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Dead Island: "There is an apocalypse happening"

Techland showed Keza MacDonald Dead Island in London yesterday, revealing a schlocky lead and a quest for emotion. Welcome to the after-life. It's a beach.

That Dead Island trailer was effective for so many reasons. The reversed narrative structure, the music, the direction, the sheer emotional shock factor of seeing a child as the centre of the violence – it is, in my opinion, advertising as art. However the game itself turns out, Dead Island has already made a lasting contribution to videogames in that it has changed our mindset about what a game trailer can be.

But you know the main thing about it? It dealt with the human side of the zombie apocalypse – something that videogames barely ever bother to do. Film does, and so do recent TV series like Walking Dead. Their close-knit groups of survivors and heartstring-tugging setpieces make you remember that these shambling monstrosities were human, once – that they were once someone’s parent, someone’s child; that they may have left someone behind.

When you’re frolicking around in a tutu with a machete in Dead Rising 2, saving Chuck Greene’s little daughter might be at the back of your mind – but you’re still throwing stuffed toys at zombies whilst dressed in a mankini. The Dead Island trailer shows a very human tragedy. Will the actual game do the same?

"There is an apocalypse happening"

“That’s something we are actually aiming for,” says Vincent Kummer, Dead Island’s Brand Manager at publisher Deep Silver. “In the game we will never have this compressed emotion that you can show in a three-minute CGI trailer, because the trailer is limited to that particular moment, that situation.

“But there is an apocalypse happening, and we try to show all the different emotions that the characters you meet are going through because of that. People who have lost their families, people who had to kill their own family members because they got turned, even people who just try to cash in on the whole situation. So we really go for the emotions – we want to show how people react to something like this happening.”

Dead Island is a first-person open-world action game starring four different characters, who arrived on an island resort expecting a laid-back holiday and awoke one morning to a nightmare. Each of them is a different class – there’s a tank, an assassin, a jack-of-all-trades, and each has a different skill tree that levels up as the game goes on.

The demo shows us Sam B, the tank character, a one-hit-wonder rap star who came to the island to perform his track, got hideously drunk and fell asleep in his bathroom. He awoke the next morning in the middle of the end of the world.

He’s rescued by a member of the coast guard and taken to a makeshift safehouse where terrified survivors are having a high-octane argument about whether to kill him, fearing that he’s been infected. When it becomes clear that he’s not, the first thing they do is shove him out onto the beach to clear the way to a safer hiding place. Considerate.

“You don’t bring handguns on holiday – that’s not a logical thing that would happen."

Dead Island features almost exclusively melee combat – as Kummer points out, “You don’t bring handguns on holiday – that’s not a logical thing that would happen. If you’re trapped on an island, you usually do don’t find a bazooka in the corner.” What you can find are hunting knives, boat paddles, anything that happens to be lying around.

Weapons will be fairly scarce, says Kummer, so making repairs at workbenches will be an essential skill. You can also construct new weapons from recovered components – I see an electric machete and a sticky bomb made out of a hunting knife. Different zombies need different tactics; suiciders need to be taken out from afar with thrown weapons, where 28 Days Later style running zombies (or zoombies, as I like to call them) are best dealt with by chopping off their legs rather than bludgeoning skulls.

Dead Island’s aesthetic plays on a mixture of heavenly scenery and hellish events: cyan pools filling with blood; gorgeous, whitish sand littered with bodies; terrified survivors in surf shorts and bikinis. It’s definitely not funny, unlike Dead Rising’s juxtaposition of mall music and moaning undead.

But Sam B, with his “Heeeell yeah!”s, his head-stomping and his faintly ludicrous backstory, is a pretty schlocky protagonist. He plays up very much to the kick-ass videogame character stereotype, which rather undermines the emotional tone that Dead Island claims to be going for. But Kummer says that it’s intentional, and that he’s just one of the four character options.

"A little bit cheesy side"

“If you have four different characters, you want to have something for everyone,” he says. “There are going to be people that go into a zombie game like this and just want to have fun with it – we showed you Sam B today, who is really over the top and goes a little bit cheesy side. But the other characters are going to be down to earth, they will be more realistic, they’re going to take pity on the other ones on the island, or be more self-destructive, perhaps. They’ll be very different characters.”

"That" trailer.

The story doesn’t change for each character, though – aside from the setting, events play out the same way. Kummer claims that the story will last 20-30 hours, and infers that there will be four-player co-op: “The story itself is the same for one reason – we have four-player multiplayer, and if you had four different storylines it would be tough to get those four characters into the same game, because then it would make no sense at all any more to play the storyline together.”

Dead Island isn’t what I would call survival horror. It doesn’t trade on sudden scares and creeping dread, like the older Resident Evils or Dead Space. Instead the fear comes from being overwhelmed; in an open-world environment where the undead are omnipresent, your chances are fairly slim.

But that’s not to say it isn’t horrific. The image of a paradise gone terribly wrong is an affecting one, and against the backdrop of sun and sea, the zombie apocalypse is particularly disturbing. If it can communicate even a fraction of the human tragedy that its teaser trailer does over the course of its 30 hours, it’ll be the most interesting zombie game released in a long while.

Dead Island releases this summer for 360, PS3 and PC.

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