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Mostly Dead Island, but also some DayZ and The Walking Dead, and why zombies are the best thing in gaming since health potions

by on May 7, 2013
 

Lately I’ve been completely and utterly engulfed by zombie themed games. This has made me realize that zombies are one of those things in gaming that are just perfect, because they can be used in so many different ways. Here I’d like to share with you some thoughts about the different games I’ve been playing, what makes them such great games, and how they all make use of zombies in different but equally awesome ways.

Dead Island

I have spent some 100+ hours on my PC playing Techland’s open-world action RPG Dead Island, which is the first game in a very long time that has had me so engaged in exploring, completing and trying every single thing it offers. I have never been an achievement-hunter, and in most cases I couldn’t care less about challenges such as ”kill 5000 enemies with [this particular weapon]”, but then Dead Island came along and changed all of that.

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What’s odd about this is that when it was released back in 2011 I was very underwhelmed. I had seen the awesome announcement trailer which set the tone of the game as more of a tragic and gritty survival horror game than it turned out to be. I remember enthusiastically firing it up shortly after release, but within just a few minutes I was like: ”What the heck? This isn’t at all what I was expecting!” Then I just shut it off in disappointment and didn’t touch it again until just recently.

What I now realize is that I didn’t give it a fair chance. After all, it’s zombies – and I’ve always loved zombies – and loot! What more could one possibly want from life?!

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Don’t get me wrong, Dead Island is far from perfect. But overall critics are fairly positive, and I think that most have the same reasoning as me; whatever you argue that the game lacks, it makes up for in pure entertainment value. Despite numerous technical issues, annoying graphical glitches and a laughably inept but kind-of-charming storyline, it’s still so much fun that its flaws are easy to look past.

So, what makes Dead Island such a fun experience? First of all I think I should mention the combat mechanics, which are just brilliant. The game provides you with a large array of melee weapons as well as a variety of firearms. With guns it’s just (unsurprisingly) a matter of point and shoot, while melee weapons open up all kinds of possibilities when fighting your enemies. With sharp weapons (swords, knifes, axes etc.) you have the option to aim at specific body parts, simply chopping them off (provided it was a clean hit with enough damage). Is the zombie running? Cut its bloody leg off! The pure fun of chopping zombies may usually not be enough to define a great game, but Dead Island handles this so well that it becomes the superior reason you play it. And it’s always hilarious to watch a big zombie Thug with both arms broken by a mace, flailing them limply around, desperately trying to bite you. Until you bash its head in.

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Now, to the next thing about Dead Island; loot! All RPG fans love loot. My impression before playing was that you would be able to use almost anything as a weapon, which is not totally true – but close. You can break off pipes from houses, wooden planks off fences, pick up a paddle on the beach, find a frying pan in kitchens and so on. Although these are all really weak, it’s still entertaining that you have the option of fighting a zombie with a frying pan if you want to. There are seemingly an infinite variety of weapons to find, and they go from ordinary (white color) to legendary (orange color), with three kinds in between (green, blue, purple).

Oh yeah, these weapons can be modded! You know what’s even more fun than cutting a zombie’s head off with one swing? Setting him on fire! Or maybe electrocute him. Or maybe strike him with a poisoned blade that makes him literally puke his guts out! This is what you can do if you mod your weapon with one of the numerous mods available in Dead Island. You’ll need the right parts though – batteries, wires, duct tape, spikes etc, that are found throughout the world. Constant looting is the key to successful modding!

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The third great thing is the characters. And by that I do not mean their personalities, because they are as cliché as clichés get, believe me. I’m talking about the RPG character development element. All characters can use any kind of weapon available in the game, although each character have their own preferred weapon type; sharp-, blunt-, throwing weapons, or firearms. This makes one character slightly more effective with a specific weapon type than the others. My first character, the one that I’ve played the most with, is the throwing expert. Though I soon realized that it’s lame to use throwing weapons, so I just stuck with using regular melee weapons. This has worked well even though my character does not specialize in it, which proves that you don’t necessarily have to use the kind of weapons your character ”prefers”.

