The original Dead Island series is an interesting take on the FPS zombie horror genre. It distinguished itself by giving players the opportunity to craft their own weapons from strange items, spare parts, and environmental wreckage–being able to make anything from exploding knives to electrified rakes became a hallmark of Dead Island. With Epidemic, however, publisher Deep Silver looks to redefine zombie survival within a MOBA. Or, perhaps, we should call it a ZOMBA–that’s what DI:E wants to call itself.
The game only recently came out of closed beta to a friend-invite closed beta (that might as well not be closed.) It’s a very well crafted game and shows the signs of an extremely adept development studio. It also shows all the signs of becoming a free-to-play game (with premium currency) once it’s officially launched.
The crafting is still there (sort of) with interesting improvised weapons being built from blueprints and the currency to construct them being bits of refuse (such as duct tape and sharpened blades, for example) but it’s not really crafting.
The game itself uses the MOBA genre to provide players a backdrop to beat down zombies; but it’s not a MOBA in the DOTA vein, instead it feels more like Gauntlet. The result is a game that will add to both the DI series and MOBAs in general.
Let’s beat down some zombies and collect some supplies for the other survivors together. Here’s my first impressions of Dead Island: Epidemic.
Graphics and Audio: MOBA-styled isometric game with zombies
The game plays entirely from the isometric perspective, with the player looking down at the character they’re controlling in a Diablo-esque fashion common to most MOBAs. Players and zombies participate in their beatdown across linearly designed maps full of water, foliage, and decaying wreckage–bringing to mind the original island from Dead Island.
Zombies rise out of the ground and leap over bits of wreckage at the edges of each map. For the most part, the walkers are generic zombies, but they break apart and fall into respectable heaps. The animations and graphics are slightly cartoony–but it works well with the isometric MOBA game.
When fighting, the arcs of weapons are visible in shining swings, and impacts flash with satisfying thumps (and damage numbers.) Each of the special powers also have their own animations from watching characters twirl across the battleground or toss giant logs.
It’s also possible to buy aesthetic items from the cash shop for players to change their look. Everyone knows that players like to show off, and not just with the biggest and baddest weapons available.
The music in the game is nothing to write home about–in fact, waiting in the lobby can be a bit problematic because the music has an ambient design with a very short loop.
The rest of the sounds are exactly what can be expected from a game such as DI:E. Shouts and grunts mostly combined with the sounds of automatic gunfire (or shotguns.) The zombies also have somewhat recognizable sounds–Rams roaring, Screamers shrieking, etc.–that can be used to identify them even if they’re not visible on screen yet. Although usually even out of range mini-boss zombies cause effects that are quickly recognizable.
Gameplay: RRRGGGGHHRRAAA BRAINS!
Dead Island: Epidemic is a lobby-based MOBA with essentially two game modes: a mission-based horde mode and a PvP arena.
There are current four basic characters available: Berg, Bryce, Isys, and Amber. With a few more confirmed that add onto the repertoire (and may cost money to buy) including Fuse, a bomb-throwing maniac with a pyro streak. Berg is the usual big-strong-mountain who beats down zombies and throws heavy objects. Amber is primarily a support character who can tame zombies and hands out heals and buffs. Isys is an interesting hand-to-hand fighter who has a secondary character-form that comes with a turret.
As mentioned, all the characters have secondary archetypes. Each basic character has an Armored and a Mutated archetype. Armored are all heavier in armor and can take a lot more damage (with a small change in their powers.) The Mutated all have a somewhat increased damage output. Interestingly both Isys and Amber get pets in their Armored forms: Isys gets a deploying autogun and Amber gets a pet zombie.
The controls are simple: WASD to move and click-to-attack. The first mouse button strikes with the primary weapon and the secondary click performs a power strike–which uses a sort of stamina that builds with each successful hit, up to a maximum of three bars. Additional powers are accessed via QERF and they level up from zero (no power) to four throughout the mission or PvP match. These powers are decided by the chosen character.
The scout and horde missions are extremely linear but I still enjoyed playing them. Each one takes four players and they march across a map to claim supply points. At each point, players must defend against two waves of zombies (including some minibosses.) After two such points, the end contains a small arena with a single boss zombie that can sometimes be pretty impressive.
The more standard MOBA PvP arena battles pit three teams of four players against one another in a capture-the-point style fight for supply points. It’s the most invigorating and least-linear game mode currently available.
Freemium: It’s got everything you’d expect from a free-to-play
A lot of things in Dead Island: Epidemic can be be bought with premium currency (called Cash). For the most part, players will use ammunition (bullets) to make purchases of ordinary items, blueprints, consumables, and such–but for anything else the premium currency is needed. Characters are bought with “character points,” which can be earned from running missions or bought with the premium currency.
Much of the game is about running the missions or PvP MOBA in order to earn the various types of currency as well as XP to level up the characters. It’s also possible to use the premium currency to unlock XP so that it can be used to boost characters, items, etc.
In this fashion, Deep Silver will likely look to use the free-to-play freemium model via their own servers or even Steam to make money.
Conclusion: Dead Island: Epidemic is in beta and has a long way to go
The dearth of game modes is the real problem that DI:E’s beta suffers from at the moment. With only the horde and MOBA PvP to choose from there’s just not that much to do–and add in that each character needs to be levelled up in order to unlock their full potential there’s a great deal of grind to get through as well.
The result is that it’s a game that delivers exactly what it seems to promise: an isometric MOBA with a zombie survival element similar to Dead Island. Same island, same zombie types, even a nod to the cobbled-together weapons.
However, even the crafting doesn’t do a good job of holding up to the original DI. In DI:E crafting is done by buying blueprints and then using those with freemium currencies from doing missions. The original feel of finding components and coming up with a weird, innovative weapon is gone–now it’s just pick and choose from the marketplace. Not exactly how I’d like to approach it.
Of course, all of this fits in with the freemium free-to-play model that Deep Silver is growing. With the MMO and MOBA industry we’ve gotten used to this meaning there’s going to be a lot of grind to push people towards the cash shop. To really make itself work, DI:E is going to need a lot more content.
Right now, it looks like that content is planned. The game may just have these two primary game modes but it also comes with a “Prologue,” which runs a lot like an episode–it’s more of a tutorial than anything–that contains some game mechanics not seen in the other modes. This means Deep Silver could use it to deliver further episodes and continue the game.