Preview: Dead Island

I’m tentatively making my way down a pitch black corridor, palms pressed against the cold walls for guidance, when I hear a noise. Feet dragging through the dust. My eyes slowly adjust to the darkness and I can just about make out a hunched figure inching towards me. This can’t end well.

I keep moving, squinting as I go. As I get closer, the figure lurches forward revealing a blood speckled face and a distant stare. It lets rip a deafening scream. Now I’d like to say I reacted heroically, but it’s not true. I may have made a small mess in my jeans.

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Nope, this isn’t one of those intros where I pretend I’m inside the game. This actually happened. It’s Techland’s way of greeting us to this, the first British outing of their controversy-baiting zombie actioner Dead Island. Actors made-up as the shambling undead. How terribly nice of them.

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[drop]For a game that only properly debuted at GDC a couple of weeks ago, Dead Island has already made quite a name for itself. First came that trailer; either an inspired and moving tale of one family’s personal battle against the zombie outbreak, or a exploitative horror, depending on your take. Then came news that even the Dead Island logo has caused a fuss, getting itself censored in North America thanks to the presence of a silhouetted figure hanging limply from a noose. But what of the actual game?

Well, don’t be taking any leads from what you’ve seen so far. For all the slow motion, emotional weight of the trailer, based on what I’ve seen this is a balls-out zombie smasher. In amongst all the blood, guts and cries of “You’re going down, bitch!” there isn’t much room for reflection. That doesn’t mean it’s no good, of course.

Dead Island is a first-person, four-player co-op, action RPG with quests and side missions and skill trees, all set within an open-world Thompsons Holiday brochure gone wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. Overnight, the tropical island has been overrun by nasty flesh-eating types, leaving the umbrella and sun lounger sprinkled beaches soaked in blood and littered with bodies. It’s your job to survive.

There are four characters to choose from, each belonging to a different class; the Assassin, the Tank, the Jack-of-all-Trades and the Support. The demo Techland are currently showing off features the Tank, Sam B. He’s a one-hit-wonder rap star who comes to the island to perform, gets spectacularly twatted and wakes up the next morning to find that a hangover is the least of his worries. For him, it’s here that the game starts.

As he’s a Tank, Sam is a bit of a burly type who, for the purposes of the demo has been levelled up considerably. Combat centres largely on melee attacks as the sun-bleached resort understandably features few firearms. As such, your weapons are improvised. The first thing that Sam grabs is an oar, swinging at zombies and bellowing stuff like, “how do you like that, motherfucker!?” as he goes. The devs promise that of the four main characters, Sam is the mouthiest. I hope so. After the first few chuckles at his swaggering profanity, it got quite dull.

Weapon implementation is not entirely unlike Dead Rising, in that you can use pretty much anything in the environment to bludgeon or fling at the undead. Sticks, poles, sledgehammers: the lot. It’s also not entirely unlike Dead Rising in that you can craft your own weapons using debris found around the place too. So, for example, alongside more obvious stuff like sticking nails in a baseball bat, you can combine a cleaver, some wire and a battery to create an electrified blade. Nice.

Despite the impression this gives, Dead Island is not a button-mashing brawler. Instead it takes a far more measured approach. The weapons prevent it, for one. Each is degradable, visibly breaking down as you use it. Wooden bats splinter and snap. Metal poles dent and bend. You have limited stamina too, indicated by an on-screen bar. Swing that nail bat around too much and eventually you’ll become winded and vulnerable, easy prey for the face munchers.

[drop2]There’s environmental stuff you can use to your advantage also At one point in the demo, Sam grabs a gas canister and throws it down a pathway, allowing him to explode it, the resulting flames blocking zombie access. Sometimes it’s better not to decapitate, amputate or eviscerate. Sometimes it’s better to just escape.

