Wish you were here – Dead Island hands-on

By Stace Harman
11 July 2011 07:01 GMT

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.

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.

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