Friday, December 7, 2012

Dead Island has devoured my life.

Dead Island. This game has devoured the last 6 weeks of my life.  As if I had a life.

With our shared cultural experience, you have no doubt guessed that those two words speak volumes. You would be quite safe to assume that I'm talking about a zombie uprising taking place on and island. And if you haven't surmised as much? Well I didn't know that the Amish were even allowed onto the internet. Get thee back to yon farm und buggy!

Yes, the Dead Island experience is effectively a tropical island vacation with a zombie apocalypse! Everything I wanted, and all of it without the hassle of flying to a tropical island and fighting off a horde of undead. No unbearable heat or humidity, no stench of decaying flesh. I don't need to worry about my fellow survivors shiving me in my sleep for my last mouthful of water. All in all I would say that it's a fair trade.

Dead Island is a combination FPS and RPG. If you aren't familiar with the acronyms, you can find Google at the top of your page. You take control of one of 4 characters, each of whom have a specialized style of play and set of skills. So in that respect you get to choose how you play this game. Do you prefer swords to guns? Or blunt objects to both? Well, Dead Island has you covered. Standard RPG fare really, but not unenjoyable for that.

The FPS element really tweaked me at first as I was learning the controls, and it has the problems with all FPS games. Namely that it is easy to get hung up on the map. Maybe a ledge is a little too tall, or perhaps an armature is sticking out and hooks you. I really hate the parts where I see it and say “I could step up on that with absolutely no problem what-so-ever! WTF?”

Fair enough, but the problem is that you get zero feedback on why you aren't moving. This has always annoyed me when it comes to shooters. Yet I still play them and don't mind terribly, as the trade off is being able run about and shoot things with absolutely no consequences in the real world. No matter how much carnage I endure, or how many bullets I take or cliffs I fall off of, I am still alive. And free of the jail house blues.

Hells yes! That is the best way to explore a tropical island! I don't know how many times I've plummeted to my death while trying to reach a ledge. I would guess dozens, with dozens more to come.

Plus there's the zombie slaying aspect! Blam!

This game has just devoured the last month of my life and is an excellent example of why I go out of my way to avoid the MMORPG genre. It devours your life. CGI rendered characters ask you to do Chores, and then you gladly go and do them. I could be doing chores in the real world, and actually accomplishing something. But no, I need to go grocery shopping for the digi-babe instead. All of this is for points. Worthless digital numbers! And yet I spend hours running chores for imaginary characters. This isn't a condemnation of the game or genre so much as flaws in my personality.

The sad part is, I am unwilling to do as much outside the game. But as the man says, actually doing things is for old people. I think the worst part of the play mechanics is that it rewards you with more worthless points for just doing what you might normally do in the playing of the game. “Here are 200,000 points for looting $1,000,000.00 imaginary dollars from digitalized bodies! Good work soldier! Now if you get $2,000,000.00, we'll give you twice as many points! Are you in?”

Yes, yes I am.

Graphically speaking I must admit that my first video game system was an Atari 2600, in which many games you controlled a poorly rendered square that has been set on some sort of vague challenge. Largely the games were simple, as the more complicated they became, the more inexplicable they grew. I suspect that I am easily impressed by modern jig-pokery in the computer arts. So, when I see a game like Dead Island that is nearly photo realistic, I do have to gush about the beauty of the graphics. The scenery is gorgeous! The first act of the game takes place in a posh resort – making it perfectly balanced with the second act, which is placed in the slums of a nearby town.

Though the scenery is beautiful(for the first act at least) the developers have gone a long way to hammer home that the apocalypse has arrived.

Not only the graphics, but I quite enjoyed the physics as well. How a body will flip and twist if you hit it right. Or arms will sever and fly off with a jet of blood. Yes, the game is violent and gory. It was rated Mature for a reason.

One of the problems with the zombie apocalypse, at least that I've found in my own writing, is that zombies are really boring to do battle against. Zombies are slow and cumbersome. They see you, they shamble forward to try and eat you. Rinse yourself off and repeat.

Dead Island has gotten around the repetition by throwing in a mixed bag of zombie types. Standard slow Walkers. Fast and agile Infected. Tank-like Thugs. You get the point, but there are six types in all, and each one is a worse surprise over the last. I think that the developers used them well to make the game challenging and interesting, requiring the player to display a little creativity and foresight, rather than just charging in.

Another note, the zombies level up parallel to the player, so the higher you get the more damage they soak up and the more damage the deal out. This keeps you from ever ascending into God Mode and roaming about with impunity. The zombies are always dangerous, also forcing the player to think tactically.

The game gives you a vast assortment of possible weapons to combat the undead(as well as hostile survivors). And like previous zombie games the weapons(and I suppose the real world as well) these weapons take damage when you use them against the undead. As they wear, the damage that they do lessens. Weapons can be upgraded and customized in order to increase the damage that they do. All of which costs money.

Where as customization requires that you also have miscellaneous parts on hand, some of which can be difficult to come by. Customization requires the use of blueprints that you find along the way. Some are sitting about on the ground, while others are rewards that the NPCs bribe you with in order to entice you to do their shopping. I came to enjoy this aspect of the game, as it is quite a lot of fun to build an axe that sets zombies ablaze. One note, don't sell any of the miscellaneous, non-weapon, detritus that you loot, it may come in handy later.

One thing I fail to be able to wrap my mind around is certain weapons available in the armory. The most basic set of gear is the standard found object arsenal, the pipes, shovels, paddles and various heavy tools that one might wield in a pinch when facing a horde of the walking dead. This of course includes knives and machettes. All fair game. Then there are the array of fire arms - well you have the military, police, and a vast array of gangs. Samurai swords? Well a little tougher, but the island was occupied by the Japanese during WW2, and some of their other artifacts still exist, so why not the occasional sword(they are relatively rare drops).

But Medieval European style maces? What the hell is that? Sure they're great fun and quite effective, but I am now threatening to surpass my ability to suspend disbelief each time I loot a mace. Where the hell did they come from? Is there some mad prepper blacksmith somewhere hammering out maces just in case the dead do get up and attack? Mumbling as he goes: “I've been telling them! The dead will get up one day and attack the living, and we need to be ready! But they called me mad! Well I'll show them!” And off to work he goes. If so, well I guess he did show us. Well played Mr. Crazysmith!

The high point for me was the aforementioned slum and how it contrasted with the resort. Where the fragile civilization has torn itself apart in a city full of the walking dead. For me, this was one of the creepiest gaming experiences that I have encountered, but to be fair, I have not played many horror games. Normally Dead Island makes use of sound cues to let you know what's going on around you. The infected/zombies are rather noisy – they scream, bellow and moan as they notice a character. But the rest of the world is quiet and serene. If it weren't for the blood and fire you might forget that you were in playing a zombie game.

Moresby is different though and the designers did a spectacular job in setting the player on edge. Set in a slum, it would look post-apocalyptic any day of the week. But with the wrecked cars and buses crowding the streets, rampant fires and scattered corpses it has become even worse. But what really tops it off is the background sound. While playing through the resort you become used to listening for those sound cues to tip you off to impending danger. Well, Moresby is awash in noise. Howls come from every direction, and that set me on edge from the beginning. I loved it.

There was one point in the Slums where I actually vocalized the word “Yipe!” I kid you not. That sound that a certain cartoon dog makes when he is booted off the table by his eternal antagonist.

Can't wait till the next arrives.

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