Wish you were here – Dead Island hands-on

Monday, 11th July 2011 07:01 GMT By Stace Harman

If you haven’t booked a summer holiday yet perhaps you’d consider the Royal Palms resort. Just be sure to pack the essentials: sun block, travellers’ cheques and as many melee weapons as you can stuff in your suitcase.

Welcome to Dead Island

Features a four-player co-op campaign promoting team work and group tactics.

Created by Polish developer Techland and published by Deep Silver.

Focuses on first-person melee combat with RPG and weapon customisation elements.

Launching September 2011 on PS3, 360 and PC

Hack open a zombie and you expect to find decayed, vital-no-more, organs along with buckets of blood, gore and assorted viscera. However, Dead Island’s zombies hold an additional surprise ingredient: numbers.

Yep: stab, slash, maim, mutilate and bludgeon the zombiefied inhabitants of the once idyllic holiday resort on Banoi island and out pour a multitude of numbers. These numbers represent the part of Dead Island that you won’t have seen in screenshots: an experience system that lends a hefty dollop of RPG to what has, up to now, looked very much like a straightforward first-person melee title.

Of course, where there’s experience there’s levelling and here that translates to increasing stats and obtaining perks that grant bonuses to abilities such as aiming, throwing distance and lock-picking as well as increasing the effectiveness and brutality of special move ‘rage’ attacks.

The levelling system is one of a number of interesting elements that we’re introduced to during our co-op orientated hands-on time with Techland’s upcoming tale of zombie apocalypse. Many of these features point towards a game that may prove to be deeper and more considered than it has previously appeared.

Don’t say a prayer for me now

Our four player experience begins with our motley group picking characters: Sam B – an ex-rapper and the strongest of the four he’s loosely defined as the tank class; Xian Mei – an employee of the resort prior to the island going to hell, she’s a svelte, assassin-type who’s wearing entirely impractical high heels; Logan – a former American football star who’s a good all-rounder and excels in throwing anything he gets his hands on; and the previously unannounced fourth character: Purna – little is said of her backstory but she’s apparently the most proficient firearms user.

A further consideration of character selection is the style in which you want to play: Sam B may be the strongest but that’s because he’s got the most meat on him, something that the ravenous freaks of the island pay heed to when selecting targets. This will often lead to them making a beeline for him, even if it means passing up the relative side-dish that is Xian Mei in order to sink their teeth into the beefy main course, thus allowing some strategic play options involving baiting and crowd management.

The area we’re introduced to is on the poorer side of the island, far removed from the glitz and glamour of the resort glimpsed in the trailers so far. This is where the islands inhabitants live – narrow streets littered with dilapidated shacks, piles of refuse and crisscrossed by a muddy river.

We’re holed up in a church with a number of other survivors, many of whom have the look NPCs with requests that only you can fulfil and that will lead to a fat purse and a wodge of experience points. It so happens that one of this sorry lot wants us to venture out on to the streets to put up some posters in the hope that his wife and daughter will see them and know to come to the church for refuge.

My first thought is: ‘if they’re out there, they’re likely already dead’

My first thought is: ‘if they’re out there, they’re likely already dead’ but that kind of thinking never facilitated levelling up and so we agree to go off on a jolly jaunt for this overly-optimistic chap. Before we set out on our fool’s errand, however, we’re advised to tool up by making use of both the local merchant and a work bench. This introduces another element of customisation and personalisation: weapon crafting.

“When you create a new weapon you’ll have the standard weapon stats alongside icons that indicate any special properties the weapon might have,” explains Deep Silver’s brand manager Peter Brolly. “So, for example, if you’ve taped a battery pack to an axe it may have a chance to electrify enemies and if you hammer nails through a baseball bat it will increase the odds of it causing your enemies to bleed, inflicting additional damage for a few seconds after they’ve been hit.”

For the purpose of this playthrough we’ve been granted an almost limitless pot of cash with which to buy weapons and crafting components which explains why we’re able to buy pretty much all of the merchant’s stock. This includes a number of everyday-items-turned-melee-weapons with pleasingly RPG sounding names like a ‘shoddy feeble sledge hammer’, a ‘leeching frail heavy wrench’ and the slightly more confidence inspiring ‘sturdy enervating kukri’.

In the game proper, we’re told, funds will be more strictly limited making weapon maintenance essential so as to keep the pointy bits lethal and to avoid cudgels shattering after caving in numerous zombie heads.

“There will also be a limit to the number of weapons that you can carry,” Brolly advises. “We don’t want to have people running around with shopping carts full of weapons, after all!”
Suitably tooled up we take to the streets to paste posters in prominent locations and witness a dynamic weather system that delivers flash tropical storms and periods of dazzling sunshine. Unsurprisingly, we run into a large number of crazed, flesh-eating cannibals along the way which gives us ample opportunity to try out Dead Island’s raison d’être: melee combat.

The ability to target specific enemy body parts seems a little fiddly at first, not to mention pointless – after all, everyone knows that to properly kill a zombie to death one must remove the head or destroy brain – but it soon becomes clear that the localised targeting grants the opportunity for strategic play and some of the stronger classes of zombie require more advanced tactics than repeated blows to the head.

The Thug, for example, is a tall, gangly lout who flails his arms around – dealing significant damage to those close by and so targeting his arms before lopping of his head is the wisest course of action. Rams are great hulking beasts in straitjackets, only vulnerable from the rear, whilst suiciders will come running at you before exploding in a mist of poisonous intestinal gas.

The targeting system helps to facilitate the most effective methods for dealing with each zombie type and after some initial gung-ho antics our group soon begins to work together: staying close to one another, reviving each other and retrieving one another’s flung weapons – which remain imbedded in their targets after they’ve collapsed into a bloody and headless heap.

On our way to completing our mission we come across a warehouse, boarded up from the inside and under siege by a mob of the undead. Dispatching the assailants leads to a meeting with another group of survivors who have holed up here – many of whom have additional wants and needs should we wish to add to our list of side quests. This also provides hints to level structure: hub areas surrounded by sandbox environments that vary in size and location.

The award-winning trailer.

Expectation management

After gorily dispatching scores of zombies and pasting up posters that nobody is likely to see we head back to the church to collect our reward, get our fix of progress-enhancing experience and to speak to some of the sorry looking souls who have other tasks for us.

After the furore surrounding Dead Island’s first trailer earlier this year – which depicted a family under assault from the undead, a father killing his recently-zombiefied daughter and a haunting soundtrack – it’s apparent that we’re going to have to be asked to do more than put up some posters or retrieve some insulin for a diabetic survivor if we’re to get anywhere near the level of emotion stirred up by the trailer. I ask Brolly if there’s a danger that the trailer has instilled unrealistic expectations in those that have seen it.

“We were trying to convey the atmosphere of the game and, by having a family being attacked, show that nobody is safe from a zombie attack,” Brolly counters with the look of a man who is explaining the motivation for the trailer, not for the first time.

“But we will have times throughout the game where we will be aiming for the narrative to have emotional impact, be it the main storyline or some of the side missions. For example, there’s a guy who wants you to hunt down his wife and daughter because they’ve been turned into zombies or the guy in the trailer who’s on his knees sobbing because he’s had to kill his family, so we’re definitely aiming for emotional impact with some of the narrative.”

Playing a mission out of context at a point halfway through the game and being deliberately over-powered as we are, it’s difficult to gauge at this stage if Techland will be able to pull off a more affecting narrative.

But, having been pleasantly surprised by the level of customisation and RPG elements of the game, maybe Techland will also surprise by achieving moments of emotional rawness amongst the otherwise brutal – and occasionally humorous – popping of zombie heads and high-adrenaline melee combat.

And if they don’t: well, perhaps having zombie piñatas erupt in geysers of blood, loot and experience points might yet prove satisfying enough in itself.

Dead Island is due for release on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on September 6 in the US and September 9 in PAL territories.



  1. Christopher Jack

    You’ve got me interested, one of a dozen games on my radar this year.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. Stace Harman

    #1 My interest has been piqued too. As is often the case the hands-on was much more revealing than any of the trailers had been up to that point and showed it to be an interesting proposition.

    One to watch, perhaps.

    #2 3 years ago
  3. Clupula

    The second I knew two of the characters were an ex-rapper and a football player, I lost interest in the game completely. There’s too many other games coming out in September I have way more interest in, anyway.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. El_MUERkO

    I hope the lady in the high heals puts on some practical shoes during the game, it’s hard to suspend disbelief when someone is comically dressed like that.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. Stace Harman

    #3 The focus of this hands-on was the co-op so we didn’t see how the choice of characters affects the narrative. But yep, it’s certainly going to be a bumper end to the year, lots going on.

    #4 Not during our demo she didn’t, unfortunately. It *was* a little off-putting as it’s the kind of detail you immediately notice. They weren’t silly-high but they were heels nonetheless!

    #5 3 years ago
  6. stretch215

    @3 why?? This game could be awesome, and you’ll miss it because you don’t like the characters former occupations? What are you like 15?

