Dead Island is Fallout 3 with zombies. Plenty of people are going to compare it to Dead Rising (as you can create weapons) and Left 4 Dead (as the action is first-person and good for four players online), but when I finally got past the game's obtuse opening and less than stellar cutscenes, I found a world rife with quests, interesting environments, and a character progression system that had me begging for more hours in the day. In short, Dead Island's a rough around the edges role-playing game, and I dug it.
On a small island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, the dead walk. The story didn't set my hair on fire, but everything else makes up for it. When you sit down to play, you'll choose one of four characters and for the next 20 to 30-some hours roam massive maps, take on interesting side quests, and chop the heads off hundreds of ghouls.
But Dead Island doesn't succeed because of its gore (though I liked the dismemberment). Dead Island's strength is in the world it creates. I crept into and through each environment I came to, from beaches to sewers to jail cells. I listened for the screams of the infected or the roar of a damage sponge known as a "Thug." From that perspective, I was on the island; not my character. In the beginning, I'd slaughter every zombie I saw, but by the time I got to the city and found tight alleyways overrun with monsters, I began to just run from objective to objective. No longer was I playing a game -- I was focusing on survival as if I were the one running from Point A to Point B.
Objectively speaking -- like, right now from my keyboard and not playing the actual game -- that's a stupid thing to say. Dead Island doesn't really punish you for dying. If you croak, you wait five seconds and respawn with less money. Any damage you inflicted before heading to the great beyond remains. But I say that using hindsight. When I sprinted away from a zombie and heard its growls directly behind me, my heart pounded in my chest. I didn't think "Oh, I'll just let him get me and restart back there."
You rarely feel safe in Dead Island, and that's how a zombie game should be. You have a limited stamina bar, so you can't run or swing your weapon forever. Med kits were few and far between in my experience, so scavenging for energy drinks and fruit -- which have to be used at that moment and can't be stored -- became part of the experience. Weapons degrade as you use them, so finding a "legendary" weapon was exciting, but not as exciting as finding a workbench to keep weapons in tip-top shape.
Dead Island made me my character. I chose the weapons, the enemies to attack, and the side quests to take. When I leveled up, I chose in which skill tree to invest my new point in -- so even if you joined my game as the same knives expert I play as, we wouldn't necessarily have the same abilities.
Thankfully, joining games is easy. When you're playing, a pop-up message will notify you if a player is close to you and joinable. If I see you sign on, I can invite you in. Of course, experience levels play into this. Players can only join the games of people who are equal or lesser levels. I can't be level 31 and about to win the game and have a level 1 player join me. It might sound depressing, but there are tons of character slots, so having a character for different sessions shouldn't be too tough. Plus, you can always switch your game to single-player if you just want to be left alone. Sadly, there is no local co-op.
Is Dead Island perfect? No. Far from it. As much as I lauded it, Dead Island is rough around the edges and that's sure to turn a lot of people off. First-person melee combat doesn't feel natural right away. Sometimes textures take their time loading in, I'd describe every cutscene as "stiff," and the visual flaws like hands going through doors and weird mini-game meters made me laugh. Still, presentation doesn't make a game, experiences do. And they are packed into Dead Island.
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