The fact that our hands-on with Dead Island starts in a church is perhaps fitting given the near-biblical impact of that original teaser trailer. Why we’re in the church, who these other zombie fleeing refugees are and just where in the grand scheme of the game’s plot we are is unknown but, one thing’s for certain, we’re going to kill some zombies today – even if it kills us.
Our demo mission revolves around removing ourselves from the safety of the church in a bid to put posters around town. Your typical day in paradise-gone-wrong, basically.
The mission is tasked to us by a guy named Howard Craigson who wants to communicate to his lost family (if they’re still alive) that he’s still walking the earth, and walking it without an insatiable hunger for human flesh and blood. I say that the mission is tasked to ‘us’ because this particular demo is designed to show off the game’s co-op features, hence we’re playing in a mob of four.
We’re playing the role of Logan, a man of medium build that acts as Dead Island’s average joe/jack-of-all-trades, although he does seem to excel in the good ol’ throwing knife. Our herd is completed by wannabe rap-star and designated strong man/tank Sam B, long-range weapon specialist Purna and stealthy assassin Xian Mei. Herd herded we set out to pin up posters…
For anyone that has not seen anything of Dead Island since that trailer, the most important thing to take away is that this is not the straight action game many originally believed it to be. At its core this is a stat-heavy RPG with an emphasis on teamwork, optional questing and levelling up. Anyone looking for the next Left 4 Dead should look away now; anyone looking for something closer to Fallout: Zombies should continue full steam ahead.
There’s no more of an obvious hint towards the game’s true nature than the ‘workbench.’ The workbench allows you to repair, upgrade and forge new weapons, just like in Fallout. Dead Island’s creatable arsenal is somewhat less fantastical than that which can be crafted on the work surfaces of the Wasteland but, no less creative and satisfyingly rooted in inflicting the maximum amount of pain.
Given Logan’s talent for throwing things at high speed with Robin Hood grade accuracy, our first course of action is to create a healthy number of explosive knives which blow-up after a short delay upon contact with an enemy. Because we couldn’t help ourselves, we also crafted a ‘Shock Mod’ for our machete (Machete + Wire + Battery + Duct Tape) with which we could stun the enemy and sneak ourselves a few seconds respite from their hunger driven onslaught. Before you can create weapons you need to be in possession of the blueprints, so scouting areas thoroughly is a must for any budding DIY weaponsmiths.
Weapons come equipped with their own damage, force, durability, handling and (for guns) rounds per minute stats. Upgrading and customising weapons alters these stats, so it’s important to keep an eye on what you’re doing in terms of upgrading their performance rather than just their visuals and/or abilities (for example, electric shocks may be nice but your money might be better spent on improving your machete’s damage rating). It’s also worth noting that players can exchange weapons and items at any time between one another, removing any tedious need to leave pick-ups on the ground for your friends to find.
Our group kitted out with class-suitable gizmos of doom (one of our group sporting a baseball with a circular saw blade thrust into the tip – nice!) we set out poster posting. These posters must be placed at specific locations, (handily highlighted by a path finding line and red dot on your HUD’s mini-map). The urban environment we’re traversing looks suitably post-apocalyptic, punctuated by upturned cars, burst water pipes, dilapidated buildings and heaps of rubbish all over the place. Environmental cleanliness, it seems, it not high on a zombie’s to-do list.
Due to the way our characters had been levelled up prior to us starting our demo, zombies were extremely attracted to the tank of our group (Sam B) and would actively avoid the assassin (Xian Mei). Predictably, this allowed us to use Sam B as a distraction mechanism while the rest of us laid in wait to make best use of our own skill set.
These character-specific abilities are not all that essential when it comes to the standard ‘Walker’ zombies as anyone with a brain and blunt object can end their miserable existence with relative ease (although they do represent a challenge in packs). However, the tougher enemies do require a little more thought and planning.
The ‘Ram’ zombie is similar to Gears of War’s ‘Berserker’ in that he’s blessed with a generous dollop of health and likes to charge straight at you, knocking you down for others to feast upon. He’s also only vulnerable from the back so the use of a decoy while others wait for an opening is a must.
Elsewhere, the ‘Suicider’ zombie explodes on death so ranged weapons are advisable and the ‘Thug’ deals serious damage by swinging his arms wildly. The best tactic against swinging arms is to cut them off, obviously – an act achievable in Dead Island by aiming your crosshairs at the limb in question and hammering it in oblivion.
Each of the characters can initiate a special ability when they’ve built up enough juice (earned by attacking and killing enemies). Logan’s beast mode involved being able to auto aim and deal serious damage with an unlimited number of throwing knives. Other characters have their own unique variations based on their class type; Sam B, for example, briefly becomes invincible and deals massive damage with his fists. These skills last for only a short time (and they take a while to build up) so they’re best deployed wisely.
Aside from combat skills, all characters come fitted with limited stamina for sprint and attacks, and a kick attack that’s useful for creating a bit of space between you and your foe/foes. Kicking is also handy for finishing downed enemies as it saves your weapons from any unnecessary degradation.
Find yourself out of stamina and exhausted and you’re a sitting duck, find yourself a sitting duck and you’re going to go into bleed mode and have to wait until a friend picks you up.
There’s a lot going on in Dead Island; even though our demo lasted only about 30 to 40 minutes, there’s too much to realistically write about in one article. Perhaps its real charm lies in the little details though – the fact that weapons visually degrade (machetes pick up nicks, baseball bats dent and splinter and everything gets caked in a layer of congealed blood), the sunny environment is interrupted by rain showers and enemies sometimes have weapons stuck in them from previous encounters.
Whether the zombie/RPG/melee combat formula can work outside of the controlled confines and extended short sessions of a demo remains to be seen. What’s for sure though is that Dead Island is certainly more than just a flashy trailer.