Mad Mack: Dead Island Review
Every once in a while I pick up a game that, for some reason, I won’t complete. I’ll put it down for a while and then, when I finally pick up the controller again, it just fails to conjure any level of interest in me, like I’ve picked up a toilet brush right after the world’s most monstrous shit. I am hovering over the fetid bowl facing an unsavory task that simply isn’t worth the effort, so I’ll quickly forget about it and move on.
When this happens, it could equally be attributed to my ADHD-esque attention span as to the game failing to sparkle. Something has gone seriously wrong, however, when I switch it off mid-game with absolutely no intention of ever going back. Like storming out of the cinema, or slipping into the bathroom mid-orgy to angrily finish myself off to the muted soundtrack of cackling derision. Dead Island, for me, was a mid-orgy wank of a game.
Reasons why some games fail so spectacularly are as varied as you could count, but they can generally be grouped into three categories. Firstly, the problem may lie with the player (such as their expectations or skill level, or other players’ inability to grasp basic teamwork during a game of Left4Dead). Secondly, there are flaws that arise from that type of game (accepted tropes of the genre; think cover-based shooting in FPS, or pubescent protagonists in JRPGs or the fact that it is yet another fucking zombie game). Finally there is the specific implementation: essentially how the game was made – the game design, bugs, artwork, level design etc. Usually game reviews focus mainly on that last point, discussing the individual game in isolation. But Dead Island manages to fuck up so bad on all three that I absolutely must go through them.
1. Problems with the Player
That trailer. Re-watch it. Get excited for a game with an emotionally charged storyline filled with believable characters that are confronted with absurd moral choices, and an exciting new playground to try out your zombie apocalypse survival fantasies; and on an island resort full of bikini-clad zombies, your sexy undead fantasies.
Dead Island had a lot of expectations to fulfill. That isn’t necessarily the developers’ fault (it is their fault). Who could blame a game company and its publishers for trying to maximize publicity and hype for their upcoming release? After all, lazy programming and poor game design is not going to pay on its own. One of the high-street stores I visited literally didn’t even list it in their New Releases chart because they were so backlogged with orders. It sold well, and after a long, harrowing journey I finally got myself a copy (I went to the place next door), and on my way home began working on a survival plan involving a thick metal pipe, copious amounts of KY Jelly and a box of matches.
The introduction sequence sets the scene of the drink-fueled holiday resort, taking a first-person view of one drunken/fucked up holiday-maker having a night (s)he’ll easily forget (a la Smack My Bitch Up – look it up children). A strong opening, instantly setting the scene, and by the end you want to be there for the hangover to end all hangovers. Strangely you are then asked to pick one of four characters, who might have been introduced in that opening sequence, and who each have a distinct set of skills or something. Instantly forgetting the initial narrative I choose Xian Mei, a Chinese ex-police officer who seems to be, Resident Evil-style, the “Master of Bladed Weapons” (how could you not?). From this point onwards the chosen character seems to have no impact on the game except for some leaning towards blades in the upgrade system and the occasional squeal when she’s hurt. Fortunately it seems that it isn’t just me who forgets who she is, but everyone else in the game forgets too. But more on that later.
So, at this point I don’t know who I am playing as, except for a probably uninteresting Bio provided at the character selection screen that I didn’t read, and the game begins with me waking up in my room to the sound of an emergency alarm. I walk outside into the hallway and I am immediately confronted with the opportunity/obligation to start searching through abandoned luggage, stealing cash and bits of seemingly useless junk like hose pipes, without any idea of what is actually going on. What fucking character did I pick again? Xian the secret hobo apparently. I am going to assume that the bio I skipped reference to her compulsive kleptomania and hoarding, because so far the character has not been given any indication that carrying around a pocket full of nails and used sex toys will prove essential for surviving the next 24 hours. Darting through a dark room allows me to start using the flashlight, featuring a nice effect where the light yellows and goes dim when it begins to run out of charge. A cool touch, and I still have my hopes up. Continuing my secret hobo desire to search through some poor forgetful tourist’s luggage I run right past the stairwell which is my current objective, and I am greeted to a nice scripted vista of the carnage outside from a balcony. Realising my error, I return to the stairwell to get some more story exposition, before being ushered back to the balcony for the same view. At this point I start to feel a slight twinge of disappointment; I got the sequence out of order, I messed up. This is a feeling that would return again and again. And by about the third time it’s just not my fault any more. Fuck you Dead Island, it’s your fault.
