Can Dead Island Successfully Combine RPG Mechanics With Survival Horror?


There are few games I'm as simultaneously excited about and skeptical as Dead Island. Nevermind the trailer (which was fantastic, though I doubt has much to do with the final product beyond the setting and basic premise), I'm more intrigued by its merging of survival horror with open world adventure.

If it can combine Fallout 3's expansive environments and environmental storytelling, but drop all the talky towns and VATS, that would be excellent. It's not that I didn't like those elements, but I found they had their drawbacks. VATS was neat at first (and certainly better than Fallout's broken real-time combat), but I found creeping around dark corridors not the least bit scary since I could simply keep clicking the right bumper and the game would automatically pause and highlight any threats in the immediate vicinity. It worked okay for that game, as it was more about exploration and discovery, but the feeling of being lost and frightened was deemed moot by the ability to use vats and quick-travel from anywhere outside provided you weren't in danger (in which case you could just run away until you found a safe quick-travel spot).

So a similar game where you spend most of your time trying to avoid enemies sounds pretty spectacular. I for one like the idea of feeling hunted and afraid to check out a new locale in fear it might be infested with zombies.

My skepticism then emanates from Dead Island's RPG mechanics. Much like in Fallout, Mass Effect, or any RPG, you gain levels and abilities upon killing foes. This completely goes against the notion of survival if you're encouraged to get your hands dirty and kill zombies that you could just as well sneak past. I'm afraid it will follow the path of Fallout and start out challenging, but then you'll become such a powerful zombie slaying badass that all sense of terror is thrown out the window.

I'm sure the reasoning behind Dead Island's RPG elements is that there needs to be some motive to engage in combat. Going back to Fallout 3, that game's combat became infinitely less engaging once the level cap was reached. Gaining a bit of currency, ammo, or a gun I already had several copies of was hardly a worthwhile reward.

A game that did this much better was Metro 2033. Combat was often optional and I felt the advantages of engaging in battle vs. stealth to be equally valid. If you sneak, you can bypass dangerous scenarios at the expense of missing out on valuable equipment. If you fight, you'll lose lots of health, ammo, and money, but potentially gain more from your fallen adversaries. Generally I'd play it like a survival horror game and avoid combat as much as I could but when push came to shove I'd have to break out my weak, hard to control firearms. Sometimes this would prove useful and my bounty would be worth the effort, sometimes I'd be worse off, but generally I'd break about even. Still underpowered. Still scared. I hope Dead Island follows suit.

Post contributed by Jeffrey Matulef. You can follow him on Twitter @mrdurandpierre or online at G4TV, Eurogamer, Paste, Joystiq, GamePro, and Kill Screen among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef@gmail.com

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