Dead Island Hands-On Preview

By Darryl Kaye on July 8, 2011, 11:56AM EDT

If you only learn one thing after playing Dead Island, it's that there are more than enough ways to kill a zombie should you ever find yourself in the middle of a zombie invasion. Well, that's the lesson I learnt at least. But after using so many different weapons to beat their brains into a bloody pulp, what other lesson could be learnt? I suppose there's probably something in there about learning to work as a team, coping with loss and dealing with an epidemic, but that's all circumstantial in comparison to beating zombies to death.

However, in case you've missed everything about Dead Island so far, it's a first-person zombie game that takes place on an island that's a popular holiday spot - Palms Resort to be specific. One day it's a bustling tourist trap, the next it's infested with zombies and people are struggling to come to terms with exactly what's happened.

From here, it's about survival. Groups of people have banded together in places like churches and it's your job to try and bring some kind of stability in this time of chaos. To do so, you will take control of one of the game's four characters: Xian Mei, Logan, Sam B or Purna. It's designed so that each of the characters feels quite similar, but at the same time, they all have a specific role to play. Xian Mei, for example, is an assassin class, while Sam B fills the role of tank.

In the recent co-op demo I played, I took up the role of Logan. He's been type-cast as the "leader" of the group, and he's a former American Football star.

Before anything else though, I just had to flick open the inventory and see what goodies were on offer. In an instant, it was clear to see that Techland, the developer behind the game, wanted Dead Island to cross into that blurry realm of "realistic, but not too realistic"; you can carry 20+ weapons. Try to imagine someone carrying around 20 baseball bats and you might get an idea of how implausible that is, but after killing a few zombies it was easy to see why this decision was made - weapons degrade at a rather alarming rate.

What's great about this system, is that not only does it force you to micro-manage a bit, but the weapons degrade in a visual sense too. So you've found yourself a nice military-grade machete. It's all nice and shiny. Chop off a few zombie limbs and it will get covered in mucky blood; chop off quite a few more and you will see the metal start to deteriorate. It's even better with wooden weapons, as they start to splinter and split down the middle.

All of the standard weapons are in there, with the basic knife and sledgehammer making an appearance. But I was rather surprised to find a tonfa lying around - it packed some punch too. It did again highlight the "realistic, but not too realistic" mantra, as I was able to make zombie heads explode by using a wooden stick, but who cares, it makes zombie heads explode.

Each weapon you find can also be upgraded to increase their damage, durability, etc. and not only that, modifications can be fitted to them. Maybe you aren't happy with the damage output that your knife gives when you launch it at a zombie's head. So why not strap some explosives too it and see if that works out better. Just make sure your team-mates aren't standing next to said zombie... something I had to find out the hard way.

Dead Island isn't just about hacking defenceless zombies into small pieces though, some of them present a much tougher challenge. For example, there's one called "The Suicider", who explodes if you get close to him. Another type, called "The Ram", is wrapped up in a straight jacket and charges at people. To kill this tough customer, you have to attack it from the back or the sides.

After reading this far, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Dead Island is all about fast-paced action - much like another first-person shooter co-operative zombie game. However, Dead Island is a very different experience. There are guns in the game, but the core experience is a melee one. And this means that things can go rather pear shaped even against a few harmless zombies. If you wander off from the pack a little bit, you can get blindsided, smacked around a bit and killed. It's for this reason, that you don't get huge hordes of zombies rushing at you and because of it, the game instead promotes a much more harsh experience.

There are some reservations though. It's unclear how well the story is put together. From what I saw in the demonstration, the "missions" you get given could get rather boring. Sticking up posters and finding bleach might sound like rather exciting tasks, but it's difficult to tell how long they will keep your attention for. There are also some production issues, such as with the walking animations - they seem very stodgy.

Dead Island looks like it will be a fun experience nonetheless. And if you have a fetish for both zombies and melee combat, this is the perfect game for you. It's due out for release on the 9th of September this year on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. If you want to pre-order, here's where you need to go (UK, US).

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