Category Archives: Video Game News & Reviews

Tips For Surviving “The Last of Us” Multiplayer

last of us coverOn the surface, Naughty Dog’s fantastic new game “The Last of Us” has a simple form of multiplayer.  Either a survivor mode that is team elimination with no respawns, or a 4 vs 4 team deathmatch, with the first team to get 20 kills being the winner.  The execution of the multiplayer is much more nuanced, however.  Teams generally must employ a bit of cooperative play to succeed, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that the best groups run in a pack.  The reason for this is, players use a number of support skills, such as healing, craft sharing, and spotting, in order to put wins together.  I’m suggesting 10 tips in no particular order, for anyone wanted to navigate the mayhem.

1.  Be sure to spend the “parts” you collect on upgrades.  The parts are essentially XP.  As you earn them by pretty much doing anything in-game, they accumulate in the same way money did in the Shadowrun game.  You can use them to upgrade your guns and ammo, your armor, or on purchasable special weapons such as a shotgun or scoped magnum-style pistol.  The beauty of this game is that nobody gets exclusive access to uber-weapons.  Everyone can purchase them, if that’s how you choose to roll.  The catch:  it costs valuable “load out” points if you want to even have the option to purchase a powerful weapon.  Right now I can spend 10 load out points setting myself up (same way Black Ops II does this).  If I want to have the option to purchase a hand cannon, I have to use three of those points, leaving me only 7 for other things.  And those uber weapons come with limited shells that don’t replenish, but can be found as drops.

last of us execution2.  Stay crouched.  If you run and gun in this game, you may as well wear a neon sign that says SHOOT ME HERE.  You’ll be a huge red blip on the map.  Running is fine if you need to get to a downed mate, or catch up with your group, but as a rule stay crouched.  It’s a third person perspective, so you can swivel the camera to look for enemies.  If they don’t see you, then you may be able to stalk them and go for a silent shiv kill

3.  Experiment with different perk load-outs.  As I mentioned above, the system is a lot like the one in Black Ops.  The more you unlock, the more customization you can have to your setup.  If you’re more about supporting teammates, opt out of the weapon upgrades and just use a pistol.  Or, you can spend two points to have a burst-style assault rifle (which starts with only 7 shells).  Then again, you can also take the silenced AR at a steep cost of 4 points, if you are big on stealth.  If you spend the points on weaponry, make sure you can be the person who uses them to make a difference.  Otherwise, the points are better spent on things like crafting, reviving, healing, or spotting.

4.  Crafting can be a huge difference maker.  When the game starts, your minimap (which has basic direction only – no path markers) is lit with 5 supply caches.  There is 1 at each spawn and 3 more that are in the middle, on contested ground.  Smart teams will work their way to these as a group.  As you level up, you can take high level load-out perks in crafting that allow you to craft quickly, but even better, at the highest level, give you a “gift” item for every 2 you make for yourself.  You can’t use the bonus item yourself; it has to be given to a teammate.  A good crafter can keep a team well stocked in health packs, molotovs, and bombs.  Much like in the SP campaign, resources are scarce in the MP, so you’ll find no grenade spamming.  People work for their weapons.

last of us listen mode5.  Use the “listen” mode to check corners.  It has a cooldown, and limited range, but more people need to check this when they are making their way through buildings.  It will tell you, most importantly, how many people are clustered in a group.  If you’re traveling with just one teammate, the last thing you want to do is try to take on four enemies.  Using the listen mode can help you coordinate with your other teammates to set up a two pronged attack.

6.  Invest in Reviving perks.  Taking high level perks in the revive skill can be extremely beneficial, especially when combined with armor.  If you make the armor upgrade early in the round, you become a bullet sponge.  High level reviving can be done in about 1/3 of the time of regular revivals, which means you can get people up fast.  The natural companion to this perk is healing, which allows you to crouch and heal someone while they’re still firing back at enemies.  When you get downed, crawl behind cover.  If you don’t, someone will get a long range execution shot.  Besides, revivals are easier when you aren’t getting shot at.

