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A screenshot from Techland's zombie apocalypse game, Dead Island

Dead Island's beauty—if such a word can be properly applied to a game in which the living dead swarm through a tropical resort, gorily mauling everyone in their path—is in its open world.

Most games lead players through linear levels that don't allow for much navigational deviation. While there are clear advantages to this sort of design—it gives gamesmiths more control over pacing, narrative flow, and scripted events—it takes away from the fantasy that players are inhabiting a realistic alternate universe.

Techland and Deep Silver's new action/horror role-playing game, in contrast, offers up a free-to-roam world that is defined by its unpredictability.

Players take control of one of four characters who, after a night of drunken debauchery in a resort on a remote island, wake up to a nightmare in which thousands of walking dead now populate the atoll and only a few small enclaves of living, breathing people survive.

Zombies are a constant threat as we walk along deserted streets littered with wrecked cars and beaches strewn with busted boats. Cutting through the narrow paths between guest bungalows and pool lounging areas might be safer...or it could lead you into the clutches of a hideous bevy of brain eaters. Any building could hide the undead (or survivors, some of whom are almost as disturbing as the zombies), and attacks—often signalled in advance by shockingly creepy post-mortem moans—can come from any direction and at any time.

The game's lack of environmental borders does a great job of instilling the sort of fear and paranoia one would likely experience wandering through a world suddenly filled with mindless human predators. Attempting to clear the game's massive map of undead one building at a time is impossible, which means the best we can do is try to accomplish our objectives as cautiously and expediently as possible before returning to the safety of a barricaded human outpost. It's an exquisitely nerve-wracking experience.

But while the world our avatars inhabit can be gratifyingly terrifying, the game itself falls short of complete satisfaction.

Perhaps the biggest problem I encountered was combat. Going toe-to-toe with zombies can be very challenging, especially if you're not playing with friends (the game supports drop-in cooperative play for up to four players). Not only do the living dead frequently swarm without warning, they can be stubbornly difficult to kill. Weapons—which for the first several hours consist of little more than kitchen knives and boat paddles—break quickly, and it can be difficult to judge distance between your avatar and nearby enemies in melee combat. I found my strikes often did little more than cut the air as I tried to keep a safe distance, which would provide an opening for the undead to move in and attack.

So stressful were some battles that I often just wanted to sneak by without attracting attention. But that's nearly impossible in most cases. Plus, taking down zombies is one of the primary ways in which players earn the experience points necessary to level up their character's abilities and discover useful weapons and objects that can help with the creation of equipment modifications (another way is to open up every suitcase and closet door you stumble across, but that gets old before you even meet your first fellow survivor).

Consequently, frequent combat—and, at least in my case, frequent death—is all but unavoidable. Dying doesn't put a serious kink in your progress—players lose only a small percentage of the money they've collected and quickly respawn someplace nearby—but it does tend to lessen one's suspension of disbelief.

I also ran into a few frustrating bugs, as when I followed a trail on my map back to a character who had issued a quest only to find he wouldn't acknowledge my presence, meaning I was unable to complete the task I was given and claim my reward. Again, frustrating.

Despite these issues, Dead Island has still managed to entice me to return night after night. I'm finding myself compelled to continue exploring the island's 70-plus districts, and I've been kept rapt by a series of intriguing side missions (where did that plane I saw falling from the sky near the beginning of the game end up crashing, and what happened to its passengers and crew whose mayday I overheard on the radio?).

Plus, dozens of skill challenges continue to lure me back into the game's deadly sandbox world. These bonus objectives provide all the motivation needed for me to want to go on pick-up truck joyrides to up my zombie road-kill count or attempt to re-dead the undead in stylish ways, severing their limbs or setting them ablaze.

But it's the world more than anything else that's keeps me coming back. The game may take place in a secluded location, but the open nature of its environments make them feel larger and more unpredictable—and, consequently, scarier and more realistic—than most other games of its kind. Dead Island isn't perfect, but that's true of any zombie nightmare apocalypse, and ought not to keep a dedicated undead aficionado from having a bit of gruesome fun.

Dead Island

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC

Publisher: Deep Silver

Developer: Techland

ESRB: Mature

Score: 7/10