Monday, February 23, 2015

Untimely Revue: Dead Island

Oh, Dead Island. What to say about you… Hm. I could say THAT, but I’m saving it for the ending summary. Oh, whatever. Let’s just talk about the game. I’ve had Dead Island in my Steam library for a couple years now (it got gifted to me by someone who bought a Humble Bundle and had some of the games.) Anyway, I finally decided to crack open the game when I saw a Twitch streamer (CohhCarnage) playing Dying Light. Dying Light looked awesome, so I was like, “Self, you should play the game that the studio made before this so you can appreciate the changes.” I shouldn’t listen to myself. I give bad advice.

I like to start things on a positive note. So… Melee combat is surprisingly fun. It’s quite visceral. Having a (at low levels, ridiculously small) stamina meter for everything forces you to consider how to handle attacks, escape, running/platforming (as if there was any platforming), and such. Because it’s important to move in, attack, and run away. You can’t tank attacks at ALL. Which is cool and reasonably realistic. The weapons breaking is also realistic, but… Really? A pipe doesn’t break that quickly. Some of these weapons break way too fast, while others take forever to get damaged. The guns never jam, no matter how many times I fire them, but that baseball bat layered with spikes and stuff breaks after a few dozen hits, even when I’ve got it fully-upgraded and have purchased all the skills that allow me to increase weapon durability? Okay then… 

With that said, the relative lack of guns is cool. You have to get right up in the zeds’ grill, putting you in more danger. And even if you scrounge up a pistol early on, there’s not much ammunition to be had, which is a realistic touch some zombie apocalypse games forget. When Hell is full and the dead rise up to devour the living, the gun stores will be the first to be looted. But this lack of guns really screws over the dedicated firearms character until reaching the city, which is…quite a bit of gameplay to try to force through when your stats are min-maxed for shooty and not stabby/smashy. I find that…odd. Unless you did some Googling going into the game, like I did, you wouldn’t realize “Oh, I won’t see a gun until ten hours in. I’d better take the smashy dude instead.” Which is what I did.  

Back to melee combat, then. While I said that melee combat overall is pretty fun, the nuances of it are…lacking. The weapons all feel pretty much the same. A knife feels like a machete, which feels like a mace. There’s a noticeable difference between a short, fast weapon like a knife, and a slow, large weapon like a sledgehammer, but not a lot of difference between a knife and an average speed, average length mace. I would also like to wonder why my kick can’t be interrupted but my weapon blows can be. Getting clawed or bitten is going to throw off a kick just as much as a hammer-swing. And on that count, how come my sledgehammer doesn’t interrupt them. If a sledgehammer meets an arm in midair, the arm is going to be the thing that gets deflected, not the sledgehammer. I expect my attacks to be interrupted if I start swinging just before I’m hit, but when my swing started long before theirs, shouldn’t it stop them? Whatever. 

Can I just start talking about the music now, without any sort of smooth segue? Because I’m going to. The music is…there was music? I literally cannot describe the music as I sit here writing this. The only song I can remember is “Who Do You Voodoo, B*tch?” and that’s because I heard it every time I started the game. Also, it’s an awesome song and I have it in my music library. But I digress. The rest of the soundtrack is utterly and completely generic. It’s so generic as to have completely slipped my mind. I think there were…synths, maybe? And maybe some screeching violins? And a bit of techno beat during the action sequences? I honestly don’t know. This is not an exaggeration for comedic purposes. This is me being utterly and completely at a loss regarding what the soundtrack sounded like. That’s… That’s not a good sign. I can chant Skyrim’s theme from memory, I can sing you the Shrine of Amana theme from Dark Souls, heck, I remember soundtracks from games I’ve never played! But I don’t remember the Dead Island soundtrack. 

