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Review: Dead Island

Game: Dead Island
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~35 hours
Buy If You Like: A melee-focused Borderlands, killing zombies

Wha… who… wow. Why didn’t anyone tell me how good this was?

My initial expectations for Dead Island were low. All that I knew beforehand was that it had one of the best videogame trailers of all time, and that the game itself had nothing at all to do with said trailer. Somehow, hearing that the trailer was misleading was enough for me to imagine the game itself would be bad, since “misleading = bad.” Plus, I heard someone somewhere mention the 4-player co-op had traditional RPG roles like tank, rogues, ranged, and thought “Eh?”

What I was not expecting was for Dead Island to be one of the most interesting games I have played this year.

A “melee Borderlands” really is the best way to describe how Dead Island plays. You start out as one of four character classes whom all have three-branch talent trees, you pick up random weapons with random stat spreads, and you smash zombie face in an almost entirely open-world environment. While it is all done in first-person, all the traditional trappings of action RPGs are there: life bars, damage stats, gaining XP, picking up and completing side-quests from other survivors, and gaining levels. Much like Borderlands (again), the experience feels incongruent at first (“Headshots aren’t instant kills?!”), especially when the default weapon in most every other zombie game is a gun, not a police baton you modified with nails or a machete heated to 200° with laptop batteries, wires, and duct tape.

Dammit, Sister Mary. I just upgraded this metal beatstick!

But after a while? I was hooked. Want to explore the beach? Explore the beach. Want to drive back and forth in a truck, running down zombies and trying to navigate the the debris-strewn roads? Do that. Loading screens are few and far between, zombies are everywhere, and randomized loot ensures that even if there isn’t some kind of specific secret hidden in that forgotten corner of landscape, your time wasn’t exactly wasted. All enemies level with you, with the end result being that you can (and will) die to 2-3 standard zombies as easy at level 1 as at the level cap, if you aren’t careful.

There are really only two major negatives to Dead Island, or just one depending on how much of a curve you grade zombie games. If you are looking for a zombie game that really shakes up the narrative conventions for the genre, A) you will be disappointed here, and B) really? Stop me if you have heard this before: zombie outbreak occurs, you are inexplicably immune, your travels take you to a hidden bio-corporation working on unethical research (may or may not have involved creating zombie plague), race against time to stop/avoid entire site being nuked from orbit. Cliches aside, and excusing the sort of unresolved micro-stories various quests represent (bitten guy wants you to bring insulin to trapped brother, who you never see again anyway), it was unquestionably refreshing to have gone from that special form of insipid RPG questing to doing things that actually make sense. Collecting three crates of food might be superficially similar to collecting 10 bear asses, but at least the former makes sense.

Is it, ah, still necrophilia if she’s a zombie?

The second negative is not as easy to handwave away. You see, the entire first half of the game consists of exploring the beautiful, open-world resort and city areas doing things that make sense to do in a zombie apocalypse. Inexplicably, the developers decided to switch gears and start feeding you through the cramped, repetitive hallways of sewers, a City Hall built by M.C. Escher, prisons, and abandoned hospital wings. Could we please, like, stay outside? You know, leverage the one feature that sets Dead Island apart from nearly every FPS zombie game ever made? The indoor zones are not bad – aside from the piss-poor decision to not include maps for these areas – but it definitely starts feeling like “more of the same” and “Resident Evil did this better in 1996” after a while.

I would be remiss if I did not briefly talk about the co-op. While I only actually ever played with one specific friend for 2-3 hours, I can definitely see the appeal. It simply feels good to be surrounded by zombies, knowing that you are severing limbs and curb-stomping back-to-back. And for what it is worth, the developers definitely want this to be the way you play Dead Island. You will frequently get little notices that “ThugLife4Life is Nearby” which means that jumping into his/her game is a single button-press (J) away; dropping out is just as easy and non-disruptive, and you keep all the goodies you might have gotten. Plus, as I alluded to at the beginning, a lot of the various talents Skills you can pick benefit your fellow players too – from buff auras, to higher Medpac healing, to straight-up MMOish Threat mechanics (Sam B has +30% Threat via Decoy, Xian Mei has -15% Threat via Spectre and can get bonus damage from backstabs).

I love the smell of 150 damage/second Molotovs in the morning.

Ultimately, I found Dead Island to be a perfectly good and oddly refreshing FPS zombie experience, with friends or by oneself as I did for the last 32 hours of gameplay. The visuals are drop-dead (ouch) gorgeous, the loot system way more satisfying than Diablo 3, the melee-focused combat surprisingly satisfying (1-2 seconds of slow-mo when a zombie head is liberated from its zombie neck never gets old), the constant threat of death kept me on my toes, and I had a good time overall. While there is not much in the way of replayability beyond a New Game+ mode, the four characters do end up playing quite differently if one is looking for an excuse to run around Banoi again.

And, hey, it looks like Techland is working on a sequel titled Dead Island: Riptide. So maybe sometime soon we won’t even need an excuse.

Melee and Kiting

In the extreme off-chance you have not been following the gripping drama unfolding in the comment section of my post about Guild Wars 2 questing (which long ceased to be about questing), let me summarize my position on the design intention of melee kiting mobs.

…actually, wait. Let me quote GW2’s Jon Peters instead (emphasis mine):

Hey all. I wanted to talk about this a bit since it is a hot topic here and also on the internets. The intention is that both styles are viable. Certainly right now Melee is more difficult than ranged. There are some things we will try to do to address this, but I think the more you play you would find they are closer than you think.