7.  Set traps.  If you’re the type of player who scrounges for all the stuff in supply caches, you’ll have plenty of materials to build bombs.  These can be either thrown like grenades, or set on the ground as mine-style traps.  Placed in brush, or just inside doors like claymores, bombs can take out stragglers who have nobody to revive them.  My personal favorite is building a bomb and setting it inside the supply cache.  Careful observers can spot them, but lots of people are in a rush and don’t look.

last of us gameplay 18.  Be the guy (or girl) who gets the first shot. If you start taking damage, and turn to square off with your enemy, you’re probably already toast.  If you are near cover, or a door, duck out of the line of fire rather than trying to trade bullets.  If you’re carrying a molotov, I’d get it out and at the ready.  If you can arc-toss it at the shooter, the AOE will roast him.

9.  Learn to love melee.  Crafters will quickly learn that one of the most powerful weapons in the game is an upgraded melee weapon.  Essentially, you take a stick of lumber that is a random drop on supply caches, and attach a blade to it.  Normally this lumber gives you 4 hits, then it breaks.  The crafted upgrade gives you a one-shot kill for your first hit, then 4 regular hits.  Better yet, if you carry the Brawler perk, an upgraded melee weapon gives you two insta-kill hits, and the regular 4.  It’s a great perk.  I have one build where I have Brawler and Crafter, but Brawler also goes well with the Reviver perk, since you can sometimes save a teammate by caving in the skull of the guy about to execute him, then go for the quick revive.

10.  Stay with your team.  Unless you’re going for a build that uses a lot of sneaking, spotting, and bomb setting, you’re better off with your team.  Four in a group eliminates the chances of getting caught in an outnumbered ambush.  Even if one guy is sporting an uber weapon, and you’re playing more of a support role, it doesn’t hurt to fire off pot shots with a pistol.  The damage is all cumulative.

So there you have it.  Survival in ten easy steps.  Actually, it’s not that simple.  The game has a bit of a learning curve to it, and the first few rounds can be frustrating.  But stick with it, and play with people who understand the team concepts, and this can be some of the more rewarding MP you’ll find right now.  The modes are limited, but Naughty Dog is supposed to be offering some more MP content for fans.  I’m not sure I enjoy ANY multiplayer to invest money in more of it, but this comes close.


Sniper Elite 2 – A Great Game Hindered by Clunky Save System

Imagine yourself playing a WWII sniper, dug in, laying prone on a blasted out half-floor of a fourth story building.  You’ve just lined up a Nazi soldier a little over 150 meters away.  You hold your breath and go into “focus time” mode, slowing the world around you to a crawl.  Moments later, you pull the trigger.  The shot rings out.  But you miss the mark.  You hadn’t correctly compensated for bullet drop and the slight easterly wind.  You wing the target, who begins to run, hunched forward at a 90 degree angle.  Quickly, you raise your Springfield again, but in your haste your scope wavers.  Your shot hits the target square in the rectum, then rips through his body and destroys his heart.  All of this is shown in slow motion, X-ray view.  Despite the sloppy shot, a smile comes to your face.

The detail with which this game treats a well-placed (or even poorly-placed) shot is incredible.  If played on the hardest difficulty, EVERYTHING effects your shot.  Target movement, your heart rate, wind, and bullet drop.  The preparation that goes into taking a shot is meticulous. And the reward for a well executed shot is the brief cut scene in X-ray mode that illustrates in gory detail the sort of damage you just did to another human being’s body.  In one particular shot, I hit a soldier in the testicles.  Seeing his man-beans explode in slo-mo almost made me feel sick, but in a giddy sort of way.

