(Last Updated September 21st!)
Progression Feels Pointless
I covered this a bit in the review, but it's important to reiterate—leveling up implies things to the player that Dead Island doesn't deliver. Extra health is meaningless, extra damage is meaningless—over the course of the game zombies will always take the exact same number of hits to kill, so all the experience I'm gaining doesn't seem to serve any purpose. If I can beat the game just as easily (or slightly more easily) at level 25 than at level 35, what's my motivation to keep passing levels and tracking down replacements for the weapons that my progress makes obsolete?
The most frustrating aspect of this is the way it saps all skill and technique out of the game, and replaces it with an unbalanced reliance on math. One of the most fun activities in the game is beheading a charging Infected. They run at the player full-tilt, screaming all the while, and if I time my swing just right, I can cleave the head off their shoulders in a single blow. Unless I've made the mistake of passing too many levels without finding a new machete, in which case the planned beheading no longer works, and the Infected just takes a little damage.
Instead of rewarding my prowess, or praising my grasp of timing and sharp reflexes, the game punished me for not spending enough time scrounging through garbage cans.
Weapons are completely non-intuitive
This is the inventory screen, listing my various weapons. Let's look over the stats for a given weapon, shall we? Damage is self-explanatory, the second number, force, equals the amount of stamina it saps from zombies (i.e. how many times you'll have to hit them to knock them from their feet), the third number is durability, which is self-explanatory, and the fourth is handling. Handling's a little confusing, because it refers to how much stamina is required to swing the weapon. Apparently the higher the number, the less stamina is required. Which could be clearer.
Here are a few things missing from the list: Is the weapon one- or two-handed? If two-handed, will it make the camera freak out (more on that later)? What do those bonus symbols on the side mean? If bladed, is it a stabbing or slashing weapon? Most importantly—and this is so important I can't believe it was overlooked: what is the weapon's reach?
This is an entire game about keeping zombies at bay by slashing them with knives or beating them with clubs—yet the developers didn't think that the length of those various weapons was worth telling us? Sometimes it's self-evident (a machete has longer reach than a diving knife, obviously), but other times it's woefully unclear. Sickle or hatchet: which one keeps zombies further away? Axe or sledgehammer?
Some of this can be established through trial and error—although expect to die a lot while learning the decap-attack range of each weapon—but that isn't the case when shopping.
No, if I want to buy a weapon, I just have to take a wild, extremely expensive, guess about what its finer points are, because the developers didn't think it was important to share this information with the player.
Analog and Digital Combat each have major problems, as does throwing (Updated)
I'm going to briefly describe melee combat in nearly every decent melee game ever: Tap the attack button and the character swings their weapon. Hold down the attack button and the character pulls back their weapon, preparing for the swing. This second method of attack allows the player to both time their swing perfectly for maximum effect, and possibly charge up a heavier blow.
If that description sounds familiar to you, it's because that particular mechanic is such an integral part of the language of video games that everyone has some experience with it, and understands it as the optimal way to handle melee.
Everyone, apparently, for the developers at Techland, who felt that giving the player a single attack button means that the player should only have access to one kind of attack. That isn't the digital control layout's only problem, though—there's the fact that heavier two-handed weapons are basically impossible to use, since the camera freaks out so profoundly when swinging them that the player loses the ability to see the zombies that they're supposed to be fighting.
Check out how it compares to the analog controls with the same weapon:
Simple solution, right? Just use the analog controls! Except using the analog controls means not being able to look around while fighting—which, in a game about fighting groups of zombies, is sort of a necessity. The auto-lock that kicks in when you engage the fighting commands while aiming at an enemy helps a little, but since there's no way to snap from enemy to enemy while locked on, once again it completely falls apart while fighting groups.
Throwing weapons have an equally serious problem—nice in theory, buggy as hell in practice. Which is especially troublesome given that the game features a throwing weapon-themed character. Locking on works great, and it's a nice touch that bladed weapons stick into zombies, and can be easily retrieved, but everything else about throwing weapons is kind of broken.
A decent loadout for a throwing character is to have a few throwing weapons and one or two melee backups in case there are some zombies left once you're out of knives. The throwing process is streamlined by the fact that if you maintain the lock on a zombie after throwing a weapon your character will immediately prepare the next weapon for throwing. Which would be hugely convenient, if it weren't for a problem in the way the game determines what the "next weapon" is. Instead of the next weapon clockwise in the quick-inventory wheel, the way the "next-weapon" button works, the game always switches to the next-most-powerful weapon. So god help you if your melee weapon is particularly powerful—if that's the case, after each weapon is thrown game will automatically switch to the melee weapon, forcing the player to break their lock on the approaching zombie and manually switch to the next weapon they want to use.
