Dead Island Hands-On Preview – Sun, Sea and Braaaaaiiins!
Written Monday, August 01, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
As far as bad timing goes, it doesn't really get much worse than Dead Island's premise. Imagine jetting away to an exotic holiday destination, checking-in at the hotel only to then find yourself caught slap-bang in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. We're not sure your travel insurance will cover that either... Welcome to paradise, eh?
Having been hands-on with Dead Island once before at E3, this first hour we're given to play through is entirely different to that experience, as we're dumped at the very beginning of the game with no cash, no weapons and no idea of what's going on, just like when the full game releases in September. In our E3 demo, we had near limitless funds to squander on weapons and upgrades, and we were dumped headfirst into the middle of the action, amid the streets where the zombie outbreak is dense and full-on. Here, it's a ragtag game of survival, scraping together whatever resources we can lay our hands on.
Like any RPG, the opening hour is a grind as we gather money, whatever weapons we happen to come across and gradually level-up to gain new abilities and acquire upgrades to bolster our burgeoning character, once they've woken up in the hotel featured in the goosebump-inducing trailer that came out a wee while ago to promote the game. And in a nod to that very trailer, you can enter an adjoining room to find the trailer's ill-fated family and survey the carnage.
First thing we notice as we get up from our bed and start the demo, is that the movement feels a tad unwieldy, which is because the game simulates walking rather than smoothly floating like most first-person games. It takes a little getting used to, but soon feels natural and once you start swinging weapons and using the left bumper to kick, it all starts to feel right soon enough. And as soon as it all clicks, you'll be using the right stick with the aid of a swing-meter mini-game mechanic to barge through certain locked doors, jumping around, kicking, punching and beating zombies down like a pro in no time.
Dead Island opens like any good horror movie worth its salt, gradually building up a bit of tension and atmosphere rather than assaulting you with raging undead hordes right out of the gate. So, you're left to explore the deserted hotel as you rise from your stupor and rifle through the former residents' discarded suitcases for items and scraps of cash like a ravenous vulture, before reaching a dead end on a balcony where corpses drop from above. Soon, you're trapped in a corridor and upon running from the first infected horde you encounter, you'll find yourself being rescuing one of the natives of the game's fictional island of Banoi, a man named John Sinamoi who leads you to the relatively safe haven of a beach hut right on the shore.
No sooner are we in the hut, we're being bombarded by side-missions from people reduced to a weeping wreck, while Sinamoi tasks us with finding something more secure than a straw hut. A lifeguard tower further into the coastal resort is our destination, but we need to find the keycard in one of the beach resort's bungalows. Doing so will grant us an additional 400XP and a 'Naild Mod' for a weapon, so there's plenty of added incentive to take on the objective. Venturing out alone, your first weapon will be a canoe paddle, as there's loads of them scattered all over the beach and you'll instantly find that they're quick to splinter and crack after a few hefty thwacks to a zombie's decaying cranium. Initially you're able to have two weapons equipped at any one time, easily selected using a radial menu mapped to the right bumper.
Despite only being able to hold two weapons to begin with, you can carry dozens in your inventory that can be equipped at any time, as long as you remember to pause and do so. Weapons can be aimed and hurled at zombies too, and you can use blunt weapons to target limbs and break them, reducing the strength of enemy attacks. This is particularly useful against the Thug class zombie that we encounter at the foot of the entrance to the lifeguard tower, who's a bit of a bitch to take down. He's bloody tough and not shy about flailing and clubbing you half to death with his big fat arms, even if you've happened to bust them up with your trusty paddle or a baseball bat.
By comparison, the regular zombies or 'Walkers' are easy-to-dispose-of fodder, deadly in numbers but simple to dispatch with a well-placed club to the head or a few brutal stabs. Speaking of weapons, each of the game's four characters have a speciality in what weapons they can wield with the most efficiency, so picking Logan means you're an expert in throwing weapons, while Purna favours firearms, Xian is proficient with sharp weapons and bulky hip-hop has-been Sam B is a ninja with blunt weapons. Obviously how you level-up your chosen character will ultimately effect how they evolve, so you're able to shape your survivor to suit your play-style.
Levelling-up also unlocks abilities including your character's 'Fury' state, which enables you to see red and temporarily go on a zombie-slaying rampage. There are plenty of other aspects of your character to boost via the ugly level-up menu too, improving your strength, stamina and weapon-swinging arm. Within the first hour we get to apply two upgrades, and although they're completely prescribed to begin with, there's branches of choices below the first abilities you acquire, so there'll be decisions to make as you progress.
Once we've found the keycard and gained entry to the lifeguard tower, the survivors from the straw hut gather and a series of new missions are unlocked. Intrigued by a gentlemen fiddling with a car in the garage below the tower, we choose to talk to him and see what we can do to help out. It transpires that the man is in need of parts to fix the car and doing so will grant you access to the vehicle, which you'll then be able to use. With our hour of play time slipping away then, we leg it to a new area through a newly unlocked wire fence and onto a winding road peppered with crashed and abandoned cars, just asking to be salvaged for parts. Looking under the hood of each car we find some have bits to be scavenged and returned to our own car to be fixed so we can set about running over some undead, but regrettably, the hour runs out and our demo ends.
In the interests of testing out Dead Island to death before it launches, we played through the hour again with each of the game's four characters and pretty much managed to have a similar kind of experience each time, albeit with some different weapons and a little more progress gained with each successive attempt. Predictably, killing zombies is always fun, especially given the variety of killing tools on offer, which is vastly increased when you take into account the workbenches that you can use to enhance or customise weapons if you have the requisite cash or parts.
Dead Island is in pretty fine shape then ahead of its impending release, although there's aspects of the visuals that could still stand to be improved, like some slow texture loading and slightly waxy-looking character models. The weird Australian accents in the game are a little bit off too and the backstories of each character relayed with hokey voice-overs on the select screen are a bit silly. That said, there's enough intrigue and enjoyment in Dead Island to get us excited about the prospect of playing the full game, not least of which is the identity of a mysterious helper named “The Voice” who's sequestered in a strange room filled with video screens in the cutscenes. Who is he and how does he fit into the game's events?
There's also a good chunk of RPG aspects that'll evidently make Dead Island a game to stick with from the early grind to boost your character, to the bitter end as you endeavour to travel ever-deeper into the mystery behind the outbreak and further into the island itself. Managing your stamina and cache of weaponry, as well as your resources is all par for the course too, making Dead Island's combination of first-person action and fairly meaty RPG elements something to look forward to. After all it's a simple equation: zombies + hundreds of weapons to the power of RPG action = fun. That seems to be Dead Island in a nutshell. Now if Techland can maintain the level of variety and enjoyment that the first hour offers, then we could be looking at another good reason to slaughter yet more armies of infected undead this year.
Dead Island is out on September 6th in North America and September 9th in Europe.