As far as simulated sniper games go, Sniper Elite sets the bar.  You crawl prone through rubble and shadows, looking for a perfect vantage point, setting trip mines and land mines in case things go south and you have to defend your position.  You look for lone targets you can isolate and execute covertly, using mortar blasts or loudspeaker announcements to mask your shot, all in the hopes that when the enemies rush you, there aren’t too many to snipe all at once.  It emphasises that each encounter of each mission is a tactical puzzle to be solved.

Too bad this brilliantly designed game gets derailed by one of the worst checkpoint systems I’ve ever experienced.  While the game encourages slow, deliberately paced progress, much of your success can be undone by a single enemy that gets overlooked, or the fact that you had to travel across a well-lit area with no way of shooting out lights with your silenced pistol.  Now, purists might argue that this sort of punishing mechanic adds to the sim elements.  Whether you buy this or not depends on your level of patience.  I don’t mind trial and error gameplay, but in a game like this, spending 15 minutes quietly taking out a compound full of enemies with masked shots and stealth kills, only to have to do the EXACT same thing again due to a cheap death becomes tedious.

I’m of the opinion that checkpoint save systems in games need to be retired permanently.  Many games now play out with deep stories, and making progress should be like reading a book.  Have to stop playing right now?  No problem.  Save and exit.  Sniper Elite’s checkpoint system detracts from what is otherwise a fantastic game.  A player with extraordinary patience may be willing to overlook this, but an average player will simply quit playing after too many of these moments where a lot of progress gets undone.

One thing I will say to qualify this is that the checkpoint system flaws are mostly noticeable on the hardest setting, since getting discovered isn’t as much of an issue when you have pinpoint accuracy and can absorb more damage from the less aggressive AI.  But personally, I want to play it on the hard setting, since the sniping is more realistic.

Even with the savepoint flaws, there’s a great scoring system and some fantastic achievements for getting long distance shots.  Each kill you get has the stats tracked, and assigns score points.  You get massive scores for long shots, but next to nothing for simply kills with a Thompson or MP40.  It should also be noted, you get a very limited amount of ammo for your machine guns, so don’t expect to just run and gun through any part of this game.  You basically have enough ammo to deal with a few stray enemies.

Is the game worth playing?  Absolutely.  Try it on the hardest and see how it tests your patience level.  If it’s too frustrating, drop it down a notch and just have fun sniping Nazis with Call of Duty accuracy, not worrying about the sim factors.

The new, true cost of videogames

Game publishers often like to point out the fact that the price on their games hasn’t gone up in years.  And while this is technically true, the actual price most of us pay for complete games is going up all the time through DLC sales.  Publishers argue that they suffer immense financial losses due to both game trading, and to a lesser extent, game rentals.  Many ideas have been kicked around in hopes of addressing this situation.  I’ve heard everything from using codes in new games to unlock full content to making games available for download only.

While the industry fails to make up its mind on a definitive solution, one new trend seems to be gaining traction:  The Season Pass.  A number of high-profile games releasing this fall have announced DLC (downloadable content) on day one, coinciding with a season pass that gives gamers a 25% discount if they invest in the entire set of content.  What was most shocking this year, however, is the price of the passes.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Forza Horizon both offered up passes for 4000 microsoft points, which can seem like an abstract amount until you convert it to the actual cost of around $57.00 (which can be less, provided you find a deal on MS points someplace).  The retail game costs you $59.99 on average, and then if you wish to have all the content that was held back from the retail game, the price nearly doubles.  In both cases, most of the content is geared toward multiplayer fans.  Black Ops 2 mostly includes MP maps and co-op Zombie mode content.  Forza’s content includes car packs and new race modes/areas.  In fact, if you don’t buy the DLC pass, there is a noticeably small number of cars compared to previous games.  Enough so, that I didn’t bother buying the new Forza game for the first time ever.

