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Dead Island preview: Reality bites

Following our initial look at Dead Island back at GDC, I recently got our first chance to play the game for real. And "real" is the appropriate word here. Despite the zombies, wacky weapon combinations and a creepy Lost vibe, Dead Island does a lot to emphasize the reality of your admittedly unbelievable situation.

It starts right away in the demo, with an opening first-person cinematic that has my character living it up at one of the island's clubs, as signs of the big Z start to appear at the corners of my blurred, drunken vision. Is that woman just resting in the booth over there or is that blood near her head? Wait -- did that man just bite his date? Eventually, I'm too drunk to tell or even care, passing out in a nearby corner. This is when the game proper starts.

I'm playing as Xian Mei, one of the four playable characters that serve as classes in the game. She's a feisty Asian woman ("I don't punch like a girl!"), who I'm told is quick and good with knives; sort of the "rogue" of the group, if you want to attach an RPG archetype to her. The first segment has me meeting up with a lifeguard named Sinamoi, who's become the makeshift leader of a band of tourists trapped on the island during the zombie outbreak.

Standing in his lifeguard hut, looking out at a gorgeous blue bay, Sinamoi presents me with a quest. He asks me, in a style reminiscent of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games, if I will climb up the nearby hill to a lighthouse and look for an antenna the survivors could use to try to radio for help. I agree, of course.

The quest is marked with a difficulty level ("Very Easy," in this case), and I'm to receive some XP and cash as my reward. This one's marked easy because it's an introductory story quest, but Deep Silver's brand manager Vincent Kummer says that sidequests will vary in difficulty. "You're going to take quests that are story-based," he tells me, "and then sometimes you'll want to come back for those that require a higher level or skill."

Before I set out, Sinamoi gives me a diving knife, one of the game's many weapons, which borrows another RPG element: Its name is displayed in a color (blue), indicating its quality (blue means it's higher quality than most). At a nearby workbench, I can repair, upgrade or even create new weapons with blueprints found around the island. Repaired and upgraded weapons, like an electrified machete, both do more damage and look different in your character's hands. I ask Kummer how many weapon creations will be possible in the game, and he tells me, "We're looking into a couple of thousand."

After fixing up my knife and making a quick stop at a vendor NPC (where I could buy the usual medkits and upgrades, not to mention things like stingray tails and something called "Drawner meat"), I make my way out into the island, and soon a familiar moan can be heard. The first zombies I come across are called "Vessels" -- they're the slow, ambling dead that we've to know in the so, so many popular depictions.

As we saw at GDC, most of the combat in Dead Island is melee-based, and actually controlling it for the first time is a harrowing experience. First-person melee combat is always tricky to judge -- am I close enough to stab this zombie in its neck yet? -- and Dead Island's bobbing, realistic camera doesn't make it any easier. Most of my fights have me frantically looking around for a zombie to stab, and then mashing on the trigger until the thing stops moving. Getting grabbed by an undead initiates a button-press event to try to knock it back. Fail and -- true to survival horror -- just a few bites will end your game.

While I've never actually been in a fight against zombies, Dead Island's combat feels just as chaotic and tough as I imagine such an encounter would be -- with appropriate video game elements, of course. Plenty of RPG mechanics are in play, as damage numbers and experience points pop up every time I attack. Still, the fights feel less like a grind and more like a struggle to stay above water every time a zombie moans behind me.

Halfway up the mountain to find the antenna, I come across a pickup truck (and Kummer suggests I hop in to make the journey faster, and presumably safer). Though I'm able to aim the car at some walking corpses for a few good splats, the driving feels hyperrealistic -- more twitchy and uneven than your standard video game driving experience. One crash, for example, shatters my windshield, blocking visibility for a few moments before Xian Mei sticks her foot over the wheel and kicks the broken glass out of the way.

By the time I reach the top of the mountain, the truck's hood is pouring out smoke -- like the game's firearms, cars are a rare luxury that you'll have to treat with care. At the top of the mountain is the lighthouse I'm looking for and the end of the first gameplay segment.

Next, I'm swept away to the island's capital city of Moresby, where a hulking zombie-type in a straitjacket is holed up inside a cemetery. This creep is called a "Ram Zombie" (though that name may change). You can probably imagine what his gig is -- he roars and sprints directly at the player. While I end up dying a few times during the fight (costing me some money and possibly XP, says Kummer), I eventually figure out that I need to jump to the side to dodge him, and then attack his backside.

Why was that thing in a straightjacket? The explanation is part of the story, I'm told, and both Techland and Deep Silver are keeping a lid on that for now. Kummer also won't explain why, as one of the NPCs mentions, my character is immune to zombie bites and obviously special among those on the island. I notice a few more mysteries, as well, like a locker that requires a lock-picking skill to open, a wayward tape recording left by a reporter who'd come to the island to meet a secret informant, and a steadily darkening sky, hinting that Dead Island has more storms in store than just the zombie invasion.

Despite my failure to execute any zombie killings with grace, Dead Island's development seems to be going smooth -- the open-world island environment is stunning, and the RPG side of the game appears surprisingly deep. The controls are somewhat clumsy and may end up being frustrating for those players who prefer more precision, but then again, this is the zombie apocalypse. Never mind elegance; you'll be lucky to get off of this island alive.