Ever since its first trailer released several months ago, Dead Island has been one of my most anticipated upcoming games. The sheer irony of a lush island paradise marred by walking human decay carries a rare yet growing appeal. Now the game is almost upon us.
At E3, Gamer Limit spent some quality time with the title, along with representatives from Techland and Deep Silver. After about 40 minutes poring over the nooks and crannies of the fictional island of Banoi, I must say that no other game captures the elements of survival and fear quite like Dead Island. It’s enough to make this my E3 top pick.
With any proper zombie story, it’s all about the survivors. That’s where we start — in a church among the few who were lucky enough to escape the outbreak. No sanctuary here, however. The place is ruined with debris scattered about, windows boarded up. It doesn’t feel like a safe haven at all, as stress lines every face and weighs in every voice. We meet Howard.
Howard doesn’t know whether he is immune to becoming a zombie like we are, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to risk infection finding out. Therein lies his problem — Howard has been separated from his wife and kid. They’re out there somewhere and they’re alive, he can feel it. That’s why he looks to us.
Quests are one of the pillars of Dead Island and they do well to set it apart. Most other zombie games focus on escape, which often translates to reaching a singular goal. They may try to ratchet up the tension with a time limit and sudden shocks, but once you get from point A to B, there isn’t much left to warrant a replay. Dead Island disrupts this model by making you beholden to your morals, and your character responsible for the living.
Choose to help these people or not. The fact remains that these people rely on you. And in a way, your progress relies on them, as quests will at least determine what parts of the island you visit and the sometimes critical items you pick up along the way. After quick deliberation, we accept Howard’s quest: place posters around the island imploring his family to meet him at the church.
Dead Island spills over into RPG some as in addition to quests, there is a surprising depth in weapon and character progression. Before heading out, we visit a workbench to repair the various weapons we had. Expect workbenches to be scattered throughout Banoi.
Brand manager Peter Brolly from Deep Silver pointed out that from the workbench, you can also upgrade your weapons based on the cash you pick up from felled zombies and goals achieved. Where before I had a pitiful blade, I all of a sudden have a military grade knife with a serrated edge. Not enough to feel invincible, just brave enough to finally head outside.
Once in the open, we don’t meet zombies right away, but we hear them. The buffer is enough to get us immersed in the island town, but keeps us on our toes. Signs of violence are everywhere with spatters of blood on the concrete, crumbling facades, toppled cars, et al. Once the walking dead do surface, our teeth are clenched and we are raring to go to work.
There is no rigid progression of zombies in Dead Island. The faster, more powerful ones stand alongside the more decayed, frail ones. They come in droves and they come alone, ensuring you don’t know what you’re going to get once you turn the corner. Supporting that imperative to survive, the game forces us to think just a little more critically, work closer as a team. Dead Island is designed for co-op, after all.
We are assured that the game is built to scale as well, adjusting to the number of people you’re with. It also promises that your campaign can continue even if someone drops out in the middle of a mission. In other words, if you all of a sudden find yourself playing alone, you won’t have to face a four player difficulty (unless you want to).
Albeit, whether you’re an envoy of four or an army of one, strategy is a necessity when dealing with the Banoi nightmare. As I swing a hatchet I picked up, a stamina bar at the bottom of the screen depletes. That same bar gets smaller and smaller as I run. Coupled with degradation of weapons and limited bullets, Dead Island is as much a game of conservation as it is first person melee, e.g. true survival.
We really had to watch how we fought, mind our range, all to just keep on living. You can definitely go gung ho on a zombie at your discretion. Not all situations call for it, however. In the end, there are always more than one way to achieve a goal.
While it pays to have a few people waiting in the wings as you step back to take a breath, Dead Island also gives you the tools to hold your own. For instance, the ability to quickly side step by pressing jump and left/right — time it just right with a machete swing and you can get a clean decapitation along with a spire of the reddest blood. This was my favorite move in the demo.
I counted five zombie types on this poster mission, among them one that exudes noxious gas, of course the ram zombie and one bloated zombie that explodes upon impact. Good thing you have the ability to throw knives and retrieve them from the again dead corpse.
Speaking of throwing knives, we were also able to check out a few special abilities. My character, Logan, was especially great at the art of jettisoning blades. So much so that when you press B on the 360 controller, he goes into a trance like state, zeros in on all enemies and launches them rapid fire. Another character goes into rage mode throwing a flurry of powerful fists.
Like everything else in the game, you must earn these skills. Through a series of skill trees, you have the choice to level up into different abilities that can prove critical in clutch situations. This is based on the number of kills and your ability to stay alive, of course.
One more thing about my early trip through Banoi. Everywhere I looked, tropical flora reached over the man made, as if they’re competing for space. The weather system oscillated quickly between heavy rain and dry spells. You could nearly feel the humidity.
The color palate that all this encompasses, the mix of the dark dead grays, fertile greens and literal blood red create yet another intriguing juxtaposition. It’s hard to dismiss that beyond all the killing and striving, it’s a downright beautiful game. September 9 can’t come soon enough.