Borderlands 2 also offered a season pass for less money.  The cost was 2400 points, or around $40.00.  This cost covered 4 sets of story content, each offering around 10 to 15 hours of gameplay.  Shockingly, the Borderlands pass didn’t even include the Mechromancer class, which was available to anyone who preordered from selected retailers.  If you wanted that content, it would cost you another $10.00.

In each of these cases, the retail version of the game included enough content to make them worth the purchase, in my opinion.  I certainly don’t begrudge the publishers an opportunity to extend the life of their game through a trickle of DLC in the months following release.  However, it should be pointed out that this new trend effectively squashes the claims of publishers that game prices have stayed the same.

If you’re just a casual fan of shooters or racing games, would you have picked up either Forza Horizon or Black Ops 2 on day one if the price tag had said $120.00?  Chances are, no.  I read all about the Zombie content in Black Ops 2 prior to release, but when I got a chance to try the game first-hand, it seemed like there was a lot less than I’d been expecting.  So where was it?  In the upcoming DLC, of course.  For an additional $57.00.  Did I feel like I’d been duped?  A bit, yeah.

Maybe this is simply the new reality of gaming.  Publishers will look to fans who are willing to invest more deeply in the game.  Some PC titles do this.  The new Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic online game charges people $15 a month just to play (after buying the retail version).  Fans drop the coin without blinking.  One of the repercussions of this, however, will be a narrowing of the selection of games.  If people are investing $120 in a game, they’re going to give it more of their time.  This means that fewer and fewer new IP’s will see the light of day, and inevitably, a reduction in the amount of innovation we see within the industry.  And that’s not good for any game fan.

Co-op games need improved story progress framework

Two of my favorite co-op game are Borderlands and Dead Island.  Both are huge, open world sandboxes with a loot system that encourages replay.  They also both share a glaring flaw: cumbersome shared story progress.  Although XP is shared at all times, for players to share in the story progress they must be at the same point chronologically.  Quests cannot be done without prerequisites having been completed.

The fact that in both these games, everyone had to be extremely close, not only in level, but in terms of the story, has always annoyed me.  Friends who join a session late often find they are getting messages that any story progress the host makes will not count toward their own games.   This co-op structure always seems to force the group to either quit and start over for the guy who got on late, or force that guy to do everything over again later.  I really wish they’d fix this in such a way to make it play like Gears of War or Halo, where every act and chapter counts toward your progress, no matter what order you do it in.

I can understand the mechanics behind not being able to take credit for a quest you drop into right in the middle, but if you’re in a session and a completely new quest gets started, then players should all be able to get credit for completing it.  As co-op play becomes more and more popular as a mode among gamers, then publishers need to work to make the framework more seamless.

The upcoming sequels, Borderlands 2 and Dead Island: Riptide are bragging about overall game improvements…lets hope that this also includes something to address these issues.

New Games This Week!

Black Ops 2 Now Preordering!!

Release Date:  November 13th, 2012

Preorder Price:  $59.99

Don’t miss out on one of this year’s most anticipated titles.  Black Ops 2 is going to have the biggest zombie mode yet, and promises to be one of 2012’s best shooters.

Suggestions For Using Xbox Live Beacons

When it was announced this past year that the new Xbox Live dashboard was going to include a new feature called “beacons”, they were touted as something to make gaming sessions with friends much easier to organize.  In theory, it seems simple…just set your beacons to tell friends which game you’re wanting to play, and everyone would start joining your session (if you create one).  However, like so many things game-related, once in the hands of humans, they never seem to work the way they’re supposed to.

Take last night for instance, when I was playing a game of NHL 12 with a friend.  As soon as we put our game discs in the tray, a beacon popped up saying “So-and-So Wants Friends To Play NHL 12”.  So far, so good, right?  Except So-and-So wasn’t even playing NHL 12 at the time.  The problem with these beacons is that if they don’t get removed when you aren’t actually playing the game, your console will spam friends with messages saying you want to play, even when you’re busy doing something else.

