Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dead Island PS3 review

Despite the bad reviews and the bug complaints I watched iJustine playing Dead Island and thought "That looks like fun" and I wasn't wrong. The story line premise is the usual boilerplate insert-the-specifics-here. You're at a resort on an island. Something goes wrong and the majority of the population turn into blood-crazy zombies that will try to infect you. It's 28 Days Later: The Game if produced by Hollywood.

Mechanically it's a four-way collision between Oblivion, Condemmed 2, FarCry 2 and Borderlands with the developers picking through the wreckage, finding bits they like and taping them together to make a new game. Most of the time that doesn't work; in this case it kind of does.

Aesthetically it feels like FarCry 2 - that sense of desertion and space; that gets married to the in-your-face visceral combat of Condemned 2. Add in Borderlands stripped down levelling system and Oblivion's questing and monster levelling structure and that's it. Oh and I suppose adding on Fallout 3's blueprint weapon-building technique that fell of a lorry near the collision.

So why does this work when so many jumbled collections don't? For me it's because for once there's an in-game reason for both what your character is doing and what's happening around you. From the game you and three others get bitten and thus infected; but you don't turn. It seems you're immune to whatever disease or mutagen causing this. That means it now makes sense for you (and the others) to be the ones to be venturing out the safe zones in order to scrounge parts that will help the other survivors. In the same way the mutagen can explain why the infected are getting stronger (in line with the character's level) and why knew mutated infected are appearing.

The quest structure also helps. They're broken down into three types - Story, Sub and Continuous. The story quests are obviously those that advance the story and can consist of an actual task or a multi-task of "Help those in the safe zone". Sub quests make up the bulk of tasks and they tend to make sense - someone wants some food; someone needs some medicine; can you hang up these posters of my wife in case she's still out there. Sure most are of the go/fetch/return that make up almost every RPG quest; but as I've said it makes sense why it's you doing these things and not the lazy/cowardly quest-giver. Continuous quests also make sense someone wants to stay drunk and will take any champagne you find; another will turn any alcohol bottles you find into Molotov cocktails. It all hangs together in a consistent whole.

Where it goes wrong is mostly in the engine itself. Prior to the 1.02 patch (with the game still listing itself as 1.1.1) there were game-breaking issues with saving; apparently there still is on co-op games; but single player seems to have settled down. As Yahtzee points out the combat system uses gun-targeting which means you won't connect with that swung baseball bat unless the reticule is over an enemy. The same physical failings means that the infected can run straight through you and at times almost seem to occupy the same space as the character (making targeting a tad difficult) and this incorporeal nature means being able to hit them through doors or them being able to phase through solid objects to reach you. There's also some sound issues (crackling, cut-outs etc.) and at times some severe level-of-detail pop-in.

Work also needs to be done on the map; both maxi and mini. Pick a quest to do from those you've accepted and on both maps a guidepath will appear and the destination shown as a flag. However it will only show the destination for that active quest. So at one point there might be three quest points all on that side of the islands, but only one on this side of the island; but you can't see that without flicking between the map and quest screens. Sure get within range of a quest solution and the mini-map will pop-up an icon; but there's no reason why all listed quests can't get marked on the main map.

Play-wise at times it can feel like a scavenger hunt and not just because of the go/fetch/return quests. Upgrading weaponry requires parts and money (um why is money required) and while quests can reward you with cash getting parts means clicking on every abandoned back-pack and rubbish can that sports the you-can-search-this cogwheel icon. This feeling gets intensified because the contents get reset when you leave and return to an area - exactly how much money does that corpse on the church steps have and why can't I just take it all now?

One thing I can't leave without mentioning is the nature of death and saving. Except for escort quests (which again at least makes some sort of sense is this setting) dying means a 7 second time-out before reappearing randomly within a X-radius circle of your death. Yes that does mean it's possible to teleport straight into a group of infected with hilarious consequences; okay not hilarious- short. Why this mechanic is used is because the game can be played as an online co-op so loading a previous save isn't acceptable. Presumably this is also the excuse used not to allow manual saving and to have the game pick and choose itself when it should do so.

By itself this isn't necessarily a bad thing - provided that it saves correctly. As I've mentioned prior to the 1.02 patch this apparently didn't happen. The game would state it was saving, but didn't wiping out any progress the character made. As this is apparently still an issue on co-op games I elected to play a single-player game only meaning I'm missing out on a fair chunk of gameplay.

Despite all that with the patch it's been running well and it's still fun and resulted in minimal swearing on my part. Once they get the problems sorted out it should be even better.

[Update - with the latest patch 1.04. Certain aspects have been fixed. Enemies no longer seem to respawn at your position and kicking is no longer the uberweapon it once was as it now uses up Stamina providing much needed in-game balance. Sadly it also seems to set the controls to analog fighting by default and Sam B, at least, now moves like a dump truck - he has weight which required an adjustment to the sensitivity controls; something I don't recall ever having to so since leaving the PS2 era]