Crysis, Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, they’re all here. If it’s not Crytek’s ability to create a lush, tropical setting then it’s the Valve published first person zombie-em-up that’s clearly an influence – at least in terms of the co-op gameplay – but above all else it’s the plot structure and mission mechanics of Capcom’s ironic, iconic brawler that Dead Island riffs on the most. Not that Techland are short of inspiration of their own, of course, but if you’re looking to define this, the latest in a long line of currently in fashion undead battlers, then it’s somewhere between all three.
What it’s not, for good and bad, is anything like that teaser trailer. The developers haven’t forgotten it entirely – there’s a reference to it in the room next to where the game starts – but there’s none of the desperate, heart wrenching emotion that the trailer managed to execute so well in the finished product. Instead, once you’re passed the slightly confusing and somewhat badly punctuated introductory ‘prologue’ you’re left with a punchy, expansive survival horror that eschews frivolities like slow motion backwards cinematography and swaps them for bloodied meat cleavers and +1 energy drinks.[drop]The titular island, then, is an unknown period of time into some kind of infection. For reasons that’ll no doubt emerge during the later reaches of the plot (our build times out after an hour) your character’s immune to the disease but most of the inhabitants and holiday makers aren’t, turning them into nasty, relentless zombies. This, as you’d imagine, stacks the odds unfairly against you, although you’ll encounter pockets of survivors along the way, starting with a burly lifeguard and his newly rescued buddies that form the game’s first hub of missions.
It’s here that Dead Island starts to show what it’s made of, and it’s not always as refined as we’d have liked. The tasks, which are assigned a difficulty level and a reward (normally cash and a new weapon) are presented via a slip of paper from the assigner, but still manage to feel at odds with the otherwise rather free-flowing, open nature of the game. You can quickly amass a stack of rather trivial missions to do, making the game feel like a series of to and fro requests rather than an open world one, especially as some of the early ones do little to move the exposition onwards.
Thankfully, the missions that do count are rather enjoyable, and – during our time with the game at least – connect nicely with the storyline. We’re used to all this, of course – side quests and subplots are genre staples and it’s obvious that the developers wanted to give the player freedom enough to play the game at their own pace, but a good chunk of the first round of tasks feel a little bit too much like filler and we’d be disappointed if the rest of Dead Island played out the same way. Naturally most of them are optional, although it’s not always evident which ones are required until they’re completed.
But all this is second fiddle to the action anyway which – you’ll be glad to know – is actually pretty good fun. Weapons are mainly melee, meaning you’re always up front and personal with ‘the infected’ and – due to the fact that items degrade rapidly and you only start with two weapon slots – you’ll be in and out of the equipment menu regularly to ensure that you’ve always got a paddle or a pipe handy. The menu navigation’s a little bit messy, but you soon find your way around the various screens, which also include a map (the playable area’s more than big enough) and a branching RPG-esque upgrade tree, which lets you spend your level up points on a variety of skills and abilities.
As with Dead Rising, Techland’s zombie basher runs a mean line in weapon modifications. The first, awarded after your first mission, allows the use of nails with an otherwise blunt bit of wood, and like Capcom’s games you’ll need to find a weapon bench before you can start to combine everyday items with weapons. Due to the nature of the island (a handy mix of working folk and holidaymakers) you’ll stumble across plenty of collectables, all of which are worth grabbing if you’ve got the time to spare. Cash comes in handy, too, and thankfully it’s relatively plentiful.[videoyoutube]As the weapons advance (throwing knives are great fun, but ranged ballistic weapons are few and far between) so do the zombies, their rank and type proudly displayed above their heads as you approach. Your first encounter with a Thug-class enemy is a sobering one, for example, not only does he take some beating before he’s downed but he also marks the first time you’ll find yourself in darkness, your battery powered torch casting spooky shadows and showing off the game’s neat lighting in an otherwise brightly lit mid-day environment.
There’s a choice of four characters in the game, and each play differently enough to warrant at least a look because each has their own skill and upgrade tree along with weapon specialities, speed and strength levels. We didn’t get chance to test the game’s co-op mode but from the menus it looks flexible enough, lobbies allowing for drop-in play for you and three mates, which would considerably beef up the gameplay once the game starts to get tougher. We can only imagine the carnage you could cause once you all pile into a vehicle which, whilst fun enough solo, would be an absolute blast in multiplayer. You can read our earlier impressions of multiplayer here.
Dead Island is showing some real potential. Our build looked close enough to finished to be able to accurately assess the game – save for some interesting zombie animations and clipping issues – but the sixty minute cap meant that we could only get so far, even when rushing our second playthrough and skipping all the cut-scenes. The visuals are nice enough, packed with overdone bloom effects but offering up massive draw distances and plenty of busy, well textured and distinct enough areas and buildings – it looks and feels convincing, and that’s going to be a major plus point the longer you spend on the island.
So, combining Left 4 Dead’s co-op and Capcom’s invention looks like it’s going to work out just fine – Dead Island’s combat is weighty, the tension palpable enough when outnumbered and the presentation’s solid. We’ll reserve judgement on the mission structure and slightly iffy animation and voice acting until we can get our hands on the final thing – but zombie fans will eat this one up regardless when it’s released in September.