What's more relentless than zombies? Video games about zombies.
They've been good ("Resident Evil") and bad ("Rock of the Dead"). There are serious games like "Left 4 Dead" and comical games like "Plants vs. Zombies." The dead have even risen in scenarios where you wouldn't expect them, like "Call of Duty" and "Red Dead Redemption." And they never stop coming.
At some point, though, exhaustion has to set in; for me, it happened with last year's tedious "Dead Rising 2." So I've been dreading "Dead Island" (Deep Silver, for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $59.99; PC, $49.99), in which zombies take over a South Seas resort — even though I could really use a tropical vacation.
Much to my surprise, Polish developer Techland has brought some fresh ideas to the genre. It's hardly a dream vacation, but "Dead Island" is more intriguing than the typical slash-and-run gorefest.
The drama takes place on a fictional island called Banoi. Your character wakes up after a night of carousing to discover that most of the people on the island are afflicted with something much worse than a hangover. After fleeing your hotel and meeting up with some fellow survivors, you have two goals: rescue other noninfected humans and find a way off Banoi.
The open-world structure of "Dead Island" distinguishes it from the competition. Instead of following a linear plot, you usually have a variety of side missions you can tackle in between major story events. It's closer in spirit to "Grand Theft Auto," and you can run over pedestrians without feeling guilty.
The missions generally boil down to finding and retrieving someone or something, but the settings and monsters you meet are nicely varied. The first part of the game takes place on Banoi's sunny beaches, but you eventually have to explore the island's slum-infested city — which looks like it wasn't very pleasant even before it was overrun by flesh-eating ghouls.
You have to scrounge up whatever weapons you can; initially, all you have to defend yourself with are broomsticks or kitchen knives. Early on, though, "Dead Island" lets you modify your gear, so you can add nails to a baseball bat or build an electric charge into a machete. Guns do become available eventually, but ammunition is scarce, so you have to use them sparingly.
The ability to upgrade your weapons as well as your own survival skills adds a welcome role-playing element to "Dead Island." And I enjoyed the freedom to explore its expansive environments, although you always have to be on your guard for hungry monsters.
Unfortunately, the adventure is regularly undermined by technical issues. Some, like zombies getting stuck in doorways, are forgivably laughable. But when they cause your weapons to disappear or make it impossible to complete a mission, you'll feel less charitable. Once, when I had to reboot after a game-stopping glitch, I was transported to an entirely new zone of the island — with no indication of what I should do or how to get out. (The solution: another reboot.)
"Dead Island" also constantly badgers you to team up with other online players; on its default setting, other humans can join your game without even asking your permission. Instead of enjoying the company, I found them irritating — especially when I had to wait for them to catch up before I could escape a particularly dangerous situation.
There's much that's fresh and inventive about "Dead Island," but it feels like it was released with barely any play-testing. It's often exciting and occasionally terrifying — but its deadly glitches too often kill the mood. Two stars out of four.
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