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Dead Island - skull-smashing preview

Much hullabaloo surrounded the recent release of the artfully constructedtrailerfor Dead Island, but as the internet knows all too well, a little CG trickery means naught for actual gameplay. Well, we’ve now seen how Dead Island plays, and it’s definitely promising, even if what we’ve seen didn’t have anything to do with the characters from the trailer (and we still don’t know if that actual family or those events are in the game at all). The important detail we took away from our demo is that Dead Island wants to bring the “survival” back into the horror genre.

Above: In Dead Island, this scenario will not make you say, "Oh, goody"

This is no game where you carry five different guns and mow down the hordes of the undead. Hell, you don’t even carry any guns most of the time, because realistically, how many guns (or bullets) would there be on a tropical resort? Well, exactly how many you’d think: in some instances you’ll come across a dead security guard and find five bullets in his revolver and maybe one in his skull. That’s all you get. See, Dead Island is a first-person melee RPG. Or, as the devs call it, Zombie-slasher action/RPG. Perhaps they took a cue from Left 4 Dead 2’s melee weapons, but they want you to know this is not a Left 4 Dead knockoff, and we must say it doesn’t feel like it at all.

Yes, Dead Island will feature four-player drop in/drop out co-op, and yes, it has different types of zombies that might resemble Left 4 Dead’s infected, but the look, tone, and pacing of the game make it seem not at all like Valve’s preeminent zombie co-op game. Even in the daylight sections of Left 4 Dead 2 the game has a hazy, somewhat dim appearance, while Dead Island is as bright and cheery as a tropical island should be, with crisp visuals to bring out the horror in clear starkness. It looks more like Far Cry than what you’d expect from a zombie game.

Above: You'll be getting to know these dudes face-to-face quite often. Also, nice necklace, brah

Another factor that keeps it separate from its competition is its RPG elements, including a full-on class system. When you first start a game, you’ll choose amongst specific characters, each of which is tied to a specific class. The four classes are Tank, Assassin, Jack-of-All-Trades, and Support. So far the devs aren’t sure how the classes will be integrated into the co-op, like whether there will be restrictions on how many of each class there can be or how characters will be depicted if they’re the same class. In our demo we saw just one class, the Tank, which is tied to the character of Sam B., a rap star and generally angry fellow (we didn’t see that stereotype coming).

Each class has a unique skill tree in which you spend points earned as you level up. In Sam’s case, the three branches of his skill tree are Fury, Combat, and Survival. Purchasing skills can provide bonuses to certain abilities or unlock new combos or finishing moves – yes, Dead Island features some seriously nasty zombie executions, which we saw many of during our short demo. Sam also has a special Fury meter which builds up as he kills zombies. Once it’s full, he can activate Fury, dousing the screen in red hues and allowing him to one-shot zombies with hyperkinetic punches.

Above: There are different types of zombies aside from the common slow-shufflers, including fast-running "infected" and this fat guy, who does... something

Despite sounding like a button-mashing brawler, Dead Island is very much a methodical, tactical game in its combat. As we mentioned before, guns are a rare commodity, but melee weapons are not at all a “swing wildly into the zombie crowds” affair. First of all, and most importantly, is that you have a stamina meter. Swing a weapon too much and you’ll get winded, becoming zombie-bait. Also larger weapons, like the sledgehammer, take wind-up time to pull off a swing (but also have greater range than say, a knife or even a boat’s oar). Since zombies prefer close encounters to just about anything in their miserable existence, a crucial move is the kick, which pushes zombies away to give you room to swing the bigger weapons or to pull a bit of the ol’ zombinoes (zombie dominoes).

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.