon degradation reduction) and also survival skills like lock picking or health increases.  There’s also in-game collectibles to be found which also reward you in XP.

The game feels completely worthwhile playing in solo mode, unlike L4D or Borderlands — which almost have to be played co-op.  You can make your game publicly joinable or private, and the game will notify you if there is another player in the same area as you around your same level with a joinable game, and you can jump into his or her’s session with a key press.  A quick tip if you don’t want to see these pop-ups, you can actually set your game to be multiplayer – LAN only and you won’t be bothered by the notifications.

The more I play it, the more I like it.  I’m just starting to scratch the surface of the game, but there are lots of missions to do, lots of loot to loot and lots of XP to gain.  The story isn’t anything great, but makes sense in zombie-lore, the voice acting is solid but not outstanding, and there is a boatload of stuff to explore and roam around in — in an open world setting.  The graphics are great but do suffer from too much bloom in my opinion.  The Steam forums offer a convoluted way to disable bloom although I may wait for a more “official” way to do that.  Luckily, changing the game’s FOV isn’t nearly as difficult, but still not as easy as Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s in game control.   Can we somehow get a standard of in-game PC settings for the gaming industry to adopt?  Editing config files reminds me too much of setting jumpers and DIP switches on hardware.  We should be beyond that, but we’re not.

So far it’s an enjoyable game that what it lacks in polish makes up for it in content, depth and atmosphere.  Check it out if you’re a zombie nut who’s into action rpg type things.