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Dead Island hands-on preview

Zombies in recent games have become fodder; minor footnotes in some larger story. In Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead, “normal” zombies are like filler to keep you from getting bored between the bigger events (don’t get us wrong – we love those games). Dead Island seeks to return to the old Resident Evil model where a single zombie can be a threat. In fact, a single Dead Island zombie is probably the most deadly threat yet seen in the annals of videogame zombiedom. This game is freakin’ hard, which means it manages to turn the sunny island locale into a creepy place, since you can’t just chop through hordes of undead as if they are foliage.

Above: That guy in the car is fine, we're sure

Speaking of foliage, the jungle setting also means that zombies can be sneaky. Tromping through the underbrush, we often encountered one zombie and suddenly found another one clawing at our back. This led to an apprehensive approach where we were constantly looking all around us for more of the disgusting bastards. Since guns are the exception amongst a vast sea of melee weaponry, most of Dead Island’s combat sees the shambling dead right up in your face trying to claw your eyes out. The hand-to-hand fighting has a weighty, physical density to it that reminds us of Condemned. It’s also very methodical and tactical – you won’t be swinging wildly like you can in Left 4 Dead 2. One big reason is the endurance meter, which drains when you swing and sprint, so flailing will tire you out. The other problem is that even one swipe from a zombie causes considerable damage (amongst other possible effects) so you really need to stick-and-move.

At first we couldn’t grasp the combat because we had difficulty judging the range of our melee weapons (and said ranges vary greatly with the weapon). However the timing of swings doesn’t take too long to become natural and we learned that trying to hit a zombie before it hit us was dangerous. We imagine that once you get a good feel for the game it might be possible to go for a lot of first strikes on zombies, but we started doing much better when we made our default first-encounter option a backstep. What’s cool is you can see a zombie cock its arm as it approaches so you can anticipate the attack. Once a zombie whiffs, it’s much safer to counterattack. This method becomes extremely important against the more powerful zombies.

Above: The Rammer may have his arms tied, but he doesn't need them to wreck your shop

See, even though the vanilla zombies are not to be trifled with, Dead Island presents plenty of even deadlier adversaries. First there are the fast zombies, which are easily identified by how they get to you before the slow zombies. Then we encountered a Giant Vessel (“vessel” is the game’s term for zombie), and while the guy was not literally a giant, he was still a decent linebacker. This fearsome creature takes a huge amount of punishment, but can be crippled if you go for the legs. He also will knock you flat on your ass with one hit, which leaves you open to a dog pile from other zombies. Finally, there’s the Rammer, which looks like another beefy dude, except he’s in a straightjacket and Hannibal Lecter mouth piece. True to his name, he gets all worked up and charges you, causing horrendous damage if he hits. He’s also near invulnerable if you attack him from the front, so you have to dodge his charge (a tap of the jump button to the side performs a little evasive hop) and then wail on him when he hits a wall and is temporarily stunned.

First-person melee, even with the tactical approach presented here, couldn’t carry a game on its own. That’s why there are many other aspects to combat and customization. You can throw any weapon you’re holding, but then you’ll have to go retrieve it again. You can carry quite a few weapons, but they degrade over time and have to be repaired. At work benches you can not only repair weapons, but spend money on upgrading them and of course combine all sorts of items into more powerful weapons (although we’re told there won’t be anything that gets as silly as Dead Rising 2’s crazier weapons). There are also skills to unlock for your chosen character.

Above: You'll also foster relationships with other survivors so you have a friendly base to return to

Last time we saw Dead Island we got a taste of the “tank” class, but when we played the game recently we took on the “rogue” character – Xian Mei, a lithe Chinese woman with speed and agility. At first we didn’t see what differentiated her when we swung a few weapons, but once we got a hold of a knife (her specialty) we got a sense of her style. It was nasty as hell (and awesome) when we did rapid-fire butcher-knife stabs to zombies’ faces. It also highlighted the many wonderful ways the zombies come apart when you smash, slash, and impale them. At one point we were using a sickle and we swiped at a zombie’s head and its entire brain just popped out of its head like its head was gumball machine. Also your character goes through a progression – at first he or she will be frightened and bewildered by the circumstances, making appropriate comments, but as more zombies fall before them, their confidence will grow and they’ll develop cocky lines to toss out while murdering the filthy undead.

We also noticed a number of fantastic details that make the world and your character come to life. At one point we got into a truck so we could drive to another location. The steering wheel was on the right side because the island is part of New Guinea. As we drove along and rammed zombies, the truck quickly took damage and started smoking. We accidentally turned a bit too shallowly and hit a wall, causing the windshield to be covered in cracks to the point where we couldn’t see out at all. Our character was helpful enough to automatically punch out the windshield so we could see again – a very nice touch. We also explored a shallow lagoon in a grotto, complete with majestic waterfall, so there are strange elements of natural beauty that you don’t normally find in horror games.

Above: That guy in the back looks like a Smoker from Left 4 Dead, but we're pretty sure he's a kamikaze, which means you'll want to take him out from a distance

Dead Island is shaping up to be very exciting indeed, and we can’t wait to see how the co-op will work out (including the other character classes). The only problem is that what started as a goofy throwaway concept now has its own huge ambitions to live up to.

May 16, 2011

My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.