For these beacons to actually work, and not end up being just some annoyance that everyone eventually ignores, they need to be used with discretion.  If you come online before your friends, and really want to get people organized for a game of, say, Modern Warfare 3, then set the beacon at that point and create a party for your game.  But at the end of the night, don’t forget to kill the beacon.  Otherwise, it’s like leaving a text message telling everyone to meet you at the rink for some pick-up hockey, then going out for a beer instead.

Don’t get me wrong, beacons are one of many reasons that Xbox is burying the PS3 when it comes to the online and social elements of gaming.  Microsoft knows what it’s doing.  They understand that the convergence of social media and gaming is the hottest area of growth in entertainment, and they’ve dedicated time and money to giving people features they want.  Not to say there aren’t problems with the Xbox format; they certainly have a few kinks to work out yet (account security is one).  But catering to social gamers is clearly a priority.  In the end, though, the success of these features will depend on the people using them.

Dark Souls Guide to Avoiding The Sewer Curse

Dark Souls seems to test your resolve more than any other game since the Megaman era.  Pretty early in the game, just as soon as you get past the Capra Demon, you’ll have access to The Depths, and a subsection of that is the sewers.  In that area there are these cutesy little bug-eyed frogs that also happen to poison you with toxic gas, a side effect of which is a “curse”.  Getting cursed is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you in this game, but I can give you a guide to avoid this.

The biggest reason people get cursed is they fall in one of the open drains and land in a cluster of frogs.  [b]IF[/b] this happens, dodge and roll, as fast as you can.  The frogs don’t hurt you; only their toxic cloud.  The animation is them filling their throat bag, then spraying.  Make sure you step back when they do this.  Then they’ll come toward you.  At that moment, strike them with a sword.  Even if they start to fill their throat bag again, you still have a few seconds to finish your swing.  Panic is your enemy.

JUST DON’T FALL IN THE DRAINS!  I have a route you can take that will allow you to kill the frogs without getting mobbed.  Make sure you have some kind of ranged attack, like bow or soul arrows.  In the Depths, you’re going to kill a guy who looks like a butcher.  He’s not that hard if you’re level 20+, just keep him out of range of his cleaver, and take your time.  Don’t get greedy.  One strike at a time.

SHORTCUT – After you kill him, loot the room then smash all the boxes so you reveal a hidden drop.  At first it looks like a lethal fall, but it isn’t.  Hop down, and you’ll be on a ledge overlooking a rat the size of a transit bus.  Time for your ranged attack.  Then loot the room, and his corpse for humanity.  At this point you’re going to be in frog territory, but if you move very slowly and check around corners before stepping out, you can usually spot them.  Make sure to lure them with arrows if you see two or three looking the other way.  In total there should be 8 or 9 of them.

TRAP TIP – Always watch the floor in narrow passages.  There are a couple of drains that will make you fall into nasty spots.  Just run, then use the jump button to get over them.

MINI BOSS – There’s a room with a demon mage and three large rats.  Do not charge in there.  Use your stealth skills and scout the tunnels until you find the entrance that allows you to see the rats at range, but the mage just out of view.  This is the sweet spot…lure all three out first with arrows (or if you are a dex build, you can probably take them all out just with arrows).  Once the rats are gone, the mage isn’t too bad.  Lock on and orbit around him, and if he shoots a soul arrow, duck.

NAVIGATION TIP –  The sewers can be a convoluted maze of interconnected tunnels.  If you bring 20 or 25 of those prism stones, you can drop them at junctures to follow your trail back out once you get in deep.  Don’t forget too, you can also write messages on the floor that give directional cues like “left” or “right”.  I used to do this in the Stonefang Tunnel in Demon’s Souls.

