The last time I saw Dead Island was at E3… in 2006. Kentia Hall, the show's great, barren wasteland of teensy meeting rooms, unmarketable arcade machines, and hot dog vendors still existed. On this particular year, Polish developer Techland had a decent-sized booth set up amid the yellow-carpeted chaos of Kentia. A friendly developer rep didactically explained to me the two PC-only products they were showing. He spent roughly 20 minutes touting the merits of Chrome 2, a follow-up to the developer's semi-liked 2003 first-person shooter, then spent maybe half that time hastily touring me through Dead Island, a zombie game set on a tropical island. Far Cry had been the belle of the PC ball for a couple of years at this point, and I remember the rep excitedly pointing out how the developer's Chrome engine could also do great-looking jungle foliage. And there were zombies. You could hit them with things. In first-person.
I thanked him, went back to our booth, wrote some previews, and then... nothing. Both games seemed to simply disappear into the ether. Chrome 2 never came out, shelved when no publishing deal surfaced and Techland moved on to other work, including the Call of Juarez series for Ubisoft. Dead Island continued to make fitful E3 appearances, but ultimately, I had assumed it suffered the same fate--that is, until a new trailer suddenly surfaced earlier this year, and knocked the collective gaming audience back on its ass. Somehow, this seemingly generic zombie game from five years prior had risen from the dead, and not just as the shambolic-looking title I remembered. The trailer affected a kind of emotional impact that the previous iteration never even hinted at. And while that trailer doesn't exactly benchmark the exact tone of the game you'll be playing, it's safe to say that Dead Island offers up a hell of a lot more than Techland even hinted at when it first debuted the game to the world.== TEASER ==
To be absolutely blunt about it, it feels a little bit like Techland has been quietly amassing inspirado from a variety of other games released in the last few years: Namely, the likes of Valve's multiplayer zombie-shooter, Left 4 Dead, Capcom's raucously silly Dead Rising series, and Bethesda's brand of first-person role-playing games, especially those of the Fallout ilk. The end result--at least from the two levels publisher Deep Silver showed us during a recent press tour--is a game that feels broad, if not overly deep. There were moments of deep, bloody satisfaction, and moments of straight up awkwardness.
The game opens with a cutscene that's like a zombie-plagued version of Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" music video. A man stumbles around a resort on the picturesque tropical island of Banoi, in Papua New Guinea. He is clearly drunk out of his mind, bumping into people, aggressively trying to dance with disinterested ladies, grabbing handfuls of pills off of the floor with no identifiable interest in what they might be, and eventually, careening into (what is hopefully) his hotel room, passing straight out on the bed. In between, there are hints of the coming apocalypse. Visions of dead bodies and cannibalistic bikini babes taking chunks out of hotel staffers, but given the man's general state, it's understandable that he might have other pressing concerns.
This island paradise is the Dead Island of the title, but you won't find yourself limited to the resort area you originally start out in. Banoi is an open world, full of towns, jungles, beaches, and lots and lots of dead things that want to eat the contents of your skull. You'll start the game off as one of four playable characters--or, if you opt to play in online co-op, you and your friends can play as multiple combinations of characters--each inexplicably immune to the zombie virus that's taken hold of the island, and each with their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to combat. For our demo, I played as Xian Mei, a hotel employee with a particular predilection toward bladed weapons.
The first level I checked out was from an earlier portion of the game. Holed up inside a radio tower with a group of other survivors, I took a mission that required me to trek to another location some distance away to grab some flares that had been left on a beach. The giver of this mission was one of several survivors you could take missions from around the tower. NPCs are all over Banoi, and though some are just folk you'll end up chatting with--or getting shouted at by--many will offer up missions and goals for you to partake of. The Deep Silver rep who toured me through the game clocked the game's main storyline at something like 20 hours worth of gameplay, but also said that many additional side-missions could be taken on as well.
