Mana Bar Melbourne recently hosted a Tiki-themed Dead Island media and community event and we were there to take a hands-on look at the game.
If you’ve heard about Dead Island, then it’s probably from the commotion stirred up by the cinematic and emotional teaser trailer. It does a great job of tugging the heart strings and leaves you with a sense of complete hopelessness for the situation that’s come about on the island. It does all this with most of it being played in reverse; representing the upside down world these holiday-makers are suddenly enduring and it’s all seemingly completely out of your control. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and click here for a front-row seat.
Turns out the situation isn’t as hopeless as it appeared though, well, not for our characters. Set on the fictional tropical island of Banoi, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, you play as one of four character choices, all staying or working at the Royal Palms Resort, who have an (as yet) unexplainable immunity to the zombie plague that has swept the island overnight.
Before even getting into the game I wondered two things, how would it build any suspense or tension on a tropical island, a place so serene, relaxing and bright, and secondly, what would keep fighting off these zombies interesting in such an environment? My second question was quickly answered by the emphasis the game puts on melee combat. Punching, kicking and hitting zombies with weapons proves to be very satisfying, and stomping on them becomes somewhat addictive. So much so that I got a bit carried away at first and missed the technical aspect of the specific area attacks. Targeting an arm or leg and breaking it can slow it down, making it easier to finish off, by say, hitting its head off.
Suspense and tension was built partially with the areas that were blacked out; buildings and rooms with low or no light, only able to be navigated with the use of a limited power torch (that recharges when not in use). But more so with by the way these zombies moved and attacked; more frenzied and unpredictable movements that had them behind you before you knew it.
I was originally tempted to use the character Xian Mei, a sharp weapons expert, but eventually went with Sam B, a New Orleans rapper on the island to perform, who happened to be a blunt weapons expert, which really came into effect once I upgraded my bare hand combat and busted out some knuckle-dusters.
Other character options were a tribal tattooed throwing expert, Logan, and Purma, a firearms expert with an accent that could have been Australian sounding, if you’re American. Both I’m sure would have offered colourful and amusing commentary on the zombies and scenery, as Sam B did.
The first thing I noticed was how heavy my character was to move. This could be due to the hangover he was experiencing from the night before, although it did seem to stick around as I progressed through the terrain and challenges, no matter how much energy drink I consumed, at a dollar a can. Despite that, the running was fluid and with a (what seemed generous) limit on how long you can run, you get a sense this will be important to watch at later stages of the game.
I did find the heavy movement made lining up hits on zombies slightly less accurate, and collecting money from the corpses and other objects not as easy to do on the fly.
My first encounter with zombies comes from choosing to help an ambushed life-guard, with another hard to pick accent, either American heard Aussie or perhaps South African this time.
Once you step outside you get a real sense of the immediate environment and a face to face look at the zombies, and how Techland have stepped it up from the visual let-down that was Call of Juarez: The Cartel. It isn’t breaking any boundaries compared to some of the first and third-person games we’ve seen lately, but definitely a great looking game, with great scenery, zombie and character features as well as weapons, weapon-damage and even some decent-looking pickup trucks to get about in.
Starting with a boat paddle for a weapon, I quickly came across sticks, metal pipes and more paddles scattered around the environment. With continued use (by beating the crap out of zombies) these weapons quickly deteriorated and the need to constantly pick up new weapons was obvious.
Zombie heads flying off, being crushed by weapons, or your feet, and a good splash of blood to boot, really made me want to experiment with as many weapons and attacks as possible and really get into the gore. And considering the game it is, this all seemed very fitting and not over-the-top. Luckily for us in Australia, it escaped any censoring or cuts, so we will get to see all this under an MA15+ classification, unlike with the similar-in-theme Left 4 Dead 2, which was clearly unfairly censored.
Playing on a PlayStation 3, once I was somewhat used to the movement, the controls were straightforward. In one instance I did break a weapon to find that I had to manually convert back to using bare hands. Once realised this kept me a lot more aware of how I was attacking but doesn’t seem natural to the situation and is jarring when being rushed by a gang of zombies. It would be more realistic that once the weapon is broke, you’d just go back to using your hands automatically, at least that’s what I’d like to think I’d do it ever face with that situation.
The other movement I felt was almost a natural given, but not included, was being able to run and kick the zombies, with the addition of this similar type of run into prone or slide and attack movement being added mainly to recent first person shooters, it would have been nice to see something like this added.
Coming across a workstation also opened up the possibility to fix weapons or even customise them. And it’s here the game’s currency system rears its head as customisation won’t only cost you the right combination of materials but also a wad of cash (collected throughout and even off dead zombies). Both times I went here though, I only happened to have one or the other so couldn’t properly experiment. Moreover, while I didn’t come across any in this hands-on demo, there are also blueprints to be found across the infected island, giving you knowledge to create all sorts of fun, zombie-slaying appliances.
On the narrative front, clues suggesting what may have caused this dreamy tropical paradise to turn into a hellish nightmare are appropriately placed throughout the island, suggesting that story builds and perhaps even blends into your character’s destiny.
After a few setbacks (read: deaths) I reached the lighthouse. Zombies I had killed before each of my own demises weren’t there the next time round, which created an odd emptiness, and suggested permanent death with enemies. Where I’m normally used to anticipating to have to go through the same motions again, or at least slightly varied ones, there was simply open, safe space for me to explore and find more weapons and cash.
Before securing the lighthouse I came across one of the variations of zombie types and levels: a Level-3 Ramming Zombie, which needed more tactical skill than brute force to take out.
Once secure the lighthouse offers a safe haven and opens up more options to help people, lining up more challenges. Just out you come across some vehicles that are still in tact enough to be used for transport, ramming zombies or a little of both; adding some vehicular action to the game’s gameplay tool-set.
With the amount of fun this hands-on demo offered, I’m sure I’ll be paying it through with at least two of the characters. And there’s also the 4 player co-op option, for those wanting to vacation with their friends.
Dead Island, developed by Techland, published by Deep Silver and distributed by QVS in Australia is releasing on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on September 9, 2011.