Zombies. How many must we slay to save the world?
Unfortunately, Dead Island brought us a tropical island full of them, and if my multiple-rental of the title is any indication, putting zombies in paradise is not any substitute for fresh ideas. It’s not like Dead Island isn’t devoid of innovation. There’s a strong emphasis on melee combat, and some of the environments are really quite impressive. Open-world GTA gameplay is fun, the use of non-zombie opponents is introduced flawlessly, and there are a variety of zombies to provide you with some challenge, although they’re not as distinctive as Left 4 Dead’s. You can build and customize your own weapons, kind of like the homebrew weapons in Fallout 3… oh, there I go again, mentioning superior games in the same breath as Dead Island. Sorry.
Things Not to Dev on Your Zombie Vacation
I think a lot of my frustration with Dead Island comes from seeing the potential wasted here. The camera is janky, and there’s a common bug that destroys your weapons when you’re crafting at a workbench. Worst of all, in my opinion, is that when the game should really shine — when the combat gets tricky and zombies are piling up around you like flies around flank steak — this videogame gets balky and petty. There’s a stun effect, for example, that knocks you down when you need it least (although it does usually refrain from piling on during recovery). The auto-arm function will have you swigging booze instead of swinging death if you’re not careful. When compared with the combat in Just Cause 2, another title from the same developer, Dead Island just feels broken.
And there’s that fundamental flaw of a FPS that focuses on melee combat: It’s very difficult to judge melee weapon targeting and range. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Dead Island actually makes this even trickier by mixing up the strike area for weapons because your avatar is sometimes swinging it left and then right. Realism wins, gameplay loses.
P.S. Game Writers Are Cheap
And, you guessed it, this title is badly in need of a game writer. Individual quests rarely transcend the “FedEx” errandboy task. You’ll quickly tire of ferrying miscellaneous trinkets and killing off various spawn groups for rote rewards from uninterested and non-interactive NPCs who turn back into animated shrubbery as soon as you finish the task. The overall story arc is so slight as to be invisible: you’re somebody who wants to get off the island. Huh. When compared with the warring factions of Fallout 3 or the tightly-scripted, unique team-based missions of Left 4 Dead, you can see why it’s a pale star in the firmament.
I love what some people are saying about the game: that it failed to deliver the “emotional experience” promised in the trailers. How is it that, time after time, game studios fail to invest a little bit of time into structuring a game that packs a bit of storyline punch? Not that it would’ve been possible to do so without structural support, mind you. A bit more dialogue or a dozen more cutscenes, tacked on at the end of dev, is not sufficient. But if those cutscenes and a few missions were intelligently structured before production, well… I’d venture to say it could be done. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this game could’ve packed that emotional punch with the same amount of developmental time and effort if it had been a priority from day one.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
P.S. Dead Island won their Game of the Year from Gamecritics.com, in a year that also featured Deux Ex: Human Revolution, Portal 2, and Skyrim. And they only gave out one GOTY award. Hmmm.