Each class has its own unique skill tree with three branches, within which you can spend your experience points. Sam B. has Fury, Combat and Survival. The only one of these used in the demo was Fury. Kill zombies by swatting them with sticks, flinging nails at them and then finishing them off with a vicious head-stomp and your Fury bar will build up. Unleash the ability and you become a hyper-powered killing machine, squishing the undead with single punches and kicks. It looks quite satisfying.

Of course, all of this pans out within that lovingly realised tropical island drenched in blood. The game progresses in a familiar fashion, with you moving from NPC to NPC picking up missions and side-quests. Yet despite being an open-world, it’s surprisingly scripted, seemingly funnelling you in the direction it intends, your arrival in particular areas kicking off premeditated set-pieces.

It’s also not always outside either. Occasionally, you are forced into hotels or cabins, where a wonderful use of Dead Space-esque moody shadows is at odds with the bright, colourful exteriors. Such contrast bodes well. It’s really well done, offering some nicely contrasting environmental variety.

One thing is utterly consistent throughout, however. There’s a constant stream of zombie enemies. It may not offer the sheer numbers featured in Dead Rising, but the sense of vulnerability permeates throughout, with Romero-esque slow zombies interspersed with 28 Day Later fast ones and a particularly ugly brute that explodes when you get close, a shuffling zombie bomb. You can’t even be sure that the cadavers on the ground are properly dead. More than once Sam wondered past a prone body, only for it to lurch up at him.

So yeah, this first glimpse of the game may not satisfy all those fantasies inspired by the trailer. It’s an entirely more traditional affair than we were perhaps led to believe. But, based off what I’ve seen, I’m intrigued. Hopefully, Techland can transcend their relatively modest roots and create something special. I’m certainly keen to see more.

Now, please, excuse me while I go and change my trousers.

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30 Comments

  1. i’d love to get a demo for this on the psn, don’t think I would go for it without having a taster first.

    Were there no bikini clad zombies then?!

  2. Sounds like a nice mix of Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead.

    • Well I hated Dead Rising and loved Left 4 Dead. Aren’t I in a pickle…

      • I was thinking that. L4D makes Dead Rising look like an afterbirth in comparison. The voice work (random comments from all players) is nothing short of incredible. Valve have always reigned supreme with voice work.

      • @bunimomike

        What are you on about!? Dead Rising 1/2 are two of the funnest games i’ve played this gen. L4D is shit.

      • I was referring to the voice work. Dead Rising was very average and, when compared to Left 4 Dead, it felt like an afterthought.

      • @BG Really? I would have said L4D was excellent and dead rising 1 and 2 to be cheesy in comparison.

      • You must find loading screens amusing then if you loved DR2

    • 30 odd years of gaming and i can happily say that L4D is probably one of the finest games i have ever played! Dead Rising on the other hand well ummm……

      • Dead Rising 2 was pitiful. If it wasn’t the sticky gameplay it was the 4 billion and 7 loading screens. The lack of voice acting was just the edam on the huge cheese cake.

  3. Good to see some concrete details and initial opinion of this, I’m definitely curious to see the RPG take on things, a cross between L4D, Dead Rising and a smattering of Borderlands is no bad thing!

  4. I little dissapointed by this then. the trailer looked really really good. i hope the other characters are something new as well rather than another set od typical classes. And my last names Thompson! i really hope none of my family are responible for a zombie outbreak :/

  5. “I keep moving, squinting as I go. As I get closer, the figure lurches forward revealing a blood speckled face and a distant stare. It lets rip a deafening scream. Now I’d like to say I reacted heroically, but it’s not true. I may have made a small mess in my jeans.”

    To be honest, I was exactly the same when visiting Tuffcub’s apartment too.

  6. Good preview, there are some similarities between the variety of
    zombies in Dead Island and Dead Nation, if not in appearance but more in ability.

  7. call me old school or traditional, But I only really like Romero walking zombies, not the “make you sh8te yourself run at you ones”.

  8. This should be fun.

  9. Humm… lets see how this pans out

  10. Different from what I expected but still interesting. I hope there is some story involved. It feeling a little scripted could be a good thing in this case.

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