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It’s interesting to play Dead Island hot on the heels of Deus Ex, since both games fall into the same genre: First Person Action RPG. Gamers might have thought that Dead Island was a blend of shooter and survival horror; and it certainly is that, however it has the heart of a Role Playing Game.
Will you shoot zombies? Yes. Will you slash them to pieces with machetes. That too. But you’ll also talk to NPCs about their woes, and run quests for them, while doing yet more side quests for other NPCs. You’ll also gain XP for doing so, and level up a character chosen from four classes with different skill trees.
This isn’t a complaint. Dead Island gives the player zombies by the truckload, but rather than being Left 4 Dead meets Dead Rising, it feels more like Mass Effect with zombies, or even Grand Theft Auto: Raccoon City.
You aren’t herded through linear levels toward safe houses, but rather are set free on a tropical paradise to explore a vast, open world. There are hubs where other survivors have clustered, and because your character has the rare ability to resist the zombie infection, you are saddled with the many responsibilities which require venturing forth into the open areas, where you’ll follow a main quest to get off the island, but you also have the option to run around and explore, constantly looking for crafting supplies, or sidequests.
This is, of course, just a series of excuses to make players indulge in action throughout the zombie-infested island. Missions generally involve killing your way from point A to point B, clicking on something at point B, then killing your way back to the quest giver. NPC conversations boil down to accepting or denying the quests, but the plight of these survivors is well written, and compelling enough to add some degree of emotional weight to the zombie-killing. The areas you pass through are crammed with interesting places to explore too, so there’s no excuse to just charge through the main story.
The island itself is quite big, so drivable vehicles are included. You’ll be able to plow through the undead in droves with a pick-up truck, and one of the major plot elements is your modified armored car, which gets beefed up as a proper Mad Max killing machine in true zombie apocalypse style. The game is divided into several acts that each take place in separate locations, and you need to sit through load screens to get from one major area to the next. Otherwise, you can roam about the huge external locations without any perceivable loading at all. It all looks great too, and the tropical setting is a refreshing change from the usual city/laboratory locations for this sort of game.
While it’s fun to explore by yourself, Dead Island has a co-op multiplayer component that fits very well with the premise. As you explore, you’ll occasionally get a prompt that another player is nearby, always around the same level and doing similar quests as you. This has the feel of genuinely stumbling across another survivor in the wasteland, and it feels good to have a pal covering your back when the zombies come in swarms, or you have a tough boss to take down. Players have the option of turning this feature off entirely, or of deliberately seeking out other players in a lobby.
Because you’re playing an ordinary person in a country that doesn’t have The Second Amendment, guns are a little hard to come by. You aren’t a cop or a soldier, and you’ll spend about a third of the game fending off the undead with whatever items you can use as improvised zombie-choppers. Even when you do start coming across firearms, ammo is limited, and taking down zombies will require precise headshots, or a ton of ammo (Unless you play as the character who specializes in guns). All of the melee weapons will slowly break down as you use them, so you’ll be on a constant search for new ones, as well as the materials and money to upgrade the ones you have. This is pretty much the loot component of any Action RPG, but it enhances the sense of reality in scavenging for survival, and it’s fun to show off your fanciest weapon to other players online.
There are problems to be sure. The Xbox version of the game hasn’t had anywhere near the same sort of launch troubles as the PC edition, but there are still bugs aplenty, including some that make quest items invisible, along with a tendency to spawn far away from the place where you last saved (Including right on top of boss monsters). The map can go crazy at times, pointing you all over the place, especially when you’re very close to an objective.
I also found that items frequently disappeared from my inventory. This might have been a bug, but could also have just been from an over-complex inventory management system, or the fact that you can throw any of your melee weapons. Yes, its great that I can nail a charging zombie with a thrown axe, but losing my favorite meat-cleaver with an accidental throw is very annoying, and costly.
Still, these complaints don’t prevent the game from excelling. Dead Island offers an authentic taste of what it might be like to endure the zombie-apocalypse. It’s a surprisingly enjoyable hit by a smaller developer that shakes up several genres of gaming, and has a lot to offer zombie fans. However, players who enjoy action/role-playing, or having vast environments to explore should give it a closer look, even those who aren’t particularly enthralled by the current zombie trend in gaming.