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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Game Review: Dead Island

Here there Chaos fans! Welcome back to to first posting in the year 2012. Hope you've all had a great holiday. I was very busy with my family and friends the past few weeks, celebrating the holidays of Christmas, New Years, and of course, Festivus.

Naturally, being that its 2012, all sorts of crazy people are talking about the (mis)interpretation of the Mayan calendar and are talking about the end of the world. So, I figured it would be a great time to review an "end of the world" scenario: zombies! In today's edition of Chaos Corner, I'll be reviewing Dead Island, for the X Box 360. So, away we go (Bwaiins)!

Yep- Those ARE zombies. Deal with it.
I have long been a fan of all things Zombie in movies and video games. It all started with that seminal classic, Resident Evil. Or did it start with Splatterhouse? Or perhaps Zombies Ate My Neighbors? Haha. Both of those games are fantastic, and I return to them often. Splatterhouse was controversial in it's day for the level of gore (I played it when I was 12, and my mom considered taking the game back- ah! the days of no ESRB ratings). Meanwhile Zombies Ate My Neighbors was the complete opposite- cartoony and goofy, but a great game nevertheless (I still love the hedge maze level).

The sound the zombie made when biting you is still creepy
Let's just say RE, for the sake of this discussion, is the first 'modern' zombie video game. I remember putting the disc into the original PlayStation. Wow. Those were the days... I remember being awed by the graphics and overall look of the mansion. The sound effect of you walking on the hardwood floors, and the muffled sound on the carpet. The "wonderful" voice acting (haha!). But I'll never forget that first encounter with the first zombie. It looks dated now, but back in 96... simply terrifying. That one moment changed video game history. It also ignited a love of the zombie sub-genre for me and, I'm sure, countless others of my generation.

Zombies overrun Raccoon City in RE 2 (one of the all time greats)
The entire game was scary like that. The undead hounds bursting through the windows. The Hunters, clicking their claws as they stalked you. The tarantulas as they skittered down the hallway. And who could forget Tyrant and Wesker at the end? That game had it all. It was gory, it was cinematic, it was a tough game that would see you die many times. You could only carry a certain amount of items with you, and bullets were scarce. And don't get me started on the damn Ink Ribbon save feature... haha. This game was beginning of "Survival Horror"- it's own genre in video games. 

The Las Plagas cult in RE4- a subtle dig at religion?
 Of course, though zombies were in all RE games, the focus moved more and more to mutants and creatures that were science gone wrong territory. Heck, even in RE 1 that was true, as I look at the list I made above. Yes, they were zombie games, but they were more than that. They tackled issues like family (RE2 and RE Code Veronica), corporate greed, moral choices, religion (RE 4), and more. Forget those mostly crappy RE movies, it's the games that tell an incredible zombie-apocalypse story.

Then came the next big step in Zombie video games. Of course, I'm talking about Left 4 Dead. Released in the fall of 2008, Left 4 Dead brought the zombie sub-genre to a whole different level. This one is a fast action, first person shooter. The action is rapid paced, as you fight through wave after wave of zombies. Of course, the game's real conceit was multiplayer, something that zombie games had not had yet (yes, there was RE Outbreak that allowed you to play with others online, however, it was too limited for the PS2 at that time).

Beat em or burn em... the go up pretty quick.
In Left 4 Dead, you can play locally or online with other people, as you fight your way through the mass of undead. You can help each other, trade items, heal each other, etc.You can also have friendly fire incidents (oops). The game is an absolute blast to play. In a way, it's a modern version of Gauntlet. The zombies just keep coming, as you make your way to the end of the level. The zombies are killed fairly easily, but there's just SO damn many, its amazing how many are onscreen at once. You can feel the desperation of your band, as you fight your way to an evacuation point, and I have on more than one occasion had a team player "left  for dead" (sorry brother!) in order to escape (someone has to survive).

When there's no more room in Hell...
The graphics are great, and you get a sense of the destruction and desolation that has been the result of the zombie plague. Of course, the game takes the requisite digs, blaming the CEDA (A CDC style agency) for the failed response to the outbreak. Indeed, one of the nastiest things in the game is in the "safe rooms", where people who came through before you write their tales on the walls, with more and more questioning the government's role. All in all, this is a great addition to the zombie sub-genre.

