Dead Island hands-on preview

Talk about rotteny-meaty crunches and thuds. We just brained our fiftieth zombie and somehow the enjoyment of it has come back. See, after the initial thrill of such physical, solid melee smackings of all things undead, beating corpses to re-death became mundane. We were worried that the combat in Dead Island would get routine and boring quickly, but then out of the blue, as we were curb-stomping a gray-skinned woman in a bikini and then following up our foot-to-cranium with clawhammer-to-cranium, the sheer bass sound of the impact and the slow-mo disintegration of the skull made us grin sadistically again. So perhaps Dead Island will be able to carry its first-person melee conceit through to the end.

Above: Ever vandalize someone's pumpkins on Halloween?

We’re not totally sure yet, but the game certainly heaps on the bells and whistles with its item repairing and construction, ludicrous amounts of loot, big open world to explore, and character progression. The preview code we got to play around with began at the game’s inception and then allowed us exactly one hour to do whatever we wanted before cutting off our play. With this in mind we decided to play multiple times, focusing on the two playable characters we hadn’t seen before. We’d already seen Sam B the “tank” (officially the blunt weapon expert) and Xian the sharp weapon specialist, so the characters we played this time were Purna the firearms expert and Logan the throwing expert.

We discovered that initially there’s not much difference between the characters – just a tiny variance in health, speed, or stamina (what you use to attack and sprint). The characters diverge as they gain levels because they have unique skill trees to develop – so for instance Purna has a whole tree dedicated to improving her use of guns. Other than unlocking the Fury move, however, we were a bit disappointed that hardly any of the unlockable skills really add any significant active gameplay – you don’t unlock a bunch of new attacks or combos, but rather just upgrade passive attributes like reducing how quickly your weapons wear out. Still, many of the skills will affect the way you play if you want to take advantage of the improvements – when playing Purna we purchased a skill that raises your Fury meter more quickly if you kill a zombie with a kick attack; thus, we were stomping zombie heads left and right instead of finishing them with a weapon attack.

Above: Are these special zombies (which we didn't see in-game)? Also, we didn't see any creepy environments like this

The other main difference between the characters is their Fury attack itself. You build up the meter gradually, so you can’t use Fury often, but when you do it’s supremely overpowered. Due to the difficulty design of the game, smart use of Fury becomes important. At one point we decided to be ballsy and check out the main hotel on the island, which seems to be where the outbreak began, so we assumed there would be more zombies there. We were right. So far, Dead Island hasn’t thrown huge numbers of undead at the player, and we don’t know how big the groups will get later on, but even small groups are extremely dangerous. In this case, the biggest group encountered yet was a measly six zombies, and yet we were in trouble swiftly. Barely surviving with a sliver of health and having to run constantly between getting in jabs, we struggled for minutes with the mob. Then we filled our Fury meter, and since we controlled Purna, activating Fury meant we got to pull out a special pistol and one-shot each of the zombies, turning the near-death encounter into a slaughter in our favor. So the Fury doesn’t feel like the typical “rage” meter in many games because you won’t be casually activating it against random enemies – you’ll want to save it for just the right moment.

The funny thing is, other than the Fury mode, our “firearms expert” Purna never even wielded a gun during the first hour of play. We were wondering about this when we picked her: in a game that specifically makes guns very rare, how can you have a firearms expert? Again, what we saw led us to believe that only further into the game will her specialty shine, since once you gain enough loot you can manufacture your own bullets. Regardless, we don’t think the game will ever play as a shooter even with Purna as your character (we could be wrong, though – maybe late-game she can have lots of bullets).

Above: Or maybe we're very wrong...

Speaking of loot: holy hell does this game have a lot of it. Loot mongers will love it, while obsessive types will curse every piece of luggage they come across. We encountered piles of luggage with eight different things to open and rummage through. Most loot comes in the form of money, while weapons are rarer, and scrap items are a bit less rare. When we played Dead Island before, many recipes were unlocked, but this time around we had nothing, so we managed to combine and create exactly zero weapons. We did find a decent variety of weapons lying around and we upgraded a bunch of them (which just improves their stats).

Next we tried out Logan. It’s possible that he’ll turn out to be the most powerful character, being specialized in throwing. Since zombies are so darn dangerous when they get close to you, being able to take them out at any distance at all is huge, and he even has skills that allow for a chance of a boomerang effect, returning the weapon to your hand. Considering how big your inventory is, it’s possible to throw weapon after weapon and take out enemies without even getting into danger. In this regard, Dead Island actually does kind of become a shooter, or more appropriately a “thrower.”

Above: Wish we could have made a spiked sledgehammer. Also we like Sam B playing bouncer

We’re not sure what to think of Dead Island just yet. It’s no doubt a unique game with its first-person melee focus with zombies on a tropical island, combined with significant RPG elements. Will it be able to maintain the sense of novelty? We don’t yet know if the melee combat will go from exciting to routine to exciting again, and then… who knows? One thing we know is the game captures a strange, unexpected sense of dread – the environment is not scary at all, but the dangerousness of the zombies and their relentlessness (they’ll follow you for a long time if you run) gives the setting a simmering provocation of anxiety. You never feel comfortable or safe, which is quite appropriate for a zombie game. We’ll need to get further than an hour in to see if the combat holds up over the long run and whether the RPG aspects will deepen the experience.

Aug 1, 2011

Matthew Keast
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.