Dead Island’s zombies don’t discriminate

They don’t care if you’re a feminist, a misogynist, promiscuous, or a prude. They’re entirely ambivalent about whether you’re a bigot or a zealot, a charlatan or a good Samaritan. To them, creationists are interchangeable with evolutionists, and their interest in whether you believe climate scientists or are, instead, a moron, is non-existent. Zombies judge every person equally. As food.

Dead Island has a feature list to die for. Its mechanics speak lovingly of GTA, and Far Cry 2 (for those unaware of my adoration of FC2, it’s documented on Wikipedia), with a leveling system, skill trees, and drop-in/drop-out multiplayer capabilities we know so well from Left 4 Dead.

If you saw the haunting announcement trailer when it debuted, it’s possible the canny cinematography  planted visions of gaming’s equivalent of The Walking Dead in your mind.

It’s a lot of pedigree to live up to, and surprisingly the game does begin as a promising open world zombie slaughter-fest. After the intro which neatly introduces the playable characters to the tune of an infectious “horrorcore” rap song,  character selection is as simple as listening to the ridiculous back stories and selecting a character with a suitable weapons specialisation, and then the tropical island of Banoi is your undead oyster.

Banoi is big, but the constant undead presence means there’s little space to breathe. It’s impossible to walk 10 metres without being assault by lumbering infected, speedy infected, pretending-to-be-corpses-infected, or one of the various special infected.

Beating each to its second death yields experience, as well as cash and items that can be used to upgrade the plentiful weapons found strewn around the environment or given as reward for completing quests.

The combat itself is visceral, and the locational damage system allows one to cripple limbs or sever heads with satisfyingly equal ease at first, though the Oblivion-like leveling system can occasionally seem to scale opponents beyond the capability of your weapons. The skill tree likewise feels like it struggles to keep up, never really giving you the upper hand you desire.

What starts out as fun spirals into a chore, especially once it’s apprent NPCs in the various safe houses seem to deliver nothing but FedEx quests, which means trekking once again across zombie-infested grounds, every encounter building frustration until death steals precious cash and you find yourself howling at the screen as though you’ve turned into one of the ambling dead yourself.

Most disappointing to me is the storyline, because there are sparks of good writing, glimmers of interesting narrative that are never fully explored. These are offset somewhat by many clichéd devices, such as following the instructions of a mysterious radio contact, but it’s possible to see where the writers wanted to go with it. Easily the best character and story-arc is seen in an NPC who also acts as a semi-mobile loot stash, called Jin.

***Warning: Spoiler Territory *** 

I’m going to reveal game plot points now, including final scenes in the game. If you don’t want to read these I suggest skipping down to the end spoiler section indicated by another asterisked heading as above.

The young daughter of a mechanic, we meet Jin when bringing her father an armoured car we need him to make zombie-proof. Having been bitten prior to our arrival, he finishes the work in his last few hours before succumbing to the infection, his final request that Jin accompany us rather than see him turn.

Later in the township, we meet the mayor who refuses to help in the crysis, and Jin insists its our duty to help the survivors scattered around the town, ferrying food and water. She threatens to take the armoured car if we don’t agree, and with our forced concession, begins her mission while we make our way back to meet her.

In her youthful naivete, she even brings supplies to a gang occupying the town’s police station. They capture her, and scene following her rescue is possibly the most moving in the game. Any joy at having saved Jin is muted by the heavy implication – though not outright statement – that she was raped.

The women attempt to console her, while the men argue about keeping her in the group after her betrayal. Sam seems more concerned with having risked his neck in the rescue, and gives little consideration to the horrors Jin may have endured; the price of her mistake.

Towards the end of the game we arrive through necessity at a prison. Jin is still with us, and being in a situation where she’s again surrounded by leering, extremely dangerous men, is taking a toll on her mental state.

An inevitable betrayal by the radio-voice-guy occurs. He wants to get his wife who’s been infected, off the island with a possible cure in hand, and a showdown ensues on the helipad of the prison. Jin releases radio-guy’s wife from her restraints,  and the crazed woman attacks and bites her husband. He’s forced to shoot her, then shoots Jin, who plummets in slow motion from the roof of the building.



If the above sounds a bit disjointed, it’s because that’s how the story is delivered.  There’s just not enough depth, though there’s a range of human emotion and experience the game tries to communicate at times. Even the emotional scenes lack weight because of sub par facial animation of the characters. Half Life 2 for the most part managed to capture nuanced expression, and that was released what seems like centuries ago. Even the announcement trailer for Dead Island is emotionally more powerful than any of the scenes actually in the game, and it’s really disappointing that this is the case.

Recordings found around the island are another good example of story well-told. Of the 40 or so hours I invested in Dead Island, I found maybe five of these. The believable voice-acting enhanced the world as it did for Bioshock (and to a lesser extent, FC2) and it would have been nice if these had been more prominent.

I love what Dead Island wanted to be. I would have happily forgiven its other quirks had its narrative the quality of the aforementioned Bioshock, and I hope the game is commercially successful enough that Techland can spend more time developing and refining the ideas in the heads of its clearly talented team, in its future games.


Since I sort of played on it as a hook for my intro, a quick note on “FeministWhore”:  For anyone who doesn’t know, some enterprising Steam-goer managed to unearth some code that labelled one of the skills for a playable character “FeministWhore”, despite this not actually being in the final game. Obviously I don’t approve of it, but I do appreciate Techland immediately taking full responsibility for the errant code. I may address this in detail in a future post, but for now, this is all I’ll say on the matter.


~ by accurateobservation on September 26, 2011.

One Response to “Dead Island’s zombies don’t discriminate”

  1. […] Accurate Observation – Dead Isand Zombies Don’t Discriminate  […]

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