The year is still young, and I'm sure many of my top picks from it will release between now and the end of November. From Portal 2 to Dead Space 2, 2011 has already brought a handful of amazing games, and one of them is a game that I followed closely over the course of the last two years, but thought would be a flop, not the must-play experience I can't seem to get enough of. That game is Dead Island.

Up until two months ago, I didn't like what I saw of Dead Island. I honestly thought the debut trailer (below) would be the best that it had to offer.

My thoughts didn't change until last week when I started playing the final retail build. This open world experience is rich with questing and customization, and the zombie-slaughtering is oh so satisfying. I don't generally like comparing games to others, but over the last few days, all of my Dead Island-related tweets (@Andrew_Reiner) have been followed up with people asking me if it is like Dead Rising or Fallout or Borderlands or Left for Dead. The way I play the game - spending hours exploring and looting - aligns it more with Fallout than any other game. Fallout with four-player co-op.

I haven't finished the game yet, but I decided to jot down my thoughts so far in blog form. Keep in mind, this game may crap the bed as it progresses. If it does, I'll follow up this story with a "Dead Island Just Crapped the Bed" post. I'm 20 hours in. So far, it's a fantastic game. Also, I have to apologize for the quality of some of the screen shots below. I'm writing this blog post from home, and don't have Game Informer's high tech screen capture technology in front of me. What you're looking at are iPhone snapshots from a 73" screen.

From the outset of play, I was asked to pick who my zombie-hating personality would be. I ended up picking an ex-football player, not because he looked like a *** bag (which he is), but because he's a throwing expert. My reasoning? Zombies should always be kept at a distance. Makes sense, right? The other three classes are fire arms expert, blunt weapon expert, and sharp weapon expert. Each character has unique strengths and weaknesses, yet all can be played the same way should you choose. I rarely throw weapons (for the fear of losing them, one of the game's major problems), and have taken to be more of a sharp weapons expert. My skill tree favors throwing tactics, but still offers enough enhancements for me to be proficient in sharp, firearm, or blunt gameplay.

Now this is what a survival horror game should be. The sounds of difficulty zombies echo through city streets, and you can't enter a house that doesn't have a zombie hiding around a corner. On top of the taut atmosphere, the difficulty level is not forgiving. I've died roughly 100 times already, but thankfully, the only penalty for death is a subtraction in cash. This is actually a big deal. Money repairs weapons (which wear down quickly unless you invest a handful of skill points in durability), and is needed for weapon upgrading and customization. Most battles leave me on the brink of death and hunting for medication. The game strikes a nice balance between its combat and healing. Players that jam on the attack button and don't fight for life will likely hate the game. You really have to think about survival at all times if you want to have the cash needed to buy rare weapons and keep them fully repaired.

Before I rush into battle, I survey my surroundings and analyze what the best strategy will be for taking down a zombie group. If only one zombie is present, I usually use kicks, curb stomps, and a flurry of punches to kill them. A jump kick automatically knocks a zombie down. At this point, punches to the cranium can be thrown with great repetition. When approaching a group, knowing which zombies are present is a necessity. Walkers are no problem. Infected, on the other hand, are fast and deadly. Thugs will knock you to the ground with each hit, yet are as quick moving as sloths.  A ram's charging ability must be monitored at all costs. Suiciders can be used as weapons if you can trick them into using their self-destruct moves near pockets of undead. In most fights, I attack, retreat to assess the layout, attack again. Zombies are not the brightest foes. Quick retreat can often create advantages, such as thinning the herd, regaining stamina, or finding a safe zone that the feeble-minded cannot navigate. The game is rich in strategy and is not a mindless button masher.

From what I can tell, every weapon can be enhanced with mods, such as electricity, fire, impact, or a handful of others. Many of the mods come from side questing. Others are rewards for critical path mission completion. Much like Borderlands, rare weapons are colored purple (I've found four). God-like weapons are colored orange (I found two roughly five hours into the game and still use both of them). The items needed for crafting mostly come from looting buildings and luggage. My inventory is filled with glue, metal scraps, deodorant, detergent, magnets, and pretty much any item you'd expect to find in a hardware store. Inventory space for customizable items is unlimited. Weapons, however, are limited, but the number that can be carried can be expanded on the skill tree.

I spend way too much time doing this, but the rewards make it worthwhile. In each of the two sizable hub worlds I've entered (beach and city), I've veered away from missions and have spent hours locating valuable loot, and even better yet, hidden side quests.

At one point, I had 15 side quests and four continuous events active at once. The side quests range from clearing out houses to hanging posters to finding specific items for people. The continuous events are mostly tied to items, such as finding alcohol bottles for a person who can make Molotov cocktails. One of my favorites is finding champagne for a drunk chick who will give you a diamond for each bottle. Diamonds are worth a pretty penny, and as the game goes on, I'm sure they will be used for high-end weapon crafting. I have no idea how many side quests are in the game, but so far, they are in great abundance.

I always like getting rewarded for taking the time to be thorough. Dead Island's achievements and challenges are as deep as they come. Each challenge you see listed in the picture above has four levels. The reward for completing them is experience points. The achievements push players to use different weapon types and play as the different classes.

The contrast between the sunny beaches and slum city streets is drastic. Knocking a zombie off of a building top is fun, but kicking them into the water and listening to them drown is even better. Seriously, you have to turn up the volume to listen to these brain-eaters choke on water.

I like having nice things. Dead Island makes rare weapons seem as valuable as an autographed baseball card from a Hall of Famer. I'll never part with my rare orange weapons. Even if they no longer pack a punch, I can store them in a storage container so that they don't take up inventory space.

This game plays the way I want it to. Weapon swinging brings a realistic weight and feel, and the gunplay is quite good despite it being limited to mostly pistols. My character moves swiftly and can navigate vertical spaces easily (think Fallout). The best move in the game is the jump kick. It takes some skill to perform, and feels so satisfying when it lands onto a zombie's face.

If Techland doesn't release DLC in the same vein as Borderlands (they'd be stupid not to), I'll probably play this game four times as each of the four character classes. The deep skill tree (which I believe maxes out at level 50), allows players to shape their own character and brings serious advantages to the fray.

My character tosses throwing daggers that can kill a zombies with one hit, and a thug in five. The cool down for this attack takes time (which can be reduced on the skill tree), but always puts a smile on my face when it pops up as ready. More games needed timed god-like moves like these.

I always carry a few pistols in my inventory for the moments where I feel like making zombies look like fools. Guns completely change the combat dynamic, and zombies have no defense against them. Bullets are hard to come by, of course, but don't shy away from using them. Killing zombies with a firearm is similar to shooting fish in a barrel. Actually, I've never done that, but I'm sure it means that this activity is easy, fun, and gross.

Dead Island features four-player co-op. The difficulty and number of zombies scale to the number of players at any given time. I'm finding that the game is equally as fun solo or with friends. Obviously, cruising down a strip in a truck with four-players is much cooler than doing it yourself, but both bring hilarious zombie face on windshield moments.

I just have to reiterate how awesome this combo is. Use it religiously, people!

This may be the best place for a zombie epidemic to take place. I have no sympathy for people who travel to an island to get drunk and have sex with each during spring break. Enjoy the nail bat to the face, spring breakers! No one likes you.

One of the healing items is an energy bar. First Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Now Dead Island. What is up with energy bars in RPGs? Here's hoping that summon attacks in the next Final Fantasy can only be activated after the character eats an energy bar.