A paradisiac island, tons of zombies and a handful of survivors, that's the kind of cocktail you get with Techland's new game. After an incredibly exciting first trailer and a very disappointing Call of Juarez episode, the question was to know what type of drink Dead Island would be: vintage wine or jungle juice? Answer inside. Update: Gameplay video added.
Go get it!
The game opens up on a bad hung over, whether you choose Sam B, Logan, Purna or Xian Mei as a hero. Contrary to Left4Dead, the four characters are not just distinctive skins, each possessing specific abilities and characteristics you can level up with experience points. Dead Island confirms its RPG - or more exactly hack & slash - heritage when you get to meet with the first group of survivors. As professional as they are cowardly, these conscientious NPCs do not hesitate to ask you to accomplish many tasks outside of their improvised bunker, throwing you directly into a crowd of infected tourists. A good opportunity to discover the combat system.
Despite being played in the first person view, firearms are not the main weapons of interest. First reason is that they are rare. Second reason is that, more than anything else, you need your hands to survive out there, which means combat is a matter of getting close. Very few first person games have managed to render the brutality and violence of melee combat, but in Techland's case, it's a win. Though it is sometimes a bit tricky to know exactly if you are going to hit your target (especially with smaller weapons such as knives or knuckles), though sometimes you can actually miss, the end result is both immersive and brilliant. Immersive when you struggle to push back a zombie trying to eat your face. Brilliant when you kick one away before finishing him with a shovel, when you behead another with a machete or when your hammer throw is a successful bullseye.
Weapons are of course of paramount importance in the game. Sticks, torchlights, rows, pipes, sickles, mincing - or regular - knives, guns, molotov cocktails, you name it. Each of them has its own characteristics, which influences the amount of stamina they require, how hard they hit and how fast they break. Thankfully, there are workbenches you can use to fix your arsenal, customize or even upgrade it. Similarly to Dead Rising, schematics give you clues as to how to use the many objects you can collect to create explosives, nail bats (Gee, that one would have never crossed my mind!) or electrified machetes to name but a few. The more you progress into the game, the more important these elements get and the more tactical combat becomes. Contrary to Left4Dead, Dead Island is not about having you face hundreds of zombies at the same time; confronting 4 or 5 of them is tricky enough already. That's why it's important to learn to run away to disperse them, to take out the fast ones first as they are generally the weakest, to force the slow and resistant ones to the ground so you can finish them more easily, or to cut out the arms of the massive ones. Survival then depends on how well and quick you use your brain.
Nothing is simple
Surviving such events also means helping each other. Despite a few documents which can be found (newspapers, audio recordings), the world of Dead Island is pretty basic. No hard choices, no antagonistic factions or detailed back-story; survival is the common denominator to all the quests NPCs assign you to do. Clearing the way to a shelter, bringing back some food, medicine or gas, escort missions, putting the power back on at the lighthouse or placarding posters in the street, etc. Pure "Fedex" missions in most cases but Techland had the great idea to make up for the poor narrative by staging quests in different ways. For instance, getting behind the wheel to go get some gas at a nearby gas station seems pretty easy at first glance; however, once there, you have to face quite an "electrifying" problem. Three generators must be found: the first is very easy to access, the second requires you to pile up crates and the last one is inside a warehouse filled with zombies.
Since the passing of time is not an issue in Dead Island, exploration is more than advised to search the different areas, which allows to analyze a situation and come back later with the proper equipment. The world of Dead Island is not open world per se like Oblivion, it is more like a patchwork of a few vast areas offering varied types of environments (the beach, bungalows, a hotel, a local town, the jungle, etc). It is a real pleasure to discover new places and walking - or driving - around is a lot of fun. Navigation in the world is also made easier thanks to a kind of teleportation system between all the different safe-houses and a very efficient GPS. Everything would be perfect if it weren't for a few scratches, like the difference between the detailed outdoor landscapes and the poor interiors, like the very bad animations of the NPCs (who must have been motion captured by a monkey) or like the fact that each actor plays several roles which sounds a bit weird. Gameplay-wise, it's a bit of a shame that unlocked abilities are all passive somehow (stamina bonus or strength bonus for example) and that there is only one special attack per character. It does not prevent Techland from achieving quite a feat, delivering an original and interesting zombie game despite the number of titles in the genre.
Techland is a studio with more ambition than money. It can be felt in the few unsuccessful attempts at creating a strong narrative. It can also be felt in some of the more emotional cutscenes, or the early steps of social tensions that could have made the game close to the Walking Dead (a comic book you should definitely check out if you haven't) had they been exploited properly. That being said, even with the abandonment of its role playing dimension, Dead Island manages to brilliantly become a first person hack & slash. Exploration, combat, looting, skills/weapons upgrades, everything in the game is well done and makes it fun to play. Because Dead Island also succeeds in keeping the player in the midst of danger (the game's difficulty is designed to make sure of that), the sense of survival is permanent, which should please the fans of the genre. Definitely a vintage wine.