END GOAL – To be honest, you don’t even have to go into the sewers if you don’t want to.  You can kill the Gaping Dragon to get the key to blighttown, and then just move on.  But, one of the best pieces of early to mid-game loot is there.  Ring of the Evil Eye.  When you wear it, each time you get a kill you restore a small chunk of HP.  It doesn’t look like a lot, but it adds up as you start mowing through minions.  You won’t believe how much longer your estus lasts when you wear it.  It’s worth the risk, and I’m sure they put it there just to console people who got cursed.  Like the Drake Sword, this piece of loot can help you turn the tide a bit, at least as far as health goes.

Hope this helps.

Dark Souls – IGN Early Review

Dark Souls, the “spiritual successor” (not a direct sequel) to Demon’s Souls will be releasing on Tuesday, and IGN has posted an early review.  No real surprises in the review, considering how difficult this game is expected to be.  The franchise has always been known for pushing the limits of a gamer’s abilities with uncompromising gameplay that forces people to learn from mistakes.  There is no hand-holding in this universe…you are alone, and will fight for every inch of progress you make with very little guidance, except from the occasional person you summon to help you in coop.

Sounds like the difficulty in this game has been ramped up again, perhaps to challenge the Demon’s Souls veterans.  It was a PS3 exclusive originally, and with the new game making the jump to Xbox 360, I expect to hear all sorts of cries that “this game is broken!” from people trying it for the first time.  However, folks, please remember, hard does not equal broken.  Suck it up or go back to something easy, like COD 3 on Veteran.

Here’s a quote from the review that sums up just how hard you can expect to be kicked in the face.  I advise everyone to read this closely and take the warnings seriously.  As brilliant as the franchise is, their games are not for everyone:

There are frog-like sewer-dwelling creatures that can Curse you with their attacks, instantly reducing your health bar to half its former size; the only way to get cured is to visit a healer hidden deep within a dangerous ghost-populated area that’s a long, long journey away (or to buy an item from a vendor, if you’ve got enough souls).

Making your way through Dark Souls’ death-trap world with half a health bar is hard enough, but the Curse effect stacks – so if you get caught again, you’ll be down to a quarter of a health bar. A third time, you’ll be down to an eighth. I know one Dark Souls player who lost something like 10 hours trying to make it to a healer when everything in the world could kill him with one hit. There’s punishing, and then there’s unfair.

Still with me?  Good.  Then that means you’re probably up for at least attempting the challenge.  To quote Han Solo, “then I’ll see you in Hell!”

Dead Island – Game Review

Score:  9.5/10

Dead Island is a new zombie themed RPG that begins at a tropical island resort where you are one of 4 survivors who is also immune to whatever causes people to turn into shufflers.  It can be played in single player, or with up to 3 other people in a drop in/drop out coop system.  Friends can join you anytime, and in fact some parts of the game are nearly impossible alone.  Labelled “high level threat” areas, you are given fair warning that exploring them alone will be hazardous to your health.

Like Borderlands, the game asks you to select one of 4 playable characters.  Although you can use any weapon you find, each character has a skill tree which lends itself to bonuses for certain types of weapons:  Sharp (bladed), Blunt, Firearms, and Throwing.  Each character also has a unique back story, and must play the prologue alone (rather than in coop).  Blunt and bladed weapons are the most plentiful in the early game, and in fact very few guns appear until Act 2.  Throwing weapons is an interesting approach, as the weapons do heavy damage, but then you have to remember to go pick them up.  Also, if you throw all your weapons, you’ll have to re-equip some from the inventory list.

As you progress, earning XP for kills and quests, you will be given points which can be spent on 1 of 3 skill trees.  The first tree is for the character’s “special” ability called Fury.  I was playing as the character whose weapon of choice is blunt, and he has a “rage” ability that lets him beat the snot out of everything in sight with brass knuckles for a short time.  The second tree is for bonuses to your weapon specialty (in my case it might be that blunt weapons do more damage or deteriorate more slowly).  The third tree is for “survival” (things like bonuses to healing, health regeneration, or lockpicking).

