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E3 2011 Preview: Dead Island

By Jeff Buckland, 6/15/2011

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After a fantastic trailer put Techland's Dead Island on many gamers' most-wanted lists and a rather spectacular showing at GDC this year cemented the game as a real contender in journalists' eyes, the hype for this upcoming zombie-action game is getting pretty huge - especially for a game that came pretty much out of nowhere only a short while back. Dead Island's brand of cooperative play evokes Left 4 Dead, but the melee-based focus and crafting system reminds us of Fallout 3 and even Dead Rising, while the open-world design of the tropical island feels like Oblivion meets Far Cry.

I should probably stop name-dropping other games, because while Dead Island feels like it's borrowing the best from a wide range of great (and successful) games, the end effect is one that winds up feeling entirely unique. The four characters you can play as are immune to the zombie virus, so you guys are the ones tasked with doing most of the dangerous stuff on the tropical island of Banoi. Your quests are usually given by the few survivors that aren't immune; they often cower in the few areas of the island not infested by zombies. As you complete these missions, you level up and find and create new weapons and gear; it's not exactly Diablo or Borderlands when it comes to loot diversity, but there's definitely a strong sense of progression, especially in the talents that you choose - and each set of talents is unique to each of the four playable characters.


Firearms are kicking around on the island, but you need to save them for tough situations, because ammo is very scarce. Even melee weapons break down eventually, and while the item decay isn't quite as bad as it was in Dead Rising and you can repair items at workbenches, having your machete break right when you're about to put the finishing touches on a dismemberment is something you have to prepare for in advance. What's helpful is that you can throw many of the weapons in your arsenal, and that's important when the exploding zombies start charging at you. There are components and schematics you can recover for building new weapons, so there's an extra RPG element on top of the leveling and talent systems, too.

How the action plays is a lot like Left 4 Dead, where staying together is key and zombie attacks can come any time and from almost any angle. The difference is that your progression is tracked RPG-style and the open world of the game allows you to take quests and complete them in the order you choose. Our hands-on play took place in Banoi Island's main city area, and we were tasked with traveling around a city square and putting up banners on billboards, presumably to notify survivors of where to go to find safety.


Fighting zombies is very satisfying in Dead Island, mostly because of the ability to chop off or crush limbs, and the need to, in many cases, also stomp the head of a downed zombie to really kill it. One thing that is interesting is how the game actually uses its animation system to procedurally adjust a character's head-stomp animation, rather than magically moving the stomper's body to the proper location to do a canned animation. The system still needs work, though, as there are some pretty funny bugs with how it looks from another player's perspective.

In the short time I got to play, there were plenty of close calls, big explosions (especially when another journalist got a little silly with the grenade store he found), fun decapitations and limb destruction, and a good mix of melee and ranged combat. Communication was key, and each fight had that desperate quality to it that works so well in a cooperative horror game like this. Things felt much more hectic, too, considering how much we all had to rely on melee weapons to stay alive.


We've only seen a few glimpses of how the whole game is structured from beginning to end, but with word that you can use a vehicle to travel around, this sounds like it'll be more than just a cooperative game where you drop back to the lobby after finishing a "level". There's an ongoing adventure here between the game's four characters, each with their own specialties, talent trees, and personalities. I get the feeling that the success of Dead Island could rely a lot on how that all works when four random people get into a game together; does each player have their own persistent characters? Can there be two versions of Sam B in the same session together? Can you take weapons and levels from one multiplayer session into the next?

We'll finally get the chance to play Dead Island all we want on PC, PS3, or 360 when it's released on September 6th in the US, and on the 9th in the rest of the world.


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