    #6 3 years ago
  7. Phoenixblight


    People said that Duke may be awesome. Sorry but the previews I have read for this game have been stating its boring as hell and its a complete mess. SO its going on my Game Q list for GameFly. Silent Hill HD collection comes out in September

    #7 3 years ago
  8. V3NOM

    It’s a good game but it’s just a copy from L4D actually we can call it L4D3

    #8 3 years ago
  9. YoungZer0

    @8: You hate reading, don’t you?

    #9 3 years ago
  10. IL DUCE

    Pretty much Dead Rising on an island in first person…not very original whatsoever…

    At first I thought it was supposed to be some realistic game and ‘oh firearms are rare because they wouldn’t be laying all over the place in real life’ yet you would duct tape together an axe and a battery pack you get some magical electrified axe…the spiked/nail bat is more realistic but I’ve never seen someone using an electrified machete irl…either be realistic or don’t…rather than say oh its realistic so there’s this and then talk about the other completely unrealistic ideas present in the game, just stick to one or the other, that would give the sense of less confusion on your part…

    For a game I was once contemplating buying, I’m debating whether I should even bother renting it now

    #10 3 years ago
  11. IL DUCE

    That hands on also fails to mention the sub par graphics the game is sporting…but just like DNF every one will hype it up in previews and not mention any negatives and then totally switch gears and basically say they knew it would suck all along…

    That’s not particularly aimed at the staff on this site, especially since they don’t publish reviews here, but I’m sure I will get this vibe from other sites that have put up previews saying nothing but good things about the game and then give it a 5/10 when its released…

    #11 3 years ago
  12. Phoenixblight

    “That hands on also fails to mention the sub par graphics the game”

    Graphics don’t matter if the gameplay is solid. Look at the top selling games; COD, WOW, Mario, Zelda, Tetris, etc. If you don’t have solid gameplay your game is broken and it doesn’t matter how pretty it is the game is a turd. Not saying Dead Island gameplay is solid because from previews and bloggers its far from it. The studio is putting all their money in marketing the game to hype it up. Which sucks because it could have been an awesome game from a concept stand point but it looks like they failed in execution.

    #12 3 years ago
  13. Gekidami

    I’m all for a Dead Rising minus the ridiculous amounts of loading.

    #13 3 years ago
  14. IL DUCE

    @12 I agree with everything after your first sentence…the problem is the point you are trying to make loses credibility when you mention CoD…MW2 was probably the best looking game at its time of release and is still up there with the best looking games…look at the success of games like Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, GTA IV, Uncharted 2, Killzone 2 & 3, Halo: Reach, The Witcher 2, Assassin’s Creed (II and Brotherhood), I won’t mention anymore because the list goes on and on…they all looked AMAZING at the time of release and it was a positive aspect people always associated with the game and many of them still look great…not to mention Mario is usually the best looking game on the Wii, and what Zelda has come out recently that wasn’t for 3DS in 2006 Twilight Princess looked real good for its time on a non HD system

    #14 3 years ago
  15. Phoenixblight

    Yeah but like I said if the gameplay is shit it doesn’t matter how pretty the game looks, its still shit. No player is going to play game with crappy gameplay and think “well at least it looks good.”

    As a developer you want to make sure your controls and game play are tight, everything else is aesthetics which adds upon the game to make it that much better. No game can stand on eye candy alone.

    #15 3 years ago
  16. IL DUCE

    @15 Personally, I think Uncharted’s game play isn’t that great, kind of feels a bit sluggish and the controls are iffy…it definitely wouldn’t be as popular as it is (or was) if it didn’t look so good…which Uncharted 3 has not impressed me whatsoever graphically…

    I’m not a big fan of Killzone’s controls and game play either…I guess a shooter is a shooter though, I’m really just not a fan of the dual shock, not meant for shooters…

    Not to mention once again CoD, it’s a streamlined, bare boned, twitch shooter…the gameplay is smooth, but its nothing special…the single player has turned into a world tour of one set piece to another…obviously multiplayer is king so I give it credit where credit is due, but still…

    You just gotta have a balance of both…I’m not disagreeing with you, game play is definitely the biggest factor but a lot of people put a lot of stock into graphics (myself included), it doesn’t mean I won’t play a game if it doesn’t look that great but it may turn me off depending on my interest in the content…and how bad it looks, and from what I’ve seen in the demos that were released during E3, Dead Island is a budget title, and maybe they should’ve spent less money on that trailer, even though it was awesome, and used that money to make a better game instead of getting media exposure for a game that will not live up to many expectations…

    #16 3 years ago

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