From its bittersweet debut trailer to its brutally gore-ified combat, Dead Island has captured the attention of zombie gamer around the globe. Earlier this week it captured my attention for several hours, and I wasn't entirely pleased.
We've seen plenty of Dead Island here at Kotaku since it made a splash earlier this year. Drew Cohen talked about its rich atmosphere. Michael McWhertor called it the "Zombie Apocalypse of (his) Dreams", citing its technical prowess and the overall feeling of being a normal human in the face of overwhelming odds.
I noticed all of those things in my play through of the most recent one-hour timed demo of the game. I also noticed several things I didn't like.
Aside from all the damn zombies.
Before the demo begins I was asked to choose one of four characters — not avatars, but characters, each with a lengthy biography describing their upbringing, their motivations, and what brought them to the Island of Banoi. Sam B is a tough-as-nails, down-and-out rapper known for his one hit single, "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch". Xian Mei is a police woman from Hong Kong tasked by her unappreciative superiors with spying on high profile tourists. Logan is a former NFL star from Texas that shattered his career and his left leg during a reckless street race. Purna is a half-Aborigine bodyguard that blew her police detective job by firing on a well-connected businessman that had sexually abused his underage daughter.
Each of these four is a strong figure with emotionally engaging biographies. I wanted to know more about them, explore their tales. Get inside their heads as they were placed in this hopeless situation.
That certainly didn't happen within the first hour of the game.
Each of the three characters I played as — Xian Mei, Purna, and Sam B — woke up in the same hotel room, underwent the same starting experience, and performed the same tasks, the dialogue adjusted only as far as using the correct male and female pronouns. Aside from the odd exclamation during zombie battles, the only difference between them was in the skill trees available to sink points into and the hands and feet wielding the game's various weapons. Speaking of which...
Sam B is listed on the character selection screen as an expert in blunt weapons. He is the master of all things blunt. He speaks bluntly. He might even smoke blunts, as rappers have been known to do. He effortlessly wields oars, odd bits of wood, hammers, and sticks modified into nail maces via the game's weapon crafting system.
But then I came across this pipe. The level five pipe.
Now I understand role-playing games need to put limits on the power of weapons that characters can wield at any given time, and with experience points and levels, Dead Island certainly qualifies as an action role-playing game.
But this is a pipe. I was swinging around one much like earlier, until it was broken beyond my ability to repair it. What about this new pipe made me incapable of hitting a zombie with it? Is it magical? Did I need to develop my pipe affinity? I am a master of blunt weapons, dammit. It's not like you're going to tell throwing expert Logan that he's too low level to forcefully drop something.
I understand the need to impose artificial constraints in game design, but this is a little silly. Damn pipe.
I like to fiddle with things, so when I stumbled across a beach ball lying in the blood-spattered sands of Banoi Island, I couldn't resist poking at it. It skittered out of my way in a rather unrealistic fashion, but at least it skittered.
It was a nice touch, but for me it also reminded me that so much of Dead Island's expansive environment is static and unchanging. Books, dishes, and various other props lie scattered about the beaches and beach houses of the island, rooted firmly in place. The swing of a weapon at them did absolutely nothing — it was as if I was swinging through air. In the grand scheme of things this is a small annoyance, but it also carries over to some of the game's larger bits of scenery.
Take beach chairs, for instance. They weren't nailed down. They aren't particularly heavy. Yet a rampaging undead creature still had to go around them in order to reach my sweet, succulent flesh. It's the same thing with bar stools, randomly placed surfboards, beach umbrellas, et cetera. These are things that should be flying out of the way as decomposing fiends charge towards their next meal.
I guess that's just something I need to get over, like the fact that the survivors are holed up in a lifeguard shack at the beginning of the demo, protected from the hordes by only a flimsy pair of wooden-slatted doors.
I got incredibly excited when I realized I could swim in the ocean.
Give me an open-world game, and the first thing I do is test its boundaries. I know there has to be boundaries, but I'm always interested to see what form they will take. Is the bridge out? Is there a fence?
In Dead Island's case, as I waded out into the crystal clear waters of Banoi I fully expected to encounter water too deep for me to navigate. Perhaps they'd have water zombies, waiting to drag me beneath the waves! Maybe I'd swim until I ran out of stamina and drown!
A warning flashed on the screen, alerting me to the fact that I was exiting the play area. A few seconds later, the screen faded to black and I was deposited back at the lifeguard shack I started from.
Out of bounds? In this day and age? What a lazy way to corral the player. That amazing atmosphere I mentioned earlier just took a serious hit.
Note: This play area limitation may have just been for the demo build I played. I've reached out to Deep Silver for clarification.
Update: Deep Silver's PR person extraordinaire, Aubrey Norris, explained the reasoning behind this mechanic, which does appear in the full game. " I suppose the game could just kill you when you swim out too far like I've seen in other games, but in Dead Island dying costs you money, and since money is so scarce to begin with, the teleport option is used so as to not penalize the player too badly in that situation."
The rest of my problems with my Dead Island demo are smaller annoyances that might simply be me being injecting a bit too much "anal" into my analysis. Things like having to spend money at work benches in order to upgrade your equipment. I understand gathering cash to buy supplies from a particularly opportunistic survivor, but why am I spending cash at a standalone work bench? Is there a miniature Home Depot in there?
I also didn't like the fact that the very first mission presented me with the option to take it or decline it, the former advancing the game and the latter locking me inside that lifeguard shack until I changed your mind. Do they really think those flimsy doors are going to hold a guy that regularly kills zombies with his bare hands?
And perhaps the smallest, cheapest nitpick of them all, when you kill a zombie and it falls into one of the resort's many swimming pools, there's no cloud of blood to accompany the spray generated by whatever weapon I did the deed with. I want blood in the water. Hell, I want zombie sharks. There's just no pleasing some people.
Problems aside, I was still pleased with my brief time on Dead Island.
I enjoyed attempting to drive the pickup truck down onto the beach, getting stuck between railings while zombies slowly chipped away at my health from the sides.
I loved the tension of having my sole weapon shatter in the face of my first encounter with an undead bodybuilder.
I reveled in having relative free reign to go where I wanted to in the environment, limited only by my bravery and the staying power of my chosen weapons.
I even had fun finding flaws.