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Each of the 4 characters also have a personal special skill that can be unlocked. When your “fury”-meter is filled up you can unleash these devastating abilities, which are often very useful for dealing with large numbers of zombies. For example, Sam B (blunt weapons expert) goes into a rage mode, dealing a devastating amount of damage with his bare hands. Trust me, you do not want to be the zombie at the business end of his knuckles when he gets angry!

The fact that the characters specialize in different weapons, and have different special skills, urges you to play co-op games with as many of the different characters as possible. They become most effective together, cooperating and combining their skills. I did my first playthrough single player, which was a lot of fun, but it’s when you play with one or more friends that you’re really going to have a good time and see the game at its best. If you’re in online mode, it matches you against other players that are around the same place as you in the story. If there are any good matches a notification pops up in-game saying ”(player) is near your location. Press J to join game”. Simple and easy! Dead Island is probably the first game I encountered that handles co-op in such a simple way, and there’s no hassle configuring or troubleshooting before actually being able to play.

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Graphics-wise Dead Island looks great. Not totally awesome, but great. But you don’t play it for its stunning graphics. And you don’t play it because of deep characters. You don’t even play it because of a good storyline – you play Dead Island because you love to kill zombies, and because there is no other game that offers cooler ways to do so. The use of zombies in Dead Island is purely for entertainment, and I dare to say that it’s no shame in playing it just for the simple pleasure of slaughtering the undead – because that’s one of few things it manages to pull off flawlessly. You will be laughing your heart out while thrashing through hordes of undead, heads flying left and right and blood splatter all over!

DayZ

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Continuing my zombie-fever I also want to talk about what is perhaps the most interesting game concept I’ve come across lately; the Arma 2 mod DayZ. The mod is freely available to anyone owning Arma 2 and the expansion pack Operation Arrowhead.

DayZ is an MMO survival horror game, which really takes the survival aspect to the next level. This is some hardcore stuff, and if you’re not willing to spend a lot of time with it, it’s probably best not to bother at all. When you start a new character you’re basically thrown into the world with no help whatsoever. Tutorial? Forget it. All you have on you is a flashlight, a couple of bandages and possibly some painkillers or batteries. You have no map, no sense of direction, and basically no idea of what to do. If you’re lucky, you started the game during daytime. Otherwise you’ll have to figure out how to use your flashlight first thing. Did I mention there are zombies lurking around? Yeah, there’s a good chance you’ll be eaten before dawn, pal. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a clear sky, so you at least get some moonlight. It still might be a good idea to stay out of the woods though.

Hopefully you’ll survive long enough to find some houses where you can search for equipment and food. Yes, apart from being furthest down on the food-chain, you’ll also have to find food and water in order to not starve to death. And the place to find these things are in abandoned houses and such. The problem is that those places are also where most of the used-to-be-humans are. By now you should probably figure out how to sneak (otherwise you’re screwed), as sneaking is your only chance of getting into that house alive. Before you acquire a weapon there’s only one thing to do if you’re spotted; run! While they are not that easy to outrun, zombies tend to lag behind if you run uphill, so if that’s an option – go for it!

As if the zombies weren’t enough trouble, this is an MMO, so there are also other “survivors” running around. And most of them aren’t friendly. The easiest way to get equipment is to steal it from other players, and most will not hesitate to kill you for your loot. Now you may be thinking ”So what? I can just start over!”. Well, here’s the catch; if you die, you’re dead. You lose all your equipment and have to start over with a new character.

And, since nobody wants to die in this game, you might be able to fool your opponents. I’ve heard about Mexican stand-off like scenarios where no one actually had any bullets in their gun, but pretended they had. Or maybe one or two of them actually had, but weren’t willing to risk it – there’s just no way of knowing.

The concept of DayZ is a very interesting approach for a zombie survival game, much like how it would probably be in reality. Although you can find really good equipment, you have to play a really long time to get there, and not get robbed or die (or both) on the way. You can find cars, hell, you can even find military Humvee’s and helicopters, but then you will probably have to spend a serious amount of hours finding the parts and the amount of gas you need to make it run. And then it still might be taken from you. But then – nobody said that the zombie apocalypse would be easy.

