by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
I watched The Walking Dead earlier today. Later tonight I’ll be reading a book which has the equivalent of zombies in it. Right now I’m writing a review of Escape Dead Island. Ever think that the real apocalypse will come when we collapse under the weight of all this zombie apocalypse fiction? At least it’s not all doom and gloom, as Escape Dead Island attempts to do some unique things with its story while keeping an air of humour about the whole situation.
In a departure from the ‘main’ games in the Dead Island franchise, Escape is a third person action adventure, and instead of banging the same old drum of “uh oh, zombies! This is a bad situation huh?”, it’s a little more engaging, some of the time at least. You play as Cliff, a photographer with daddy issues, among a group of three friends travelling to an island to find a story. Sadly they’re all from the Far Cry 3 school of protagonists in that they’re all fairly unlikeable and unrelatable. Thankfully however, there is intrigue to make you care about their actions and what they have to say.
You see, you’re never really sure of how much of what you’re playing is real, if any of it is. Cliff has continual breakdowns in his vision, along with blackouts followed by waking up somewhere completely different. Then there are completely insane moments such as cargo containers dropping from the sky while you walk along a bridge, disappearing people and differing opinions on events, and you start to question everything. Things get weird, and the zombies seem to be the least of it.
It’s a shame then that with such a unique hook, it takes too long for everything to get going. When the weird stuff happens, it’s usually so long since the last thing happened that you’re left thinking “oh right, this isn’t just a game about zombies”. Then you’re trapped knowing that you’re doing this mundane thing right now, like searching for keycards, when there’s clearly something bigger that’s desiring your attention.
The way the game is laid out doesn’t help matters either. You ostensibly have an open world, although nothing like what you have in the normal Dead Island games. There are hub areas connected by paths where you constantly have to duck under stuff and climb ladders to get between. These are dull sequences which are clearly there to hide loading times and they’re not really fooling anybody. What’s worse is that there is a lot of backtracking. A few hours in I spent at least ten minutes simply travelling from one objective to another, having been to both places previously already. Things are slowed down to a shambling crawl, if you will. Oddly, zombies repopulate some areas, while others are left completely barren when you go back to them.
Dodge, attack, repeat
The combat system for actually dealing with the risen dead is fairly simple and not as nuanced as the normal games. You have a normal and a heavy melee attack, a dodge, a shove and a kick. Knock a zombie down and you can perform an execution on it (while the others stand around and watch you, only resuming their attacks once your animation has finished). You will find standard weapons like a pistol and a shotgun throughout the course of the story, but ammo is so limited at the start that they’re almost useless until later on. If you’ve played the Dead Island games, you’ll see some familiar faces (in both characters and zombie types). However, fans of the series will certainly bemoan the lack of the zany crafted weapons the games are known for.
You really start to miss them as the enemy difficulty ramps up without really giving you the tools you need to combat them. You become reliant on stealth kills and when you eventually do have to fight a big group, you’ll be leading them on a big game of cat and mouse, hoping they eventually lose interest so you can pick them off one at a time. The combat isn’t particularly engaging, so it’s lucky that the occasional snippet of Cliff losing his mind is enough to keep you ploughing forward.
There are plenty of side things to collect if that’s your sort of thing. Postcards and data logs and such flesh out the world a bit and give you some insight into a story that sort of runs parallel to the main events. You have a camera which is used to snap pictures of points and things of interest, giving you some more details about them. You’ll also find new items as you play such as the rope and a grappling hook, enabling you to go back to places and access new areas. Hurrah, more backtracking.
Escape Dead Island is a cool idea mixed up in some run of the mill gameplay mechanics. If the story were a little more streamlined and the combat a little more complex, it could have been something great. In fact it may have ended up being the best Dead Island game so far. As it is, it’s a reasonably lengthy campaign that outstays its welcome, with occasional moments of brilliance. It might be worth a look when it goes on sale.
Premise improves on most zombie fiction.
Standard combat; lots of backtracking slows things down.