I accept that up to this point the problem might have been with me. Maybe I expected too much. I was hoping for zombie survival nirvana; what I was playing was Dead Rising: XTreme Beach Volleyball. I re-adjusted my expectations accordingly. From this point on I was no longer contributing to making this a bad game.
2. Problems with the Genre
The premise of an open-world tropical island inhabited by undead tourists, desperate survivors and enough pop-culture references to fill an episode of Family Guy is incredibly appealing. A whole world to explore and exploit for mere survival as you battle the undead, find others to help you and to help alike, and then ultimately escape, no doubt by riding the shockwave of an earth-shattering explosion while you cling perilously to the side of a helicopter. An open-world game suits zombie survival perfectly. And the world that has been provided is truly stunning. With the attention to detail in the layout, and the seamless connections between areas of the same map, I can imagine someone from the development team managed to wrangle a few days for “research” on an exotic Caribbean island.
Stepping out alone into this dangerous environment, survival means one thing: killing zombies by the shitload, improvising with whatever weapons you can find. The combat is incredibly fun, using a combination of well-timed kicks to knock down the enemies, well-timed swipes with your improvised weapons and some great over-the-top violence. It is incredibly satisfying to take down your opponents. Zombies that are knocked to the ground provide easy targets to be decapitated, and this adds another element to combat that allows you to make some tactical decisions on how best to take out a group of Walkers (your standard shambling Romero zombies, who are joined in the rogues gallery by the Infected, the running 28 Days Later types, plus a few special zombies like in Left4Dead). For instance, you might be suddenly confronted with a trio of the walking dead, one getting so close as to grab you, forcing you into a Quick Time Event where you have to quickly press buttons in order to land a solid blow to the zombie’s face, sending him to the floor. Quickly preparing yourself you could then kick another to the ground, finish off the last standing zombie with a baseball bat to the head and finally mop up the grounded zombies before they get to their feet. Executing a flawless takedown is addictive, and you’ll find yourself constantly chasing perfection, over and over, like playing golf…
Like playing golf. You are basically doing the same thing over and over, testing your skills, trying to make slight improvements. This is fun for a while (unlike golf) but eventually it gets boring. To spice things up you have RPG-style skill trees to unlock each time your character levels up. Unfortunately, they aren’t actually all that interesting. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution each augmentation can make a significant contribution to your play style, but here the skills mainly just slowly improve the basic stats of your character or strength of certain items, such as how quickly certain weapons deteriorate, or how effective health kits are.
Finally, I’d like to quickly discuss the missions (or quests) that you will be asked to do throughout the game. These are rarely interesting. They are usually some combination of going to an area (which should be cleared out because I just performed a Carrie-style massacre there minutes before, but isn’t because respawning enemies is how this game rolls – yay another way the game fails to reward progress [more later]) press a button, or pick up a thing (or, if the game’s feeling ambitious, move a thing, stand on it and then press a button). You can then return to the quest-giver for some uninteresting dialogue and a fairly meaningless reward. Thank. You. Very. Fucking. Much. Now please feel free to go and die.
I have a problem with quests in open-world games. Namely I hate being given far too many, so that looking at my mission list basically feels like I have a shopping list and I end up just looking at my map to figure out the best route, like I am negotiating my way around a supermarket. Aisle 1, power generators, food and teddy bears; Aisle 2, stranded survivors and petrol stations. It might be an open world, but I’d like to feel like I have some focus. If you just ignore side-quests then you are basically missing out on at least half the game. It’s an irritating symptom of the genre as a whole, and Dead Island is only too happy to get all up on that bandwagon, and then fall under the wheels of said bandwagon and shit out some of its internal organs before spending the next few days slowly cooking on hot asphalt and being eaten by maggots from the inside out.
Finally finally – another zombie game. Fuck. Off.
3. Problems with the Implementation
I think it’s fair to say I’m not very happy with the game so far. But somehow Dead Island manages to make things even worse through pretty piss poor implementation of the already piss poor design. The game is bugged up the arse, there are moments of jarring inattention to level-and mission-design that really stand out, and the core gameplay is just a bit shit.
One of my biggest complaints about many games is auto-leveling up of enemies. Guess what? In this game, the enemies will also auto-level alongside you, so you are rarely facing enemies much more difficult or easier, no matter where you go in the map. Returning to the old bungalow area at the start of the game to finish off some tedious quest is not improved by being able to go back with your new skills and owning the place with your fully upgraded weapons of death – you’ll be confronted by the same medium-difficulty zombies like you would anywhere on the map. They could practically be announced by the flashing caption “A Wild Zombie Appeared”. This is an uninspired design choice, making the beautifully designed areas mere placeholders for a dynamically generated, tedious combat arena. It’s like taking an ornate Chinese vase and using it as a pisspot. I tell you what – I am going to replay the whole game (no I am not) only I am not going to level up shit. I bet it will be the exact same experience. So well done, replayablity is out the window.
Another element to this are the respawning collectable items, which can be picked up from the corpses or dead zombies (dead again, I mean), found in luggage, drawers or just scattered around the area. These pick-ups will never run out; as long as you can explore new areas to find zombies, then return to old areas to pick them up again, you can basically have a limitless supply of cash and sellable objects. So essentially, a game positioned as a survival-horror, through using the limited resources of your environment to best effect, just becomes a game of Supermarket Sweep.
Basically, if you decide to just run around killing zombies you have effectively an infinite supply of resources to collect. This is a serious issue, because the game also has a means for you to spend your cash, namely on upgrading, repairing and buying new weapons and equipment. If you are not at all limited by how much you can gather (and this itself seems stupid given that zombie survival games essentially rely on a sense of scarce resources and forcing you to make do with whatever you can find) then the currency system will be broken, unless they can provide a money-sink for you to lose it all again. Let me welcome you to the retarded Weapon Repair and Upgrade System.
Effectively just a few workbenches scattered throughout the map, these repair stations allow you to take your existing, usually half-destroyed weapons and make them all new and shiny again. For a cost. Not a material cost, such as items that would actually help in the repair process, but for money, the currency used in a civilized world where supernatural creatures don’t rule the land and all of the inhabitants actually ply a trade, unlike on this island where everyone who is not you just sit around moping about their dead relatives and getting you to fetch them infinite amounts of baked beans. So basically, you have a workbench that has realized that there is suddenly a great deal of demand for its services, and has as a result decided to start charging people to use it. Apparently the Dead Island zombie apocalypse will also be accompanied by inanimate objects turning into very astute, if unethical, business things, and money will take on the magical ability to fill in cracks in baseball bats and straighten crowbars, like a really expensive polly-filla or the papier mache of the rich and famous.
So, it turns out that in the zombie apocalypse all you need to survive are a half-broken rowing paddle and a pocket full of Benjamins. But, strangely, the magical power of green doesn’t extend to modifying your weapons, such as sticking nails into the end of a baseball bat, where you are forced to gather the required materials (AND some cash, for good measure). Why?
Before I continue I would just like to step back and think about that weapon deterioration system again. What is the point? I can see why other games have implemented it in the past, and obviously the idea is to add a feeling of jeopardy to the situation of trying to survive in a world with scarce resources. But there aren’t scarce resources – they’re basically fucking infinite, about as far from scarce as it is ever possible to be. It ends up just being an inventory-management mini-game where you have to occasionally swap out dud weapons for fresh new ones. Inventory management has never been fun, so stop trying to use it as a ‘tactical decision. You know what is not fun? Collecting cards. Which is what inventory management is. If you are clearly so in love with wanting me to go batshit insane killing zombies, then see it through and let me do it with the most fun weapons. Being stuck with a shitty plank halfway through the game will not just bring back fond memories of that first horror-filled hour of gameplay, it’ll remind me that you’re a heartless bastard.