The RPG elements adds more depth to the game, something that Left 4 Dead didn’t really have in this regard.  The number of skills in the three trees would be comparable to games like Borderlands or Too Human.  The deeper you go into a skill tree the more powerful the unlocks become.  It’s a good idea to read through everything in the various trees and make some sort of plan as far as how you want to build your character.  Although by level 50 you’ll have most of the skills unlocked, it’s still a good idea to map out how you want to play during the early or mid-game sections.

There is also an economy system, for all you corner creepers.  That’s right, the open world is full of trunks and suitcases containing money, weapons, and upgrade items.  The upgrades work like this:  you can increase the strength and durability of any weapon for money.  The catch is, it also costs more to repair upgraded weapons.  So for one on one battles with garden variety zombies, you’re better off swapping your upgraded stuff for anything you find laying around.  Vendors in the game world will allow you to sell junk and buy useful items in the same way as games like Fallout.

Then there are the mods.  You find schematics all over the island for modifying weapons into combo items.  Anyone who has played Dead Rising 2 will understand how this works.  The weapons aren’t quite as comical, but they are effective.  One of the first mods you find is one allowing you to put nails into a blunt weapon, creating a kind of mace.  Others examples are, adding shock to a machete, making bombs out of deodorant, or basic molotov cocktails.  In addition to the schematics, you also need to find the unique items needed to create the special weapon.  This makes searching and exploring a ton of fun, since you’re looking for everything you can find.  One piece of advice – don’t sell anything that isn’t a weapon.  You’ll need all kinds of these odd objects to create some unique weapons.  And while it might be tempting to sell a bar of deodorant for a few bucks, consider that the same vendor might charge you $200 for it when you need one to make a Deo-bomb!

The entire game is filled with collectible items like recordings or news clippings that fill in the back story of what is happening.  There are also various colored skulls that can be found by dedicated explorers, and will unlock “legendary” mods.  And exploring the island is a blast, as it’s open world, and the graphics are absolutely fantastic.  There are also some driveable vehicles, and while the controls aren’t exactly going to rival Forza, they’re functional enough to get you around.  Loot also tends to respawn when you return to areas, so it never hurts to look in places you’ve already been, especially if you need supplies for mod weapons.  Like Borderlands, loot and quest rewards are random, so each person in your party may get a variation of the same weapon, some better, some worse.

Combat is a lot more strategic than many zombie games tend to be, mostly because of the deep repair and upgrade system.  Every time you strike a zombie, you do damage to your weapon.  A meter on your hud shows you what is left.  As it gets worse, it becomes less effective, and shows signs of wear.  Luckily, there is a “kick” button (left shoulder) that allows you to knock a shuffler down and give you more time to wind up for a head shot (huge damage), or to buy you time if there’s more than one.  Once kicked and knocked over, a zombie is slow to get up, giving you time to pick your targets.  Each weapon has a number of stats, including damage, force, durability and handling.  Small, bladed weapons have the best handling, whereas large blunt weapons can be a bit unwieldy.  Of course, blunt weapons also send zombies reeling, often falling down, which helps with crowd control.

Dismembering zombies is also important, as some of them wield weapons.  This can be highly entertaining.  The game has zombies with layered textures, so parts of them can come away from the body, exposing ribs, or leaving them with broken arms that dangle helplessly.  I’ve seen some coming at me with cleavers or planks, so it’s sometimes best to hack that arm off.  You can also attack the legs of zombies, forcing them to crawl toward you.  Most of the environment can be interacted with, and if you knock a zombie over in a pool, it will drown after a short time (not sure what the undead logic is there, but whatever).

You also have a stamina bar, which you have to monitor.  Button mashing will get you nowhere, so you have to take time to line up your shots.  Personally, I love this combat system.  It feels pretty realistic and forces you to think rather than just wade in and start hammering on zombies without a plan.  You can still do this if you wish, but you’ll want to have lots of weapons in your inventory.  Make sure to always do repairs when you find a workbench.  Last thing you want is to get caught in a mob without some serious hardware.