Now for an abrupt change of topic that will give your brain whiplash. The zombies. There are multiple kinds of them. There are Boomers, there are Chargers, Spitters—wait, that’s Left 4 Dead. Sorry. I meant Walkers, Tanks, Thugs… Look, most of the zombie classes are ripped straight from Left 4 Dead. There’s no getting around that. It had the chance to still be an interesting mechanic, but ruined it when all of the special zombies are lame. They aren’t scary at all, just annoying. You hit, you run, you hit, you run. Eventually, they run out of health. There’s no real strategy, just annoyance. It takes way too long, isn’t particularly challenging if you are even remotely smart about things, and generally just made me grit my teeth. The only enemies that even remotely threatened me were large swarms of Walkers or Infected, more so the Infected. And even they didn’t particularly threaten me so much as make me jump onto a car and laugh at them. Every time I ran into a mob of the undead, I just picked them off one by one, moving in and running away, lather rinse repeat. There was no thought involved, no strategy. Just repetition. And a lot of annoyance, because what brings the Infected (the runners) charging at you isn’t consistent. Sometimes it’s directly linked to you firing a gun or tossing a grenade, but most of the time it seems to be plot. And I don’t like it when you violate a central mechanic (Infected will hunt you if you’re loud) just for the sake of plot. Things would be different if they were, say, like sharks, attracted to the scent of fresh blood, and would come running in when you are injured by a normal zombie. That would not only give you a reason to avoid getting hurt, but also explain why the Infected burst in whenever I’m escorting a character somewhere: The NPCs are idiots. 

Yes. All of them. Every. Single. One. “Oh, there’s thirty people in this church, but none of us can bust down a door and kill a zombie that more or less just stands in one place flailing its arms.” “Oh, you’re literally running circles around me because I don’t move fast enough? I’ll just tell you to hurry up.” “Oh, we’ll just wait for you to get gasoline from a gas station to burn this pile of corpses, rather than just tossing them over the hundred-foot cliff right here.” And my biggest pet peeve, “Lalala the living dead are trying to eat our flesh. Let’s keep wearing t-shirts and shorts and bikinis and give them easy access to our biteable bits.” Seriously. PUT ON CLOTHES. I know this game is set near Australia, but… PUT ON CLOTHES. And maybe work together to do stuff, rather than making me do everything. I know I’m immune and you’re not, but if you work together you should be able to handle a few zombies. And the fact that so many missions involve either guarding people as they go somewhere or fetching things for people as they sit in their shelters… Ugh. Fetch quests. *hocks and spits* I could forgive fetch quests if the process of traveling, finding, and fetching was more fun.

The whole story carries on that idiocy. I didn’t care about a single character. Especially not one particular character who they decide should have a rape plotline in a desperate and transparent attempt to make me care about the story. Suffice to say, the attempt failed. Mainly because I saw it coming the instant I met the character and suffered through her utterly awful voiceacting. Ugh. The voiceacting. Bad dialogue combined with voice artists that sound like they’re either drunk, high, or… I don’t even know.  Then combine that with cutscenes talking about things that never happened and… Look, I have no clue. The cutscenes and characters act like I should know things I don’t know and have done things I didn’t do. Someone really failed at continuity editing. 

The sad thing is that the setting works pretty well. At least the early game. Killing zombies on a beautiful tropical resort is not something I’ve done before, at least not that I can remember. So the early setting makes things feel a bit less generic. But the area feels flat. As if it were entirely 2D, not a 3D space. I compare a lot of things to Dark Souls, so I’m going to do that now. In Dark Souls, the majority of the game takes place in an area that has layers. You can go from Deeproot Forest to the Undead Cathedral and tell that you’re going up and down in elevation. In Dead Island, that’s not the case. Even though there are hills and cliffs, there might as well not be. The city improves some of that. The claustrophobic spaces, in particular, work well. But the city rooftops highlight your utter lack of ability to move vertically. I’m not an athletic man. I jump worse than the average nerdy white boy. But even I can climb onto a car better than these characters. So all that claustrophobia in the city makes things scarier, but weakens the game’s overall mechanics. 

Speaking of mechanics, I really wish this game had implemented a Far Cry 2 style map/HUD. If you had to look at a real map to find your destination, as zombies swarm and attack you… The tension would skyrocket. But I didn’t make this game. 

Anyway… I’m running out of things to say. This game… My brain sort of shut off while I was playing. I didn’t think or strategize or do anything requiring higher-level intellect. It was all just dumb instinct. Overall, I felt as if I were playing Skyrim set on a tropical island, with zombies and guns. I like Skyrim, but that isn’t a compliment.