Every single time.
Environmental Damage doesn't scale upwards the way everything else does
Despite the game's protestations to the contrary, the zombies players face are not actually "undead", but living humans infected with a mutating virus. This means that in addition to bludgeoning, burning, and slicing, they're also susceptible to poisoning, bleeding, and my personal favorite: drowning. It was quite a fun find, early in the game, discovering that I could hold a zombie's head under water until the bubbles stopped, and whenever I found myself by a pool or the beach, I was sure to give it a go.
Until it stopped working. Drowning, you see, does anywhere from 20-40 damage per second—and while that's plenty dangerous to the 100HP monsters that start the game, level 30 zombies have literally thousands of hit points each, making the time it would take to kill them prohibitively long. This is true of all environmental damage in the game. While kicking a zombie into a burning car might seem like a cool and effective strategy when you first arrive in the city, a few levels in you'll be dealing with zombies who can effectively burn forever without dying. Take a look at this:
I also recorded one of those with a Ram, but he took nine minutes to die, and no one wants to see that. I sure as hell didn't.
The game is oddly capricious with experience points
You may have noticed that, at the end of that video (if you made it all the way there—and really, why would you?), when the zombie I'd kicked into the pool of electricity died, I wasn't rewarded in any way, shape, or form. Yes, using environmental damage to kill enemies goes completely unrewarded. This weird error is so widespread in the game that even molotov cocktails become less useful. All the zombies set on fire by the initial blast count as my kills, and I'm rewarded as such—but if a zombie should walk into the wall of flame a moment afterwards, catch on fire, and die, I won't be. After all, he just caught on fire—doesn't matter who set it, right?
Then, in the most bizarre glitch of all, any enemies killed using the Suicider aren't credited to the player. To be clear—the Suicider, a monster who exists only so that the player can detonate him, and take out all the zombies around, doesn't count as a weapon used by the player when experience points are being tallied. If I shoot a gas canister and kill all the zombies gathered around it, those are my kills, and my points. If I shoot a Suicider and blow up all the zombies gathered around him, apparently he gets credit for the kills.
What's he going to do with all that experience? He's a spine in a gutter now!
Also the new game+ is flat-out broken by the leveling system. (Updated)
So you're level 35 when you beat the game, and you find yourself back on the beach with the weapons you used to finish the game. They're a little beat up, since the boss fight was more of a war of attrition than anything else, but you're thinking "hey, I'll just grab some new ones until I can afford to fix these". Totally logical theory, except for one thing. It apparently didn't occur to the developers that anyone would play a new game+ (even though it's an option), so the only weapons that spawn on the beach are the beach-class weapons. Which have relatively low level caps, do pathetic damage, and are almost valueless to sell.
Which traps players in a situation where they can't kill zombies with the weapons they find, or pay for the repairs for the weapons they brought with them—also, I hope you didn't bring too many good weapons with you—because the game went with a sidekick-based storage system rather than the standard chest of holding, you won't be able to store any weapons until two hours (at least) into the game!
If you plan to try a new game+ be prepared to spend a lot of time stomping on zombies. Hey, speaking of, make sure you unlocked the "stomp" attack, since it's the most useful thing in the game. Sadly.
(UPDATE!) This has been addressed in the late-September update! Now all the loot spawns in the game are level-appropriate! The only downside is that this has further wonked multiplaying with lower-level friends. The loot type is based on character level rather than zombie level, so even if a zombie is level 2, if a level 30 person kills it (which it's hard not to—at that level gap kicks basically make zombies explode) it will drop a high level weapon or up to $250. So it's still woefully unbalanced, but at least now the low-level players can nab a lot of cash while they're not killing anyone.
The "Checkpoint" system has a fatal, game-breaking flaw in it
I got stuck in the chief-killing loop that's become so famous. In fact, there's a twitter-based record of my time with the game which tracks my relatively smooth sailing through most of it, followed by a torrent of profanity when I realized the game's poor design had locked me in a nearly-unwinnable fight. It was only through dogged perseverance and a willingness to die literally dozens of times as I built up a stock of weapons and charged my Rage meter that I was able to finally claw my way through the fight after two full hours.
There's no excuse for a mistake this big to have made it into the finished game. I don't care what Techland has to do to fix it—make the Chief immortal, legitimately reset my character when I go back to the last checkpoint, rather than updating all of my stats—whatever it is, this absolutely must be fixed, and quickly.
In fact, I hope that Techland fixes all of these mistakes—I'll continue updating this article when/if the fixes come in, and hopefully by the end of the year Dead Island really will be Game of the Year (GOTY) material.