By now, you've probably seen the famous (and infamous) announcement trailer for Dead Island, Deep Silver and Techland's upcoming zombie action game. You've seen the pictures and you might even have read the description: zombie killing in a first person view with co-op for up to four players. It's not very surprising if you think it sounds a lot like Left 4 Dead, but the truth is that Dead Island has more in common with games like Condemned than with Valve's shooter.
Because even if there are ranged weapons available, they are few and far between. Most of the time you'll have to settle with melee weapons like baseball bats, machetes, meat axes and whatever you can get your hands on. The zombies are everywhere, but usually in smaller groups instead a enormous hordes.
That's a choice sprung from the game's design, and has nothing to do with technical limitations. Dead Island's world is big and open - when I get to try out the game the developers don't dare to put a number on how big the island actually is. But I still get a sneak peak when I see the view from the place the demo starts in. From the foot of a radio tower I look out over a large bay and I can see the silhouette of a village on the other side - the same village we'll visis later on in the demo. It reminds me of the first Far Cry.
And that holds true when it comes to the graphics as well, because Dead Island looks really good. The level of detail is high, with a rich flora and beautiful environments and especially the lighting impresses me. During most of the demo the sun covers the island in a golden glow, while later it starts to rain and the sky becomes ominously grey.
But that's the technology, what about the gameplay? Is Dead Island actually fun to play? Judging from the demo, it seems like the answer is yes.
Around the radio tower, a group of survivors has established a safehouse. Dead Island included a bunch of roleplaying elements and you're free to walk around and talk to people. Many of them have missions for us - one guy needs spare parts for his car, another wants to get the transmitter in the tower to start working so that it can be used to call for help.
The map in the upper right corner points me in the right direction, but before I start to explore the island I pass a workbench, where I can repair and upgrade my weapons. I hammer some spikes into my baseball bat and feel ready to go. At this point I don't have many upgrades to choose from, but later new ones will open up - like explosive knives, for example. The likeness to Dead Rising is obvious, even if the tone in Dead Island is a lot more serious. No machine gun-toting teddy bears in sight.
I leave the encampment and soon I stand face to face with my first pack of zombies. These are of the typical slow kind, so I grab my bat and attack. Animations and sound effects all give a nice weight to the bat, while I bash the living daylights out of the undead. Small numbers pop up above the zombies, until I get in a well-placed strike and send a head flying. But my character is an assassin, one of the four available classes, and while she's fast she's hardly strong - every swing of my heavy bat takes a large chunk out of my stamina bar. Too many attacks and I have to rest, and since stamina is also used to sprint and dodge, I have to manage my available resources so I don't run out of it straight away.
A knife proves to work a lot better for me, since it doesn't eat up as much stamina while still doing a respectable amount of damage. As an assassin I also get a bonus to thrown weapons, which turns out to come in handy. Not all zombies in Dead Island are slow - you'll find equal parts Romero, equal parts 28 Days Later. Getting the fast zombies down first is vital to your survival.
Luckily it's fairly easy to elegantly throw a knife straight between a zombie's eyes and while it doesn't die, the impact throws it backwards. I run up, pull out the knife and stab the prone zombie a couple of times in the back before it can get up again. Job done.
My map shows me where to go, but since it is an open world I can always find an alternative route to my mission objective. I pass a ruined bungalow where a survivor asks for help, I come across an open space where someone has tried to write "HELP!" using suitcases and I even get to run over a couple of zombies using a car. The car physics feel a bit stiff, but then it's hardly a racing game. But it is something that the developers might want to look into before release.
We jump forward in time, to a later point in the game. We're in the village mentioned above, and my character has gained a few levels (another of the roleplaying elements in the game) and she also has more weapons to choose from - including some extra knives, some of them strapped with explosives. I'll soon be happy I'm carrying them around, because suddenly I'm stuck fighting a boss. A bunch of survivors have locked themselves into a church, while a huge zombie wearing a metal straight jacket tries to get in by beating down the door. In order to cause any damage at all I need to get behind him by letting him rush me and jumping out of the way - a classic mechanic which works brilliantly. The fight is also interrupted by smaller zombies and some tactical use of gas canisters (flames + gas canister + knife = big boom).
After the boss has been downed, the doors to the church open up and it can now be used as a new safehouse. Which means more survivors, more quests, a couple of new merchants (including a really dodgy guy with a lot of guns) and more opportunities to repair and upgrade weapons.
One of the things we don't get to see during the demo, but that the developers at hand, love to talk about, is multiplayer. The game will feature co-op for up to four players, that can jump in and out of each other's gaming sessions, and there won't be any limitations when it comes to character classes or levels. If you're stuck in a tricky passage you can always ask a friend to help you out and even if he or she is a much higher level, you won't be punished in any way for it.
You can also join a friend's game, despite not being at the same point in the story. The game will warn you that you might get parts of the story spoiled, but after that you're free to do as you wish. The plan is to show off some of these features at E3, but until then we have to settle for singleplayer. And when I finally have to leave Dead Island behind, I do it with a good feeling about the future.
Yes, zombies are all the rage these days. But with its open world, roleplaying elements and focus on melee combat, the game does a lot to stand out from the crowd. And if Techland manages to make all of these features work well together, then a good game should be secured. The announcement trailer took a lot of us by surprise, and it looks as if the developers have put together a game with enough substance to follow up on it.
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