Dead Island preview: Surviving together is three quarters of the fun

If you ain't plannin' on dying together, you'd best get learnin' to fight together. We got our first bite of Dead Island's co-op at E3, which adds a lot more dimension to the overall game than the single-player experience we had before.

Getting the zombified elephant out of the room first, though, publisher Deep Silver says the game's animations and combat feel aren't yet finalized yet. A good thing, since many of the melee weapons still aren't satisfying. For a game that has three of its four core characters focused on beating the infected stuffing out of the undead, the melee looks like chaotic slashing and feels incongruent with the effort put into the rest of the game.

That's not to say all the melee weapons feel awkward, which makes the whole situation even more bizarre to explain. The baseball bats actually seem to have a heft to them, so when you're attacking a zombie there's a reaction. You'd expect the same kind of look from a heavy metal rod, but it just doesn't seem to jive. Whether it's the animations, zombie reactions or something I'm just not pinpointing, the melee combat still needs work. I didn't have an opportunity to try out a gun, but Dead Island if very focused on melee combat being core to the overall experience.

As for the co-op of Dead Island, now that's something worth possibly getting stuck on an island of the undead for.
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Dead Island's co-op is designed to work peer-to-peer, a disconnection will just boot you back to your own world solo. Friends can jump into their buddy's vacation nightmare as one of four characters. Multiple players can be the same character, so it's possible to have a team of four "tanks "or four "rogues," but that's not recommended.

The characters can be broken down into some basic class types. Logan is the "jack of all trades" and can support the team with stat boosting shouts. Xian Mei is the rogue, specializing in pointy weapons and can even gain a backstab ability later on. Sam B. is the tank and is designed to collect undead aggro. Finally, Purna is the "mage" or "hunter," the only character proficient in guns, who is supposed to stand back and pew-pew from afar.

I played as Sam B. during my preview. However, without messing around with the class tree or having any real knowledge that I was supposed to play the "tank" role, the whole experience felt more like Left 4 Dead. Our job was to leave the Church safehouse and put up some posters, but I was just a tag-a-long on the quest. In the end I think I completed the quest, but without actually interacting with the other three players verbally, I just followed the one person who grabbed the quest and pushed foward by punching, stabbing and beating any zombies that crossed our path.

It's pretty easy to tell that Dead Island will have less of that Left 4 Dead arcade experience and feel more like a Borderlands style RPG once you're playing with real friends, coordinating skill trees and actually having a care for the other members of the party.

Not that you actually have to play with friends when you inhabit their Dead Island world. Four players can play "together," but still wander off and do their own thing. A quest tracker allows you to see what everyone else is up to and coordinate if you desire.

The game will also have collectibles like Crackdown's orbs or Assassin's Creeds feathers. However, there won't be an easy map function to track these and each player's collectibles live separately in their world. Meaning, if your buddy grabs a collectible, they will have to tell you where it is so you can also get it.

The co-op experience will also be online only. No split-screen couch co-op. There will also be no bots available to control the other characters. If you're playing alone, you are dying alone.

Despite the kinks that still have to get worked out of the melee combat, if you're looking for a co-op RPG experience with friends, Dead Island is shaping up to deliver a solid drop-in/drop-out experience.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.