Most of the early quests are garden variety, helping people get someplace, fetching supplies for others, or making sure an area is safe.  In some cases, you need to do certain side quests in order to fulfill a main quest.  Voice acting is generally pretty good, and many of the actors sound like they are from Australia or New Zealand, with a few that sound like they’re from New Jersey thrown into the mix.

My biggest beef with the game is that it’s a checkpoint system rather than a save as you go.  I’m not a big fan of those systems, since you feel like you have to keep going to get a checkpoint before you can quit out.  I find these really out of place in open world games, but it’s a minor complaint considering that the overall game seems like a real gem.  For the most part, any time you do anything as far as progress on a quest, you seem to get a checkpoint save.  The other way of ensuring that you save progress is to simply go to a vendor or an upgrade bench, since changing your inventory also creates a save.

Honestly, I think it’s fair to say that Dead Island game seems to have stolen the best parts of four different games, and mashed them up to create something pretty unique, resulting in something that’s greater than the sum of its parts:

1. Fallout: the open world, looting, RPG, and crafting system, and setting it in a world devastated by a cataclysm
2. L4D: Four unique, playable characters who are surviving in a zombie apocalypse
3. Dead Rising: The melee centric combat and variety of weapons (and zombies of course)
4. Borderlands: Money and XP sharing in drop-in coop that encourages people play the entire game at the same pace

I find that it improves on the L4D formula by using the RPG elements to allow players to create characters that work well together. I played coop with a friend who played as Sam, and is building him like a tank (adding perks that make him draw more enemy aggro, for instance), and I played with Xian,  the girl who uses sharp weapons like an assassin. With him drawing all the aggro, I took perks that deflected aggro and added bonuses to backstab. This allowed the two to work well together. The upside is that people can plan a playthrough in such a way that everyone builds the character to work as a cohesive unit. I thought this was really innovative for a group RPG.

My only criticism with the coop is the same one I’ve always had with Borderlands – people have to pretty much play the game together at the same pace, or somebody will find themselves either getting pummeled, or being too overpowered and getting no XP. In some cases, this is compounded by a message you get saying that quest progress won’t be written to your profile, because you and the host are at different parts of the main story progress.  When you join someone’s game, the menu will suggest which character it recommends you choose, that is closest to the host’s level progress. But still, it does make it tricky.

The connectivity was rock-solid in our coop game. We only hit one small bug, when one of my friend’s quests seem to hang and he was unable to complete the end sequence for that quest. I had to quit out and let him refresh his checkpoint, and it worked the second time. I guess if you put this many quests into a coop game, there’s bound to be the odd screw up. But aside from that, no online problems.

All in all, I found that the game was a lot more fun with coop partners, and naturally goes faster.  It’s probably a good idea to have multiple characters on the go at all different levels if you plan to play with other people, because of restrictions on joining similar game progress. I don’t see this a problem, because like Borderlands, playing multiple times is a must, especially if you want some of the cheevos.

Although you’re bound to die sometimes, the game has a nice respawn system.  It’s similar to  Borderlands, where you die and have to pay a portion of money to respawn, based on either your level, or how much money you have.  The nice thing is, like Bioshock with the vita-chambers, you spawn very close to where you died. If you’re even moderately careful, you shouldn’t die much in the early game anyway. You can also take perks which reduce the amount you pay when you die.

The bottom line here is, if you love zombie games and RPG’s this game should be a slam-dunk for you.  Aside from the save system, there wasn’t much that I disliked about the game.  It has a huge, open world and a fast travel system that unlocks as you discover areas.  There is huge replay value, with four different distinct player classes, and the world itself is a treasure trove of goodies.  And any game like this that includes coop gets a huge plus.  I’m predicting that Dead Island will be this year’s biggest sleeper hit, and will unseat some pretty established games in the arguments over which title was GOTY.