When Dead Island was first announced back in 2006, the industry really didn't pay it much heed. It was an ambitious game from a small developer, but it didn't have the "oomph" to stand out. Five years later, things have changed quite a bit. The little game that could is set for release in two short weeks, so Deep Silver sent a preview build our way so we could get a proper hands-on. The disc had a strict one-hour clock that kicked us out when the time was up, but aside from that, everything was there.
If you're unfamiliar with the game, it's basically an open-world zombie fest. Think Grand Theft Auto crossed with Dead Rising — only set in a tropical island paradise instead of Middle America. After a night of hard partying on the resort island of Banoi, you wake to find the power out and your hotel overrun by zombies. Not good.
You soon find out that you are somehow immune to the virus that causes the whole zombification thing, so the survivors that you find ask you to strike out on their behalf. After all, with one bite, they all become the living dead. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you just up and die. Not sure who got the better end of the bargain there.
Going with the open-world model, Dead Island's gameplay appears to be centered on hub areas, where survivors can gather and the individuals can dole out missions. Group leaders give you primary missions, while individuals hand out side-quests for additional rewards and experience points. Quests aren't always straightforward, with some missions requiring you to get an item that is held by someone else who won't give it up unless you do something for them, and so on.
Over the course of two hours with Dead Island, we managed to get a look at two hubs — the lifeguard station and the lighthouse — as well as the surrounding areas, which included the pool, resort bungalows and the beach. The lifeguard station was infested with zombies when we first came upon it. Eliminating all undead opposition was required before the survivors could move in.
Once a base has been established, it offers up a handful of benefits in addition to serving as a source of missions. The biggest one is the ability to repair, upgrade and modify your weapons. You don't start out Dead Island armed. Any weapons you can use are ones that you can find around the island. Initially, what you have is pretty basic, but simple weapons can be combined into deadlier items if you have the right plans. For example, one of the first custom weapons you can create is a stick with nails in it. Spiky thing + zombie head = good for you. Other advantages to bases are health packs and fast travel. Fast travel allows you to move from base to base instantly, with no worry of threat from the zombie hordes.
Dead Island offers up both melee and shooting styles of combat, but we didn't get a chance to try firing a gun. This is most likely due to the fact that we were limited to an hour of play, and chances are that the good stuff comes later. Thankfully, the melee combat has a decent amount of depth to it, so fighting never seemed lacking.
One bit that Dead Island does right is how it plays off zombie lore with the combat. Zombie heads are weak spots and as a result, if you target the head before attacking, you do extra damage. Use a proper bladed weapon (cleaver works nicely), and you can slice a zombie head clean off with a single blow. It's not for the squeamish. Dead Island also doesn't have issue with you running down zombies. Once you've found a working vehicle, you're free to run right over them. As a bonus, they hit the hood with a satisfying thud.
Sound is looking like it'll be an important element in Dead Island because the zombies appear to lie in wait for the prey, only making noise once they are ready to attack. With a stereo setup, it can be difficult to tell which direction the undead are coming from until one of them is right up in your face. A surround setup at least gives you a fighting chance to knock off their heads before they get to yours.
Our biggest worry with Dead Island is in the variety of the missions. We only got to play the beginning portion of the game, but all of the early missions appeared to be either fetch quests (go get this item) or an escort mission (bring this person here). If the game is to stay satisfying, mission variety is going to have to increase as you progress into the game.
Another bit that wasn't too clear is if the game will ever give you a party in single-player mode. Given that our preview build allowed for up to four-player co-op, and the vehicles that we saw in game supported up to four characters, it would seem to make sense that you'll eventually get a party, but there was no way to verify. We also weren't sure if the co-op is drop-in/drop-out or if everyone has to be there from the start. Co-op does hold some promise, though, as it looks as if each player can do his or her own thing, allowing for simultaneous missions to be going on at once.
We only got a limited amount of time with Dead Island, but what we saw of the island was quite promising. Be sure to check back early next month for the final verdict on this zombie-infested island resort. The locals are just dying to meet you.
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