Dead Island Made Me Dead. A Lot.

By Dennis Scimeca in Previews/Impressions
Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 2:00 pm
Dead Island Intro image.jpg
Get your baseball bats and bash in some zombie brains on Dead Island
The last time I saw Dead Island was at the Game Developers Conference, and I was mired in asking questions for Joystick Division about the reveal trailer that would probably have absolutely nothing to do with the gameplay. I booked my E3 appointment to see Dead Island with no considerations of pursuing that line of pursuit. It was time to let my hands ask the questions.

I can confirm that the trailer does indeed have absolutely nothing to do with the game I played today. I also don't care. Deep Silver's Dead Island co-op demo indicates that the game has potential, even if there's no touching piano music and family trauma. The experience was better without them, anyway. But that potential might be lost in needless complexity if the developers aren't careful.

Led by a member of the Dead Island dev team, two other hapless contestants and myself were entered in a game of running around and bashing zombies with melee weapons, which is the basic mechanic. We had unlimited funds with which to purchase items from the "store," a man sitting in a church where survivors of the zombie apocalypse were holed up (shades of Forth Hawthorne? -- .ed). We could make and repair weapons from a nearby workbench, and then were off on a quest to put posters up, apparently to help someone find a lost someone else on the island?

I didn't ask. The idea that we'd be putting up "Missing" posters on an island ruled by zombies was just too silly. Like anyone is wandering around out there looking for lost children. No thank you. I'm staying right here in that church. The kid should have kept up with her parents. Them zombies eat people, you know.

Dead Island did something for me that no zombie game has done before: it made me feel like I was actually walking through a zombie apocalypse. The environments in Left 4 Dead never really felt like an apocalypse for me, but rather were just devoid of people, with some window dressing to indicate "something went wrong here." And those weren't zombies, but "infected."

Dead Island looked more like I'd expect a post-zombie uprising world to look like, and the zombies in Dead Island are decidedly zombies. They are rotting corpses. They are missing large bits of themselves. You do not want them near you...and that was my challenge with Dead Island. Once I had the option to use guns, that's all I wanted. I did not want to go back to melee weapons.

There will be guns in the game, but not many, and ammunition will be limited. I have to wonder whether guns shouldn't be in the game at all. Maybe Polish developer Techland should write a story where firearms are forbidden on this vacation island, such that they will never be available to the player. When I finally got my hands on an M16 after swinging away at zombies with knives and improvised, spiked maces, I felt a sigh of relief, and started pegging head shots. Because prior to that, I kept dying. Over and over again.

Dead Island Body Image 1.jpg
You can build powerful electrified and flaming weapons at workbenches

To be fair, the demo took place relatively deep into the game. Characters level in Dead Island as they accrue experience, and the demo characters were level 20. We would therefore have had plenty of practice by that point in learning what effective melee range was, how to dance in and out of that range to strike and avoid getting hit in return, and how to strategically attack the limbs and head of a zombie to put them down for the count.

Lining zombies up with headshots was so much more satisfying, however. If I'd never laid hands on that M16, I never would have started thinking this way. But Dead Island suddenly turned from a first person version of Dead Rising into a first person shooter, and I liked it much better. Dead Rising's focus on melee worked because it was third person. It was very easy to tell what was around the player, and gauging distance between Frank West and the zombies around him was pretty easy.

In Dead Island, you have to get really close in to do any damage. My character had a special throwing-knife attack which had to be charged via filling up the "rage meter," and when activated provided a devastating ranged attack, but that's only one character and the attack isn't always available. The rest of the time I was toe-to-toe with the undead, waiting for my targeting reticle to turn red, indicating a strike would hit the target. Much of the time when I realized I was in range it was too late, and the zombie was already on top of me.

Ostensibly, players will learn not to do things like travel in open areas any more than is necessary. If you can herd the zombies into a narrow alley, for example, only so many of them can get in front of you. Just watch your back and whittle them down one at a time...but ostensibly players will sometimes have no choice but to be out in the open, and it was sometimes very difficult for me to figure out where the hell the zombies were hitting me from in those encounters. Once I had the M16, however, I could sit back at my leisure, set up head shots, and relocate when the zombies got too close.

I wish that Dead Island was going in the direction of more, for lack of a better word, "realism." Maybe we don't need nine different weapon slots, and weapons that are color coded in the traditional RPG fashion (blue is good, purple is better, etc.). Maybe two or three sturdy weapons, differentiated by speed and striking power, would suffice. Why are people selling me equipment for money? Are that many people on an island ruled by walking corpses expecting the local economy to recover?

Dead Island also has its share of "special zombies," which I've never been a fan of. I didn't like them in Left 4 Dead, and I don't like them here, either. Zombies that emit smoke which chokes you. Zombies that are covered with pustules that explode. Zombies in straightjackets. Smokers, Boomers and Tanks. The comparisons are just too easy to make, only in Left 4 Dead, we don't have to get up in their faces with weapons that feel ill-suited to the task. We have guns.

Dead Island Body Image 2.jpg
Dead Island's open world is the game's biggest asset right now

All of these tropes distract from what Dead Island has going for it: the open world of the zombie apocalypse. That is the singular strength of the game I saw demonstrated today. I did not want to be out there in those streets, with decomposing shamblers lurking around too many corners. I can't imagine what it's like to wander Dead Island at night. I'd really like to see, even though the proposition sounds agita-inducing.

Techland could easily ground this game in much more realism and focus on human drama, which is something that zombie games typically don't give us. We don't need "special zombies" when the "regular zombie" models are so well-decomposed. Plain-old walking corpses are scary enough in the first person. All the variety of enemy that Techland is aiming for could be accomplished by using the varied body sizes and weights we see in the bodies of human beings, and without wandering into "special zombie" land.

Take away the complex inventory systems. Keep the workbench weapon manufacturing but get rid of the weapon repairs. If you're going to go melee, commit all the way and never offer firearms to the player, which could create the distracting experience I had today. Pare down anything which screams "trope." There's something very unsettling, and hence satisfying for a zombie game, at the core of Dead Island right now, and too many things threatening to obfuscate it.

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