Dead Island preview: Paradise in shambles

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Dead Island preview: Paradise in shambles
Last month's debut of the emotionally-charged trailer for Dead Island, a game completely forgotten (if ever known at all), instantly rocketed developer Techland's zombie vacation nightmare into the spotlight, spawning a number of homages and an absolute thirst to know: Could the game possibly be as good as the cinematic teaser?

After witnessing an all-too-brief gameplay demo at GDC this week, I began to answer that question for myself, likening Dead Island to a mash-up of Dead Rising 2, Borderlands, Breakdown and, to a much lesser extent than you'd think, Left 4 Dead 2 -- oh, and even some Far Cry 2 sprinkled in there. That sounds a bit chaotic, sure, but this is a zombie game.

Dead Island begins shortly after the zombie emergence depicted in the dramatic trailer, with players controlling one of four possible lead characters, each representing a different class. In the demo I was shown, the developer played as the "tank" character -- powerful, but slow.
The player has been saved by a group of survivors who are quick to ask you to return the favor. The first mission involves abandoning the relative protection of the starting safe house to rescue a man who had helped save your life intitially. Once you amass the courage to venture outside, the game delivers a one-two punch in the form of an immediate zombie attack and a scene that's best described as fantastically macabre. Here on one of the island's white sandy beaches, palm trees blowing in the wind, the Kodak Moment is dashed by roving undead feasting on less fortunate vacationers, whose blood stains the sand red.

In these first few moments, I realized this wasn't a typical zombie game. Of course there's the requisite action and gore, but Dead Island seems to reward playing strategically. Getting clawed by one zombie isn't a death sentence -- there's a chance to block its attacks, push it away, and even cut it apart limb by limb.

By the look of things, surviving the zombies will only be part of the game's challenge.

Putting distance between yourself and the reanimated corpses seems like it's going to be a major element of combat, with the characters able to shove and boot them away. Of course, as I saw, it's entirely possible to run past the slower zombies and pick your fights.

There is incentive to be aggressive, however, as kills bestow experience points, which are used to upgrade various character aspects -- health, speed and the like -- and unlock more branches of the skill trees. Exploration is encouraged, too, as you can turn up helpful rewards, including blueprints to craft new weapons.

Combat is heavily melee-based, with firearms mostly limited to the ammo that's in them when you find them. Melee weapons will wear with use and require upkeep, but Fallout-style workbenches can be used to combine weapons with items to produce some wicked killing tools. I saw a diving knife combined with plastic explosives to create a sort of "sticky bomb" good for clearing mobs of creeps -- especially the faster zombies; and yes, there are many different types. You can also put an electrified machete to good use, stunning enemies and giving you a moment to escape or strategically dismember them for more XP.

Throwing weapons can come in handy, too. During the demo, I watched the player toss a propane tank down a couple of flights of steps he was retreating up from a growing horde of zombies. The propane tank was followed by a hammer he chucked at it, resulting in an effective explosion. Speaking of explosions: Each character class has a special ability that's charged by killing enemies, and the tank's was a sort of berserker rage that enabled the player to punch zombie heads clean off.

Progress in Dead Island is made by upgrading your character and, perhaps more importantly, by clearing and securing new safe houses. Survivors will flock to these bases, from which they will offer you new missions in the totally open-world game map. By the look of things, surviving the zombies will only be part of the game's challenge --

In the first few moments, I realized this wasn't a typical zombie game.

the island features diverse environments fraught with hazards of their own; so mind the cliffs.

A video montage that followed the demo hinted at the game's emphasis on character and story development in what's expected to be upwards of a 30-hour experience. These scenes also revealed vehicles, all of which will be drivable, and some unsettling imagery: a downed 747, indicating the outbreak isn't just confined to the island.

Dead Island is already looking great, with smooth movement and animation coupled with a striking, super-saturated grindhouse film–esque visual filter. The first-person perspecitve allows for the zombies to get right up to the edge of the screen, showing off just how grisly these undead become as you hack away at them -- scary impressive stuff.

Most intriguing to me, though, was the role combat pacing looks to play in Dead Island -- there's a strategy to each zombie encounter; learning to keep your distance and knowing when to move in to attack. It's not just mobs of enemies swarming you until you hack-and-slash your way out.

I'm definitely looking forward to getting my hands on the game at E3 this June and putting my finely trained Z-Day survivor skills to the test. If Dead Island plays anything like how it looks to, Left 4 Dead might want to lock away its "best zombie apocalypse trainer" crown -- or at least put it up high where these genre upstarts can't reach it.
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