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Dead Island made promises it didn't intend to keep. While it creates an impressive experience with obviously scarce resources, I still wish it had taken a shot at being what its marketing suggested.
As you can read below, in my original response to its trailer and the general perplexity and protective nature of commenters, Dead Island's marketing has worked well. Reactions like mine, to the depiction of an urban family's descent into bloody debauchery at the hands of a zombie hoard, obviously play into this -- stoking the pot by getting core gamers defensive and everybody else wringing their hands.
My argument, although this seemed to be unclear to most respondees, was not that Dead Island's trailer suggested it would be a bad (ethically not mechanically) game but rather than it promised more than I suspected it would be able to deliver. My fear was not of the effect it may have on players, but rather that it would not be able to engage in an ongoing fashion with the themes of loss, protection, impotency and family that it had started.
Having had such a strong reaction to my assessment of the trailer, I wanted to give the game space to prove me wrong. Of course I came into the experience with the trailer's promises fresh in my mind, but this is no different to any player and any game -- we all have our prejudices.
Getting started with Dead Island, I had a pang of excitement at the prospect of it turning out to actually address the substantial issues touched on in the trailer. On the face of it there was no reason why this wouldn't be true. The technology and delivery is surely based more on the will to tell a story beyond the horror and violence than on technical prowess or budgets (take Jason Rohrer's diminutive and thought provoking games for instance).
The opening first-person cinema gets things started in gruff tones, both in its voicing and its late night clubbing world. This ends with the sudden appearance of a zombie attack on the revelers, which although expected in this sort of game, was no less shocking or troubling -- in quite an exciting and exhilarating way. Unfortunately our protagonist seems either too drunk to care, or unable to dredge up more than a few grunts as a response. In an understated sort of way, it made the events feel all the more horrific, and made me want to know more about this anti-hero and what had brought him to this point.
Dead Island's trailer promised more than it would be able to deliver.
Working my way into the game proper and things started to fall into place, as it introduced a world and interactions that are engaging and rich. This hovers somewhere between Dead Rising's zombie infestation and Fallout's endless open exploration. To do well here you need both the stomach for the skull crushing and the willpower to search every nook and cranny for weapons and equipment.
As I played on I enjoyed the rhythm of scavenging and combat. Dead Island creates an atmosphere that is both imposing and horrific -- in a good way. There is real craft in the creation of the world that although based on much lower tech, easily measures up to the quirky inventiveness of Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption. This is a once lived in but now deserted holiday space that keeps the collapse of leisure and fun into the terrifying infection ever-present in your mind.
This is accentuated by the role playing aspect of the game. You start by picking your base character - throwing, shooting or melee expert - and start to progress through a skills tree through the game. There is a genuine sense that the choices you make have an impact on your ability to defend yourself -- as does your diligence at scouring every last corner for items.
My problem is the game's oblivious nature to the promises made in its trailer.
Items you find can be used to craft new weapons in a similar way to Dead Rising 2. Attention to detail here gives Dead Island a much more strategic bent as you must manage your use of weapons if you wish to proceed unhindered -- they each offer different stats and slowly degrade with each blow until they turn back into their constituent parts.
All this is wrapped up in an world that is as big as you would ever want, and with enough side missions to keep you busy for many months. Add to this the four-player co-op modes (online or system link only unfortunately) and the drop-in drop-out nature of this gameplay and you have a game that ticks a surprising number of boxes.
Others will want to pick holes in some of this. Many of the missions are repetitive, and the control and movement of the characters feels approximate at best. The combat itself often feels lifeless as you struggle to land head blows or manoeuvre into the correct proximity to connect. Dead Island is comprehensive but after the initial rush of the zombies and expansive world it soon becomes a bit of a chore.
However, my criticism lies elsewhere. I'm quite happy to forgive Dead Island for its mechanical foibles -- after all it creates a hugely impressive world and threads you through it with copious amounts of things to do. No, my problem is the game's oblivious nature to the promises made in its trailer.
Surely the emotional experience promised by a game is more important than how good its graphics look.
This will no doubt get me cast once again as a "hater" or "casual gamer" but actually this issue should be as pressing for core gamers as it is for the public at large.
When Killzone passed off rendered (rather than genuine) footage to publicise their game there was outrage amongst the gaming community. Surely what's happened here is much worse. Rather than simply offering a target video for the look and feel of the game, Dead Island seems to be suggesting that its controversial "trailer" was simply a mood-board for what the game wanted to evoke. Even by that measure it misses the mark by a mile -- in fact it seems oblivious to there even being a mark to hit. Which, of course, gives away the fact that that that sort of game (the one where you get to re-think what it means to lose someone close to you, or consider the implications of childhood loss) was never on the cards.
This brings me back my point about the trailer. The ideas Dead Island's marketing put on the table were very emotional, evocative and exciting -- and more than that, they were issues that gaming is very well equipped to address. But rather than attempting to deliver on these promises and then failing, they didn't even take a shot.
Surely the emotional experience promised by a game is more important than how good its graphics look. This (intentional) misstep by Techland should be called out more vehemently than Guerilla for their (unintentional) Killzone faux pas.
One day a game will grapple with the real stuff of life for real, and that day (to quote Mr Beede again) will be a very exciting day for us all.
Dead Island shocks by depicting a young girl and her family coming to a sticky end. Far sadder than the character's demise though, is how far games need to come to be able to deal convincingly with scenes like these.
Dead Island is a first person combat game with four player co-operative gameplay, weapon customisations, an open world, role play elements and a gratuitously shocking Trailer. In fact its trailer made me so uncomfortable that I had to stop watching it about 30 seconds in (ed: a little further than this Dad's viewing then).
The short video depicts scenes of a family's demise at the hands of a horde of zombies. More excruciatingly it focuses on the last couple of minutes of a little girl's (possible between five and seven) life - un-watchable to many who (like me) have children of that age.
Ironically though, the reason I stopped watching was that it was not convincing enough. It suggests, through the piano chords, slow motion and rewound action, that there is something very different and substantial happening here. I would be happy to watch-on if only the trailer could convince me that was true.
But of course I know this isn't very likely. As eloquently set out in Tadhg Kelly's Dead Island post the rest of the marketing story around this game screams derivative survival horror experience.
I actually wish it was more convincing.
I find the same unease here as I do with Halo 3's use of Death Camp and World War II survivor imagery in their Museum video and Reminisce video shorts. I imagine if I had been anywhere near those two settings in real life I would struggle to stomach that marketing as well.
But beyond my sensitivity to the family setting, I actually wish it was more convincing. Truth be known I would relish a game that really dealt with issues of loss, abandonment, powerlessness and fleeting innocence in modern family life. This could be something substantial and significant if only there was the will to address these topics head on in a big budget videogames. But recent history has taught me that (so far) progress here us largely left to niche titles like Flower, Passage and even Let's Catch.
The Dead Island trailer turns out to be a timely reminder of how far games still need to progress in the common consciousness to get anywhere near the level of maturity found in film, theatre and books.
One day a game will come along that actually follows through on this sort of marketing.
There are games that come quite close, and use their mature themes wisely. Of course Heavy Rain is in this category and manages to get away with placing a variety of children in peril without feeling cheap. But there is still a missed opportunity to really engage with the themes this raises in any sustained sense.
All this reminds of Mr Beebe in a Room with a View, "If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her". One day a game will come along that actually follows through on this sort of marketing. When that happens, that will be a very exciting and surprising time for us all. Sadly, I don't think Dead Island is it.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: