Dead Island - skull-smashing preview

The main zombies we’ve seen don’t require a headshot to be put out of commission, which we’re glad about because having to aim for the head with melee weapons against every damn enemy would get tiring. They can be dismembered, though, and it will be a crucial tactic – for instance, you could take out a zombie’s legs just to remove him as an immediate threat because you’re being swarmed, or you could be up against a “miniboss” zombie like the one we saw which looked like an undead body-builder and is too resilient to take down until he’s crawling after you. Regardless of tactical importance, the game clearly wants you to revel in zombie slaughter, because we saw zombie bodies coming apart in ways we may have never seen before: torsos opening like piñatas, heads splitting apart at diagonal angles, and all kinds of rubbery limbs flopping about.

Above: Zombies in bikinis = dead sexy

Merely swatting away with melee weapons for hours and hours could get tiresome, so the game presents many, many ways to deliver a final resting place to the restless dead. You can throw any weapon you carry and then pick it up again after it obliterates a shambler. Since guns are rare, a slightly unrealistic bomb option is available: we saw our player sprint past a group of zombies, pick up a propane tank and toss it amongst them, then hurl a hammer at the tank for a terrific explosion. Not remotely believable, but who cares? Hammerbomb!

Speaking of bombs, we should mention the weapon combination system. Clearly borrowed from Dead Rising 2, Dead Island allows you to gather various parts and upgrade or fashion new weapons at workbenches. We saw it only briefly, but it looked a bit more complex than DR2’s “slap two items together” approach. They also want to stress that while the combined weapons may be entertaining, they’re not going for the “silly humor” approach. So you won’t be combining teddy bears with machine guns, but we did see an electric machete and the sticky bomb. Now, this isn’t the sticky bomb you’re used to: it isn’t sticky due to some glue-type material, but rather that it “sticks” into zombies. Take a little plastic explosive, strap it to a throwing knife, and there you go. One toss later and your bomb is protruding from a zombie eye-socket. If you want to save ammo, you can still use the knife as a shank until you need to throw it.

Above: The electric machete proves the dead can dance

With all this weapon creating, zombie-punching Fury modes, and near-unlimited smorgasbord of zombie dicing options, it would be logical to think that Dead Island is a fun, relaxing empowerment fantasy. Wrong-O. Remember we said the devs want to bring survival to the forefront. The tropical island may look tranquil and you may feel like a hardass while you practice your culinary skills on hapless undead, but this place is dangerous with a capital D. When you’re at the lower levels anything more than a couple of zombies can spell doom. The island may be open and free-roaming, but if you’re not careful you could stumble upon a dense clutch of zombies and no manner of clever sticking-and-moving will save your ass. You’ll have to run until you can get stronger.

Aside from progressing down the usual leveling path, you’ll increase your chances of survival through indirect means. Our demo covered the first area of the game where you wake up amongst a group of survivors trapped in a bungalow. There’s a guy with a pickup truck who could provide transportation, but he’s trapped inside his vehicle. Heroic rapper Sam B. gets the man free and learns that a nearby lifeguard tower could provide a defensible stronghold if only it can be cleared of zombies first. Once Sam finishes off the last of the deadies inside, the pickup arrives with survivors in tow. Now Sam has a base of operations, with a doctor and merchant providing services.

Above: We're not sure why you can't just take a boat and escape the island - perhaps it's too remote?

Apparently there are other groups of banded-together survivors on the island – some of them friendly (providing opportunities to establish new sanctuaries) and some of them not so friendly. We just hope confrontations with them won’t be like fighting the “psychos” in Dead Rising… eugh. We’re also told that a number of vehicles will be available, starting with the pickup truck, since walking around the massive island would take too long. These of course will provide zombie-mowing opportunities, but these will always be risky since a broken-down set of wheels in the middle of a horde doesn’t mean the same thing here it does in easier zombie games.

We saw only thirty minutes of Dead Island, but with the potential depth provided by skill trees, tactical combat, vehicles, and weapon combinations we’re thinking this could very much be a big deal. Something about the combat feels fresh, even if we’ve seen first-person melee fighting before. We’ll need to get our hands on it before we can be sure of this notion, and we don’t know how the greater structure of the game will pan out, but as of now we’re licking our chops for “yet another” zombie game and eager to take a bite out of its necromantic innards.

Mar 3, 2011