I briefly mentioned earlier that the other characters didn’t seem to know who I was (or rather my character, Xian Mei). Everyone in the game, even in the main questlines, kept referring to me as man, guy or dude. Maybe they’re just trying to not be sexist with this being the 21st century and all, but sometimes they refer to me as “guys”. What the hell is that? I am not playing co-op so I have no one with me (why will no one play with me mommy?) and it was far too early in the day for them to be seeing double drunk. So, why the hell would you just assume that I was not alone? Basically, because it would have required a whole single line of dialogue to be re-recorded (fuck sake, Mass Effect had a whole game worth of dialogue recorded that would differ depending on whether or not you were of the lady persuasion) and that cocaine is not going to snort itself off a stripper’s ass.
Not far into the game I was making my way along the beach approaching some wooden shacks. When I got within a certain distance some really exciting music kicked in, and I knew I was in for a big fight. But then I stepped back to get a better view and the music just disappeared. I stood there, stepping forward and back, triggering this audio cue on and off for a few moments. It was like there was a dance mat under the floor that only responded to the living. I have seen that kind of thing before, usually in fairly old games and those where design was rushed and half assed, so I ignored it and jumped in and started kicking ass. Not a big deal.
Soon after I stumbled upon some stairs leading down from the swimming pool area into some underground bathroom. The area was swimming with blood, and I couldn’t wait to go down and see what caused all the carnage. The creepy music kicked in, with some ambient scary noises of some unknown beast. I sneaked around, trying to find the monster. He wasn’t t there, but the area was pretty creepy, so it did a good job freaking me out. Quite nicely done actually. Then I decided to leave, and as I was making my way back up the stairs suddenly I was flung backwards. Oh Shit, I thought, it’s behind me! I spin around, but there was nothing there. Weird. So I tried to leave again, and once again I was thrown backwards. The stairs, it turned out, were completely broken. I had to sprint and jump over and over, and eventually the staircase-of-doom let me go from its foul grasp. Seriously? Stairs? Doom had stairs that worked for fuck’s sake. Are we actually stepping backwards in terms of game functionality?
Anyway, I then found a nearby survivor who needed me to hunt down a monster. I knew what was coming. Back I went to the broken staircase. I hovered around outside, slightly fearful to go on – not because of the blood-splattered walls and the corpses of mangled tourists, but because I didn’t know whether I’d ever be able to get out again. Inadvertently I think Techland have discovered the scariest monster in gaming history – the stairs from hell. Not the stairs to hell, but the stairs from hell. I finally headed down, found the monster waiting for me inside, and knocked its teeth out. Perhaps earlier I had caught him on his lunchbreak or he had just stepped out for a smoke. Whatever the excuse, I was disappointed that this wasn’t the little easter-egg area of creepiness that I thought it was earlier, but just a poorly designed finale to a side-quest that I shouldn’t have seen beforehand. It’s an open-world game: am I supposed to explore or not?
Finally, we come to the great big bug that forced me to give up on the game for good. I had a main quest that involved talking to a guy at the next hub – a lighthouse down the road. I got there, talked to him, performed some side missions for him, and yet I couldn’t proceed. He wouldn’t talk to me anymore. I figured that perhaps I had to complete all of the side missions before I could continue, so I did. Or at least, I tried. One of the side-missions couldn’t be completed until I reached a whole new map, so unknowingly I scoured the entire map (as I knew it) trying to find a crashed airplane that didn’t exist. For ages. Admitting defeat I decided to look up the solution online. Oh I see. It’s not that I am being stupid: it’s the game. Apparently that side mission couldn’t be completed yet because of a bug, but if I switched the console OFF AND ON AGAIN he would start talking to me. What the absolute fuck?
Dead Island, you are a piece of shit and I hope you rot in hell. For those that insist on such things, I will give this a score of 2 out of 10. Fuck you – that’s why.
Dave McConkey is currently fundraising for orphans. Orphans with diseases.
Mad Mack continues next week…