31 Aug 2011
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Game preview: Dead Island

By Contributor

Zombies, once classed as second-rate monsters in B-grade horror movies, have become a growing global phenomenon in recent years, featuring prominently in a wide range of hit films, TV shows, and of course video games.

With a flood of undead titles out there, it can be a struggle to come up with fresh ideas, to spin the experience into something new, refreshing and invigorating. Like a holiday.

Thanks to our reps for Deep Silver, we got some hands-on time with Dead Island, the newest entry into the Zombie slasher/survival horror genre.

Welcome to the island of Banoi, a fictional tropical paradise located off the cost of Papua New Guinea. Warm sun, tropical breezes, crystal clear waters, and zombies. Yep, something is going seriously wrong at the Royal Palms Resort and, to quote The Eagles, ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’. 

Following a brief introduction sequence, I got to choose a character from one of four options, each with their own combat speciality. The options ranged from guns, to thrown weapons, sharp weapons and blunt weapons. In the mood for some visceral Zombie smashing I went with Sam B, a one-hit-wonder alcoholic rapper who likes to smash things. 

The introductory levels are fairly standard, and quite scripted to introduce you to the game, controls, navigation, use of your flashlight etc. Most of the tension came from wondering when I would finally encounter a zombie, and trying to find something that could be used as a weapon to defend myself. Even within the first few minutes, the game alternated between moments of great beauty (looking out from the skyscraper balcony to the fantastic sunset), and (sometimes predictable) horror shock moments. 

I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone, so I won’t give specifics, but eventually you run into some zombies and get rescued by someone. You wake up some time later in a small shack with a few other survivors and get told that you are apparently ‘immune’ to the Zombie infection for some reason. It’s at this point that I should point out (if you hadn’t guessed already) that some of the mechanics, plot elements, and quests in Dead Island work out best if you don’t question them and don’t think too hard about it.

So, great, you are immune to the Zombie infection. Now guess what? That makes you the only person suitable to go out and a) get things, b) look for people c) clear a path to safety or d) anything else that can be thought of. Gee, aren’t you lucky? As mentioned, best not to think about it too much. 

So, after mashing some Zombie heads with an oar to rescue an NPC quest giver, I was off on my first mission: to find a more secure home for my fellow survivors.

From this point, the game is all about the combat. And from my hands-on time so far, that’s not a bad thing.

Your character has a few options available when it comes to zombie combat, with the ability to equip two weapons at any one time (from a large carried inventory). When those break, you can always resort to your fists, or kicking. You can also throw weapons by holding the left trigger to activate an auto-lock-on aiming system.

Yes, weapons in Dead Island suffer damage, and if you aren’t careful that metal pipe that once was so efficient at cleaving undead skulls will end up twisted and mangled and eventually useless. Just like the oar you were using, and that knife too. Hang on, since when did Zombies have corrosive acid-blood that deteriorates metal? Again, best not to think about it too much. 

But if your favourite pipe is looking a bit sadly bent out of shape, fear not, for there are multiple work stations scattered around the island where, with a bit of cash, you can have your weapon looking good as new, or even better if you upgrade it. Wait a minute, why does fixing stuff involve me giving a wooden bench money? Starting to notice a theme? 

Talking of Upgrades though, this is an area of huge potential in Dead Island. Throughout the game you can acquire blueprints, which allow you to upgrade weapons if you have the base parts required. I came across a basic blueprint for a NailBat, namely a bat with nails in it, but by the time I finally found some nails in a shed, I didn't have a suitable bat to use them on. Not to worry, by that point I was thoroughly enjoying my Diving Knife followed by a Metal Pipe combo attack anyway.  

One of the great things about Dead Island is that your character isn't some super soldier with an arsenal of guns, grenades and ammo drops. Instead you have to rely on what you can find, from wooden planks and baseball bats, to diving knives and even propane tanks. We didn't see any guns in our hands at all, but it makes sense that ‘the good stuff’ won’t be encountered till later in the game.

While we are on the topic of Upgrades, it is not only weapons that you can level up. Your character also gains experience throughout the game, which can be spent in one of three skill trees. The skill trees are different for each character, and this is where your character choice really comes into play. As a blunt melee specialist, our weapons branch was filled with skills to either boost blunt weapon damage, or increase the durability of blunt weapons. The two other trees focused on character-specific attacks and survival abilities.

Dead Island boasts itself as an Open World environment, with the ability to explore the whole island, and while I did not get far enough into the game to see much beyond the initial parts of the resort, the quests and areas of the game that were initially very linear, felt like they were opening up as the demo was coming to its conclusion. 

It may sound like there were things that I didn’t like about Dead Island, and while it’s true that the imitation Australian voice acting is terrible, melee combat aiming can be a bit messy, and many of the game mechanics or plot elements don’t make sense, they don’t have to. It’s a Zombie game, not a grand strategy, and the number one point of the game is to have fun smashing Zombies. 

In this, Dead Island appears to be off to a great start, and I eagerly look forward to my next trip to Banoi. Watch out for our full review coming soon.

Dead Island releases on September 9.

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