Once you leave the relative safety of one of the game's survivor zones, you're immediately in the shit. The flaming, blood-soaked wreckage of a once-gorgeous South Pacific Island is, admittedly, quite the sight to behold. This becomes especially the case once the shuffling corpses of tourists and residents alike start ambling toward you with cannibalistic intent. As Mei's general strength is with blades, I stuck to alternating between a machete and a hefty pickax. The game's zombies feature multiple layers of muscle and meaty bits beneath their tattered surface, so laying into a zombie with a bladed weapon leads to some rather hysterical obliteration--especially when you eventually graduate to Dead Island's weapons upgrade system.
Similar to Dead Rising 2, you'll find work benches around the island, where you can combine things into other implements of zombie death. I saw the usual baseball bats with nails through them, of course. But then, you also have your exploding daggers and electrified machete. Yeah, those are pretty fun.
The trick with the game's combat is a stamina system, which prevents you from just running around, swinging wildly like you haven't a care in the world. The more you jump, dodge and attack, the more you deplete the meter, and if you completely drain it, you're out of action for a few moments while it replenishes. Admittedly, this took some serious getting used to. Zombie games have often taught us that zombies are to be killed bloodily, and killed quickly. Here, you actually have to enact some strategy when hordes of undead start heading in your general direction.
While that strategy does add some depth to the combat you wouldn't otherwise tend to find in a game like this, I also felt like, at times, it limited my enjoyment in killing them off. Moments of satisfaction were definitely there, but other times, I felt like I was dancing around zombies a little too often. Maybe it's telling that the most amusing moment actually came from a glitch where I uppercutted a zombie with the pickax, and it went flying into the air, landing on the ground with a resounding thud and exploding into dozens of pieces of rancid meat. The Deep Silver rep quickly pointed out that that was something they were planning to fix. Honestly, I kind of wanted more absurd stuff like that.
Granted, part of my discomfort with the combat system likely stemmed from jumping into a level far-past the game's tutorial. By this point in the game, many different types of zombies have already been introduced. Early on, you will presumably start out with the slower, more sluggish zombies of the Romero camp. But over time, you'll find yourself up against faster, more aggressive 28 Days Later… brand zombies, big, honking boss zombies, and even bizarre, Left 4 Dead-esque mutant boss zombies.
One of those reared their head in the second level we toured, which took place much later in the game, and brought me into the main city area of the island. Here, I was tasked with rescuing a group of survivors trapped in a church by a fiendish juggernaut of a boss zombie. Looking a little like Hannibal Lecter on a cocktail of HGH and PCP, this guy was using his head as a battering ram to try and get inside the church. To defeat him, I had to run up, taunt him a bit, let him charge me, then attack him from behind when he hit the wall. Yeah, a little bit standard as boss tactics go, but at least I didn't have to hit him on his weak spot three times.
Once I beat him and got inside the church, more missions opened up as I talked to more NPCs, and outside, the weather began to change. One of the cooler visual aspects of the game is how, over the course of the later game sections, the weather will begin to turn seriously sour. Hearkening back to Jurassic Park, you're also in a race against time to try and escape the island before a massive storm hits. Cloud cover, rain, and other nifty weather effects start to pop as the game goes along. All told, the game does look real sharp at this stage of development, though one awkward bit I noticed was the NPCs, who have a little bit of that dead-eyed Oblivion thing going on. The voice-acting also is… a little suspect in places. While I enjoyed that Xian Mei clearly was getting into her role as a righteous hand of zombie destruction, some of her one-liners are seriously cringe-worthy.
All of this has been taken away from a 30-minute chunk of a purportedly 20-hour game, so clearly there is a great deal more to Dead Island that has yet to be seen. My primary reaction to that 30-minute demo was one of general admiration for the sheer volume of ideas the game has in its head. Yes, many of those ideas have been done by other games in the past, but Dead Island wears its inspirations on its filthy, blood-encrusted sleeve, and for the most part, it seems to make good use of them. Even removing the lackluster, seemingly destined for budget bin hell version of the game I saw all those years ago, this version of Dead Island feels like Techland's biggest, riskiest venture yet. With any luck, that risk will pay off as something truly exciting for those still unwearied by the deluge of zombie-everything currently permeating pop culture. There are still a lot of us out there, believe it or not.