There is some debate among RPGamers about how much of an RPG Dead Island really is. After spending an hour playing the game with one of the lead developers in co-op mode, I feel as though I can safely answer that question. While not immediately apparent, there is some real meat to the RPG mechanics in this zombie survival game. The demo I played was a 4-player co-op session that focused on giving me and two other journalists a tour through one of the gameís zones while teaching us the basic mechanics of the game. Even though I may not know a lot about the details of the story or the characterís backgrounds, I do have a much better understanding of how it plays and what exactly makes it an RPG.
Dead Island is a open world, quest driven, action-RPG with a single player campaign that features drop-in-drop-out four player co-op. It takes place on Banoi Island, the site of a large zombie infestation. You play as one of four survivors, trying to find a way off the island. Similar to other RPGs like Borderlands, there are four distinct characters who each play a different role within the party. Sam B is the tank class, Xian Mei is a light, fast class who is best with bladed weapons, Logan is a strong, well-rounded character, and Purna seems to be good with guns and fast on her feet. You can choose any character or class when you start the game, and when you play in co-op, there are no restrictions on the party make up. So you can play as four Sam B characters if you so choose. There will be some additional challenges for people who decide to double up on certain characters. For example, Sam B is more frequently targeted by zombies because he is a large tank character, which means that a party consisting of only Sam B characters may have a more intense experience than a party full of Logan characters. The co-op play also functions similarly to Borderlands. Whenever you jump into another playerís game, you keep all of the experience, money, and items you earn while playing with them. You can also have a higher level character jump into your game and help you complete some difficult quests, but the level and number of zombies scales up as you add more players to your game.
As you kill zombies and complete quests, you gain experience points and level up. When you level up, your health, stamina, and damage dealt increase. You also get points to spend in a large skill tree to obtain or upgrade various perks. Perks involve things like losing less stamina when you run or altering the duration and cool down of special rage attacks. There are other character specific perks like the ability for Logan to do more damage whenever he is drunk. However, there is a level cap, and you only get a certain number of skill points to spend by the time you reach the cap. You will have to make some hard decisions on how to build up your character as different combinations of perks can have a big impact on how you play certain characters. The end result is that even if you enter a game with four other Logans, your Logan should have a build unique to you.
The island of Banoi is divided into various zones, each with its own quest hubs and leveled enemies. If you feel brave enough to venture into a zone that is a much higher level than your own, you can expect to die a lot. However, if you manage to survive, you can walk away with a lot of cash, XP, and high-leveled weapons. Since the island of Banoi is fairly large, you can find cars to help you traverse long distances or alternatively, fast travel to and from safe havens. The mini map makes navigating the world fairly easy, and it clearly marks the locations of quest givers, loot containers, and a line directing you to your next quest objective. As you explore the island, you will come across various safe havens and small pockets of survivors. Whenever you accept quests from them you are rewarded with weapons, items, XP, and money. Even when exploring zombie-filled zones, you never know when you will run across a survivor. These survivors may provide you with additional side quests or the ability to buy and sell some items. A good tip that I received for spotting survivors is to be on the lookout for a cluster of zombies trying to force their way into a building rather than trying to eat you.
Weapon maintenance and modifications are the other core RPG mechanics in the game. Before we set off on our mission, we were introduced to the work bench. In various safe houses across the island, you can use work benches to repair, upgrade, and modify various weapons you pick up. Repairing items is very important because weapons will degrade over time through use. Weapons have four different stats that are affected by the repair and upgrade process, such as damage and durability. Weapons will also change in appearance as they are upgraded. For example, a rusty knife will transform into a bright shiny blade with a visibly sharp edge the more you upgrade it.
As you explore Banoi island, you will come across blueprints and various pieces of junk that you can use to modify your weaponís properties. For example, I turned my machete into an electric machete by combining it with discarded batteries, wires, and a few other pieces of junk I had in my inventory. The electric machete is my favorite weapon from the demo. It was useful for stunning enemies and quickly cutting off limbs. Our co-op team also relied heavily on sticky knife bombs which would stick to an enemy when you threw them and explode a few seconds later, which was very useful for clearing out groups of enemies. Weapons are also level restricted and color coded to denote their rarity. As such, you wonít be able to implement certain mods or use that cool purple axe until you are the appropriate level for it. Taking advantage of everything that the work bench has to offer, whether that's repairs or modifications, costs money. Money in the game is hard to come by, but you can find it on zombies and in random loot containers. You can also earn it from quests and selling unwanted items to vendors.
I was also given a rundown of the basic controls. Since this is a melee focused combat game, our characters started off with a wide assortment of improvised weapons, ranging from kitchen knives to sledge hammers. The right trigger controls your standard attack and drains your stamina with every swing. The larger and heavier your weapon, the more quickly your stamina drains. In other words, you wonít be able to get off as many swings with a two-handed sledge hammer than you would with a one-handed kitchen knife. Clicking in on the left analog stick activates your run. This also drains stamina and it is important to know when to run as you donít want to be too tired to fight by the time you reach a group of zombies.
The left bumper activates a light kicking move that doesnít drain stamina, which is useful to push back or knock enemies over. If you knock a zombie down, you can also use the left bumper to finish it off by stomping on its head until it explodes. The left trigger allows you to throw your currently equipped weapon. A lot of strategy plays into knowing when to throw your weapon as you lose the ability to use that weapon until you go recover it, often times having to pull it out of the corpse of the enemy you just threw it at. Since you spend a large portion of the game repairing and modifying your weapons, the last thing you want to do is leave behind a weapon you invested thousands of dollars into. All the same, throwing weapons is a necessary tactic as you will at times come across enemies who explode on contact with player characters, so detonating them from a safe distance with a carefully thrown weapon is a good call.
Another large part of combat is dismemberment. It may be tempting to go straight for a zombieís head, but sometimes, it is more advantageous to cut off a limb. For example, you may want to cut off the legs of a fast zombie to keep him from charging you. You may also want to cut off the arms of larger brutes with a wide swing radius to keep him from knocking party members down. Youíll also want to cut the arm off of a weapon-wielding zombie to instantly reduce the threat they pose. Sometimes, you may come across zombies wearing helmets, preventing decapitation altogether. Combine all of this with special infected zombies and large boss zombies and the combat can change dynamically from encounter to encounter.
Mechanics talk aside, I had a fair amount of fun with the game. I played as Logan, the well-rounded drunk, and mainly used large, two-handed weapons. It was fun sticking together with my four teammates as we a battled our way through hordes of zombies. I really liked that I had a huge, wheel full of modified weapons, easily accessible via the right bumper. The quest we played was still was a relatively early quest in the campaign, so we didnít have full access to the wide range of skills that the characters would eventually develop. However, I did get to try out Loganís rage move. When you go into rage, the screen turns black and white, but zombies are highlighted in red. I was then able to quickly shoot an unlimited amount of throwing knives for about 30 seconds. Every character has a unique rage move that is great to use when you are surrounded or during a difficult boss battle.
Before going into this demo, I had very little interest in this game. It hardly looked like an RPG to me, and the game play looked derivative of so many other zombie games. After going through an entire quest with the game with three other people, I am a lot more excited to play through this game when it comes out later this year. The co-op game play, combined with the large open world, quests, weapon modifications, and the skill tree means that there is a lot of incentive to sink hours into this zombie action-RPG. The campaign should last players anywhere from 25-30 hours. You can add several more hours to that number if you decide to get lost in the multiplayer, hunt for audio logs and diary entries, and complete all of the side quests. As a console gamer, Iím always looking for a good multiplayer RPG that I can play with friends and now I can add this game to that short list of co-op friendly console games.