Dead Island rose to fame with its extremely well made announcement trailer, a reverse slo-mo tearjerker that took away a Gold Lion at Cannes. Of course, all we knew from that was that the game would presumably take place on an island, and zombies at some stage would be involved. Well, we know a whole lot more now, as we were recently allowed access to an unfinished preview build of the game for an hour-long playthrough at Melbourne's newest video game bar, Mana Bar on Brunswick St. How does Dead Island play? Is it an unrelenting murderfest or a unique take on the zombie genre? Here's our early impressions.
The game is probably most accurately described as an open-world first person survival horror game with RPG elements. There are shades of Far Cry 2 in its design, although with the zombies come elements of Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead. The minute you leave your safe house or home base on the island, you're almost constantly under attack from zombies, or 'infected' as the game calls them, as you run or drive to your destination, and it's up to you to improvise weapons and crowd control tactics as you face the hordes.
At the start of the game, you have a choice of character. This doesn't seem to affect the overall narrative of the story from what we could see, just what stat boosts you begin with and how your character appears and sounds in cutscenes. We chose Sam B, a rapper and blunt object specialist, although there is also the mohawked Logan (a throwing specialist), Purna (a firearms specialist) and Xian Mei (a sharp object specialist). No matter who you choose, you begin the game in the same way - waking up in a hotel room on a vacation island and quickly realising that all the other guests are dead, or worse.
During this tutorial level, you can open locked doors by slamming into them in a little minigame that requires you to flick the right analogue stick back and forth, attempting to hit a 'sweet spot' in the middle of a bar that appears. Eventually you make your way to the elevator lobby, although the elevator has missed your floor by a little, requiring you to open a hatch on its top and jump inside. The elevator then promptly falls several stories, pausing at one level filled with infected that almost manage to reach you before it falls yet again. At the bottom, the elevator's security camera sparks to life and you're treated to the dulcet tones of a terrible Australian/New Zealand accent (we're not sure what they were going for) which directs you to a shack on the beach. As you escape the hotel, the atmospheric and lighting effects really shine as the infected chase after you through its darkened corridors.
Escaping the hotel leads to a short walk down to the beach, where you are soon knocked out by zombies and rescued by two men, one of whom is shortly revealed to be the head lifeguard, and your mysterious benefactor from behind the camera. He reveals that you appear to be immune to the infection, which makes you the perfect candidate to venture out into the island and find a more secure location for the survivors. This requires a short journey to retrieve his passkey, and then another trip to the lifeguard tower to clear it out of all infected, making it your new home base. Once there, the game world opens up a whole lot, with survivors everywhere providing side quests (one guy called Dominic asked us to fetch supplies from some shipwrecks), the island now laid bare for you to explore, and a handy map at the base providing a fast travel option.
During the demo, we only had access to melee weapons, which were mostly fairly ordinary objects that were lying around the debris of the island, and included broomsticks, paddles, hammers and small knives. Each of these have different strength ratings and they deteriorate with use. You can find work benches throughout the game that allow you to repair your weapons, as well as upgrade them to inflict more damage and combine them with other items to create new weapons (Dead Rising style), although the only ingredient list for a combination weapon we could see was pretty long and unfortunately we didn't get the opportunity to try it out. There are also several cars that can be found around the game, most of which are beyond repair but some which can be driven and used to run over infected till your heart's content. There are some nice touches here, such as when a zombie is launched over your grill into the windshield, temporarily blocking your view until your character punches out the glass and keeps driving.
The RPG elements of Dead Island are plain to see the moment you engage in combat with the infected. The infected have visible health bars, and every attack you dish out shows their HP visibly dropping as numbers float away from their rotting living corpses. They all have their own levels, too, and this allows a way for the developers to slightly curve how you explore the island - some areas will have ridiculously high level infected that you'll have to wait until later in the game to take on. You also gain experience from killing the infected, which allows your character to level up. Levelling up allows you to add skill points to a skill tree, which has three areas - health, weapon and 'rage'. Adding skill points unlocks abilities such as a haymaker, a slight boost to your regenerating health (which normally has to be supplemented by finding energy drinks around the island) and the ability to dish out more damage with certain weapons. It should be mentioned also that you have a strength meter, which decreases as you sprint, use melee weapons, throw and punch. When it's depleted, you can't do anything but ask the infected to be gentle till it regenerates.
The infected also come in a variety of forms - some are 'walkers' and fit the traditional mold of slow moving mindless zombies. Others labelled simply as 'infected' are fast, keeping pace with you even as you sprint. Some of these zombies will also rush you, and you'll have to knock them away in a quicktime event using the L2 and R2 buttons. We did encounter one larger enemy known as the the 'thug', which can knock you several metres back and need to be crippled at the knees if you're to have any chance of fighting toe to toe with them. Another strategy is to find a fuel canister, throw that at the thug and then throw any other object at it, resulting in an improbable but cool explosion of zombie death. You can also knock off infected's heads (or most of their face) in a pleasingly gory fashion.
Dead Island is definitely shaping up to be an interesting take on zombie survival horror. With an expansive open world to explore that has side quests bursting at the seams, a deep character skill tree, atmospheric locations and a lot of zombie murdering to be done, it feels like Techland's idea of an Oblivion for zombie games, and we can't wait to see more from the title as its release on September 9 draws closer.