Dead Island Hands-On Impressions -- Did Someone Say Slaycation?By Stephen Johnson - Posted May 16, 2011
When the initial Dead Island trailer was released a few months ago, it completely blind-sided the gaming world with its evocative, emotional take on the zombie genre, but now publisher Deep Silver is laying some cards on the console-table, and letting us get our hands-on with the open world, survival horror RPG for the first time.
Our demo of Dead Island began with a cut-scene that had a very different feel from the previous one. Instead of the tragic undeath of a young girl, we get a scene set in da club. Hip-hop blares (a catchy number from game character Sam B. called “Who Do That Voodoo, Bitch?”), and we weave through the club with the results of our previous drinks evident on the screen. The scene devolves into a montage of blurred out images of destruction. There’s a cool tension created by the fact that the viewer of the scene recognizes that the dead are coming to life and attacking the living, but the main character is clearly too snookered to understand what’s happening around him. Each of the playable characters in Dead Island will be given his or her own intro movie to show off how they avoided suffering the fate of the hordes of zombies.
After the impressive cinematics, it’s on to the zombie-killing action. We saw two sections of the Island’s map – a resort area gone-to-hell and an urban area gone-to-even-worse-hell. In the preview we saw, we played as Xian Mei, an expert in edged weapons. The demo level opens with a group of survivors huddling together, in need of a repair for their radio antenna. You climb up there and take a look, then volunteer to brave the zombie-infested vacation resort to get the parts to fix the transmitter.
Combat in Dead Island is largely melee based. You’ll be getting up close and personal with the ghouls using homemade and found weapons. The safehouses we saw all had workbenches you can use to combine weapons, upgrade weapons, and repair old favorites. Weapons can be made more durable, faster, or more lethal, and interesting combinations include things like sticky grenades, a bat with nails driven through it, and an electrified machete. I started out with a knife and left the friendliness of the survivors to face the zombie hordes outside.
A trip down an impressively wasted resort lane quickly devolved into combat with the dead, as groaning shufflers detected me and headed in for a go-round. Distanced combat is possible, as you can aim and throw your weapons at a zombie and then pick it up after he/she dies. The majority of combat, though, will be in-your-face melee style.
If you’re expecting “whack a zombie” like Dead Rising, you’ll be disappointed. Combat in Dead Island is a more visceral, difficult proposition. Even single zombies will prove challenging until you get your bearings. It takes a bit of practice to get the timing of knife swings down, and while you’re whiffing at approaching zombies, your fatigue level is rising and undead are grabbing you to get at the juicy brains in your head. If you’re grabbed by a zombie, you’ll lose some health, but you’ll be able to push them away to take out your weapon and hopefully bury it in your victim. Combat also involves the judicious use of kicks. You swing your legs to put space between you and attackers, giving yourself a little breathing room so you can slide out a knife or gun.
You’ll need to keep track of your surroundings too. Propane tanks and other explodables litter the landscape, and you’ll be able to set ‘em off and blow ghouls back to Hell... just don’t stand too close. In my brief Dead Island vacation, I manage to create sticky grenades by combining an explosive and a knife then panicked and stupidly stuck a close by zombie with my IED. Blam – we were both blown to hell, forcing a restart at the last checkpoint.
The variety of zombies (slow, fast, and special) as well as the different kinds of combat will make for a deep combat game, but ultimately, I think I’ll try to stealth up as much as possible. Like good survival-horror, the zombies are hard to kill and the combat seems ultimately a last resort. If there’s an army of undead, what good is one person going to do against them?
Dead Island will also feature vehicles--working cars and truck can be commandeered and used to run down zombies. The driving is satisfying. Zombies are pretty hard to kill by hand, and finally having a means to just slaughter them outright is empowering. It didn’t last long for me, though. Bad driving resulted in a messed up car, complete with smashed out windshield and smoking engine block, so I took off on foot and hoofed it to the next safe house.
Once I arrived, I met an arms dealer, a profiteer who traded me a decent gun for some of the money I’d been looting off the living dead. Also, a survivor gave me another mission: Go look at some shipwrecks on the beach and see if there are salvageable supplies.
A trip to a once-scenic lagoon revealed a boss zombie and some nearby cronies hanging out around some crates. If that says “Boss fight!” to you, your instincts are right on. The boss was a roided-out nightmare, who was hard to handle by himself, and seems nearly impossible if his hench-zombies notice you. So I tried really hard not to agro the little guys so it was possible to fight zombie-bodybuilder mano-y-zombo.
After that battle, we flash-forwarded to a different setting: A blasted out urban area that was decidedly more menacing than the resort area where we began. After a quick tour of the urban blight, we moved on to a church, with some survivors barricaded inside. Outside is a special infected, a straight-jacketed creep who seemed to love ramming you and pushing you around. You’ll have to use strategy, and a variety of different entrances, to take this one down. Eventually, when you enter the church, and a friendly nun sends you on a mission. Back into the world, where a doleful rain is falling in the city.
The island’s varied settings and moods created with weather effects and whatnot as well as the different characters involved will no doubt create a variety of different moods throughout the Dead Island. We'll have to wait until later this year to see if the compelling parts can come together into a equally compelling package.