The obvious difference between a zombie game like DayZ and one like Dead Island is that in DayZ zombies are a very real and terrifying threat to your whole existence, while in Dead Island, even if they are equally aggressive, they’re not as threatening. In Dead Island you have a fair chance of defending yourself right from the beginning, which of course removes the element of helplessness and therefore creates an image of the zombies just being something to kill in cool ways.

DayZ is set to be released as a standalone game sometime during 2013, although a specific date has not yet been announced. When it comes out I suggest you get it, in order to prepare yourself for the inevitable zombie apocalypse of real life.

The Walking Dead

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No, I don’t mean the series (even if it’s awesome), but the game by the same title that is based on it. It’s the first game from Telltale Games that is honest-to-god freaking great! Seriously, if you haven’t played it, do it. You will not be disappointed. I feel like I should warn you though, this game is not a pleasant experience. I consider myself pretty hardcore when it comes to being influenced emotionally, but this game is just so ruthless in its storytelling that I think nobody will be left untouched by the time the credits start rolling.

This is a very different kind of game than both Dead Island and DayZ. Not only in the meaning of how the game works – it’s actually more of a movie than a game – but mostly because of how differently they utilize zombies in it. Zombies do have a major role, since everything around you is happening because of a zombie outbreak, but you actually have very few encounters with them during the story. This game instead focuses on the many moral dilemmas that a group of survivors must face while trying to survive after the outbreak, and it raises questions about humanity that are bound to surface during desperate times. The human factor is in the center, and the game shows you that zombies should probably not be your greatest concern in this situation, but rather other people.

There’s really only one major element in this game; making choices. Choose sides, who to help, what to do. The storyline progresses mostly through cutscenes, where you have to choose how to react or interact with the given situation. These are often very pressing situations, and you have to make hasty decisions, often choosing from at least three equally bad alternatives.

Besides showing the true nature of humanity – what we become when we are stripped of everything and everybody we have ever known, and have nothing left but ourselves – the game also wants to show that you can still find good in this world. Good in people that are helping each other and taking care of each other in hopeless situations that otherwise would have been futile.

The Walking Dead really is a gem among zombie games, and I urge you to play it if you haven’t already.

Why zombies are the best thing in gaming since health potions

The number one thing that makes zombies so lovable is the many different ways they can be  utilized. They can be your worst nightmare, which is the classic perspective. They can make you feel utterly helpless and scared, and ultimately define the atmosphere of games like DayZ and The Walking Dead. Also, they can simply be entertaining target practice, as in Dead Island. That’s the thing about them really; as long as you feel defenseless they’re scary as hell, but as soon as you got the upper hand they lose most of their mojo.

There’s also no moral issues when it comes to killing zombies, because they are already dead. It’s simply the matter of you or them. While many argue that violence in games is a problem from a moralistic point of view, this is not an issue when it comes to zombies. Hence, zombies are the ultimate bad guys, and you can feel free to slaughter them without any moral restriction. Preferably with something cool, like a katana or a sawed-off shotgun. Hey, have you played Dead Island?

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They’re an element, or even a force of nature, that has the ultimate power to bring out the absolute worst in human beings, but also the best. And there’s just something about zombies that seems, well, real. Possible. Close to something that perhaps could happen in reality. There’s probably no one who actually thinks that a zombie apocalypse is the most probable scenario for the end of days, but there’s still the immense symbolic value of this idea. Zombies represent the fear of mindless hordes, killing everything in their path, turning your loved ones into more of them. And that is what we fear the most, no? Having to choose between ourselves and our loved ones. Having to see them turn into what we fear or hate. Even if a zombie outbreak puts these scenarios to the utter extreme, there’s still some parallels to be drawn to real life events, but where you may not necessarily have to bash in the skulls of your children.

One thing is for sure; zombies in gaming are here to stay. Sure, they’ve been around for some time, but it seems like they have a nice thing going right now. And I look forward to see where they will stumble next.