The Laning Dead
When I first heard that the next Dead Island game would be a MOBA, I wasn’t expecting much. Shoving a franchise whose reputation is tenuous at best into a foreign genre seemed like a recipe for disaster, a cash-in attempt that would undoubtedly backfire and be quickly forgotten. After all, the MOBA space is crowded enough as is, between League of Legends‘ international dominance, Valve’s continued push behind Dota 2, and the crumbling-but-still-vitriolic ruins of Heroes of Newerth.
But after going hands-on with Dead Island: Epidemic, I’m actually convinced that the folks making it ran through all those same thoughts before they wrote a single line of code. While Epidemic may be a MOBA in the broader sense of the term, it doesn’t follow the narrowest confines of the genre. Rather than just taking the standard three-lane, 5-on-5 formula and plugging in some zombies and a tropical theme, the developers actually appear to have seriously considered ways that the mechanics of a MOBA can be expanded beyond the status quo.
The list of tweaks and innovations is impressively long. While the perspective is still top-down, you control your character directly with WASD, much like Hi-Rez’s recent entry into the genre, Smite. Epidemic features three teams instead of two, making for an experience that Deep Silver describes as “PvPvPvE.” Your main goal isn’t to spearhead a push into your opponents’ bases, but instead to gather resources and bring them back to your own HQ. This is accomplished by collecting random drops from slain neutral enemies—a selection of all of Dead Island‘s zombie types—and by capturing control points around the circular map to increase your periodic income.
That last point might sound a little like League of Legends‘ Dominion mode—itself a MOBA-fied take on Battlefield‘s Conquest—but the swap from a standard capture-and-hold formula to an active routine of bringing resources back to your main base is more important than it might sound. In my time with Epidemic, I was amazed at how much more important strategy was than outright conflict with the other human teams. By sneaking around, avoiding most direct fights, and stealing control points that were away from the action, my team was able to stay competitive in the match until the very last moment, when we narrowly missed the first-place spot and had to settle for a close second. Though you’re certainly free to play aggressively—and since you can steal resources from the other human players you down, there’s a definite advantage to winning head-to-head showdowns—it’s not a requisite. This isn’t a scenario where one team will rapidly outlevel the others and proceed to pull off increasingly frustrating ganks, because if you’re too combat focused, I suspect you’ll lose sight of the larger objective.
To make things even more interesting on that front, Epidemic will also feature randomized boss encounters that demand opposing teams to collaborate. Well, to a point. Since these bosses are so tough, one team will probably get slaughtered trying to take it on alone. The natural reaction is to drop any petty squabbles to take out the larger threat, then resume fighting once the killing blow has been dealt and the incredibly valuable resource bonus has been dropped. It’s an interesting risk/reward trade-off, a more aggressive sort of take on DOTA‘s Roshan gambit.
From a mechanics standpoint, my brief taste of Epidemic left me quite intrigued. I’m not sure I’ve ever been excited for a spin-off game more than a mainline franchise entry, but I think there’s a good chance this will be the best release to bear the Dead Island name by a wide margin. Epidemic still has plenty of question marks, though, most notably in how the free-to-play model will be applied, as well as how diverse and well balanced the roster of characters will prove to be once the game is out in the wild. Still, as someone who doesn’t have too much time to dedicated toward leisure gaming, I’m actively considering giving Epidemic a trial spot on my regular rotation when it’s released. That’s a pretty big first impression.