First what’s already there:

  1. Melee does more damage. Melee damage is simply higher than ranged damage across the board.
  2. Melee has more control. With a few intentional exception Melee has a lot more control than ranged.

What Melee needs:

  1. defensive tools on more weapons, particularly on lower armor professions.
  2. ai needs to favor Melee a bit less than it currently does.

What else:
Finally because of the more action based nature of combat Melee needs to be taught better. Effective Melee requires skills that translate over from FPS games which are notoriously harder on casual players. You have to wasd to move, constantly aim with your mouse camera, and hit skills on 1-5.
Some tips:

If you have learned any good Melee tips that you think we should pass on to newer players feel free to post them here. I’ll start with a few tips of my own.

  • If you don’t have mouse look on when using a skill you will turn to face. I sometimes let go of mouse look as I activate to help me aim through the chaos and then click it back down in between attacks.
  • Melee has a lot of hard hitting skills and good setup. Utility skills Can really help set up big Melee attacks. Bulls charge on warrior, scorpion wire on thief, judges intervention on guardian.
  • Know when to run. No matter what you are not a tank. You have to move in and out avoiding damage. If you have to soak damage try and bring boons like Protection and Regeneration or conditions like Blindness and the very undervalued Weakness.

Thanks for reading this all. Rest assured we will keep working on this and just keep in mind the subtle differences in GW2 combat that take a while to sink in.

The above was posted May 1st, the same day I basically pointed out the same thing, vis-a-vis the melee vs ranged discrepancy, with my first GW2 beta weekend impressions. As of the second beta weekend, there has been no improvement I could detect. Jon mentions that melee deals more damage “across the board,” but what difference happened to exist was not perceptible to me.

But for the sake of argument, let us assume Jon is correct. Let us assume, as Conwolv does, that I “like to make up excuses for [my] poor playstyle” rather than have any possible legitimate complaint. Let us, in other words, look upon the design principals as they exist in their purest form:

  1. Melee deals more damage | It is more difficult to get/stay in melee range.
  2. Melee is at greater risk of damage | Melee takes less damage.
  3. Ranged deals less damage | It is easier to stay on target.
  4. Ranged is at less risk of damage | Ranged takes more damage.

Do you believe the above is good, balanced game design?

Go ahead and write down your answer.



Write it down?



If you wrote “Yes,” you are wrong. Don’t feel too bad though, as Blizzard makes this mistake repeatedly, and ArenaNet appears to be on track to do the same for different reasons.

You see, the problem with the above “balanced” game design is the notion that both ranged and melee are intended to ultimately be viable, e.g. be equivalently good at damage. If ranged DPS is as good as melee in the long-run, that means there is no benefit to it being more difficult to get into/stay in melee range. If melee has greater burst damage to compensate, that merely imbalances PvP and/or forces encounter designers to include adds that need to be killed quickly… and somehow make it so that ranged cannot simply kill them in the time it takes melee to switch targets.

Similarly, “risk” is not a particularly compelling balance mechanism for two reasons. The first is simple psychology: most people are risk averse. Would you rather have $50 right now, or $100 if you win a coin flip? Both have an average payout of $50, so there is no difference between the two… right? Second, there are “perceived fun” barriers that designers have to keep in mind when crafting encounters. Instant-death mechanics are probably not fun for a lot of people, even if that is a way to balance ranged having an easier time avoiding said attack than melee (whom would only take 50% damage or whatever). At the other end, if melee doesn’t take enough damage, they could potentially ignore the mechanic altogether.

There are potentially ways to balance the melee vs ranged rift, but the bottom line is that a “mirrored” approach simply does not cut it.

Flying the Melee Kite

This brings me back to the GW2 melee problem.

Simply put, melee has every possible disadvantage. Instead of melee taking less damage per the balancing mechanism for #2, melee takes the same or more damage. You have less time to react to “Dodge This!” abilities, nevermind how few of those abilities ranged even has to care about. As Jon points out, “You have to move in and out avoiding damage.” What does ranged do? Move… backwards? To be honest, at the levels I played, my Ranger never had to move at all if I lead off with a snare. And here is the thing: even if that changes later, I would not be doing more than my melee toons already do.

More often than not, melee characters having to kite mobs is a sign of design failure. What else could it be, by definition?

One of the interesting defenses that a commenter named Fn0 presented was the following:

GW2 goes further. Capiche? It is not the same. GW2 allows you as melee (as in, you started melee at level 1) to spec as full-blown ranged with the blink of putting a ranged weapon equiped. In GW2 you can respec in battle with they key ` which allows one to, for example, switch between melee and ranged. This means we are much more hybrid than in previous MMOs.

It is an interesting thought that ArenaNet might be endeavoring to do away with both class roles (i.e. the Trinity) and any distinction between ranged and melee classes. I do not believe the argument works particular well, given that melee vs ranged is still a balance issue regardless of whether each class can be both – just because a Thief can be ranged 100% of the time doesn’t fix the fact that melee is imbalanced. And I have a more subjective problem with the idea of presenting Thieves, Guardians, and Warriors as “ranged” archetypes. But it is an interesting thought just the same.

Having said all that, what do you guys think? Is kiting a “standard strategy for melee in all MMO games?” Even in questing and general PvE? Are the discrepancies between melee and ranged classes something you think about at all? I have not played TERA, so I would also be interested in knowing how melee vs ranged is handled in that game. And if you played a game where you thought things were balanced pretty well, let me know that as well in the comments below.