That's another one for the fire!
Which brings us now to the fall 2011 release of Dead Island. A few months prior, Techland released a trailer which really wowed the media and gamers. I was skeptical, since relying on a trailer is not a good sign. I needn't have worried; I got the game for Christmas and have been playing it whenever I had the time (which has meant less Warhammer modeling/painting). I haven't finished the game yet, but here's my impressions:

There's never enough bullets!
Story: This is an area where the game has been getting a bad rap. Basically, the game takes place on the islands of Papua New Guinea. One minute, your partying it up at a glamorous beachfront resort, the next minute, all hell has broken loose, with zombies rampaging and only a few scattered survivors. It's up to you to help the survivors make it through this ordeal. It has been compared to Fallout in terms of leveling up and taking on missions, but your character has no "story arc" or moral decisions to make. While I agree that it's not Fallout in terms of story depth, it does have something else. At this point in my playing, there's a ton of confusion and uncertainty. Only one guy seems to know anything, and he can't be found. There seems to be no overall greater story- it IS a zombie apocalypse, and all you can do is survive. With so many games having convoluted stories (look at Metal Gear), Dead Island has stark simplicity to throw you into the carnage, head-first, without any distractions.

Innocent beach-goer or decadent hedonist?
However, no zombie game/movie worth its salt goes out without some kind of sly social commentary. This game DOES have it, though you must look a bit under the surface. The outbreak takes place on a resort and the surrounding areas. The hotel/resort is gorgeous, with people drinking, doing drugs and sexy/kinky things (find Svetlana in the game for just ONE example). Meanwhile, the natives of the island live in the slums of Moresby just down the way- yes, this game takes issue with wealthy, hedonistic, and mostly foreign partygoers who don't care about the people of the island. This moral is further compounded when you get to the slums, and see how bad it is there, compared to the beachfront you came from. Also, the wealthy people of the island have barricaded themselves in the opulent town hall, deliberately trying to keep the poor survivors out. Yes, social commentary is here, you just have to read between the lines. In fact, unless something happens radically in the plotline, this may be the most effective social commentary yet in this video game sub genre.

Last, let me also add that the game has thrown in some references to Kuru. This is the name of a disease acquired by cannibals when they eat prions in the brain. The disease was present on- yep, you guessed it- Papua New Guinea. A great use of history in a game too... check it out:

It looks like a postcard... just with zombies and destruction...
Graphics: The graphics are nothing short of miraculous. The environments are just amazing. The beach areas look fantastic, and some of them reminding me of my Bermuda honeymoon- gorgeous skies, clean beaches, and warm waters. Without the zombies, it could be a postcard to an island resort. Well, the game does a great job with the look of the world- it HAD been beautiful, but the zombie plague has ruined it all. The details are great- dead bodies, broken glass, debris everywhere. Then,. the developers move the action to Moresby, the slums (you can move back and forth in this large island)- again, great attention to detail, with buildings wrecked, the filth of the slums compounded by the chaos of the zombie attacks. The zombies themselves are also incredible to look at. Some look pretty close to alive (recently zombified), others look suitably messed up. I must also note that as you kill the zombies, the damage to their bodies is great and in real-time, you see the blood fly as you hack them to pieces.

Gameplay: This game is the closest that you will get to feeling as if you are IN a zombie apocalypse. Unlike RE and Left 4 Dead, each zombie IS a threat. Even as you level up, the zombies remain tough. You have to fight the zombies, up close and personal for much of the game (yes, there are guns, but they are scarce). You have a ton of weapons at your disposal as you run though the terrain, however these weapons can break, they can be lost. You can throw your knives and such (great fun, by the way), but that leaves you with less weapons. As you fight a zombie, it takes several hacks to kill them up close. While you're fighting with that zombie, others are drawn in by the commotion. If you are not careful, you will be overwhelmed. That may be the best way to describe the game play- it is totally visceral. You feel the stress of each fight, and you learn that it is better to out run the zombies than to fight them all. The game is that good- you ARE lost if you try to fight them all up close.

The rest of the game play is solid. You go on "quests" for people (some interesting, others not). There's a map system, leveling up (and you can develop different skills), you can drive (awesome running over zombies), you can only carry a limited amount of weapons, etc. Let me add here that though the game is multiplayer, I haven't tried that feature yet. I've been engrossed playing it one player- all alone, with only my own wits to keep me alive.

There's always more zombies around the corner
Tech issues: Like many large, open world games, there are some glitches here. Now, Fallout New Vegas was the king to these problems, but Dead island has a ton. Forget the occasional graphical glitch, there's full-blown problems like saving at checkpoints. In more than one instance, I've gotten to a checkpoint, seen the red saving symbol, played just a hair further, then shut off. When I put it back on, I was much further back than I had been. Sometimes items just appear and disappear (NOT thrown weapons necessarily). Yes, the game is buggy. I don't mind minor issues, but sometimes the glitches stop you from enjoying, and that shouldn't be.

Bottom Line: We have a new and most worthy addition to the Zombie sub-genre in video games, and that is Dead Island. The game is fantastic in that it makes you feel as if "you are there", which is just amazing. If you are a fan of the genre, it is a must. The only thing that keeps this game from getting a perfect score is those damn glitches. I give this game 3 1/2 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. You owe it to yourself to give this a spin. You won't be disappointed.

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