previews\ May 19, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Dead Island Preview


Ever since a haunting trailer of a little girl running from a pack of zombies hit the net, attention has been focused on Deep Silver’s Dead Island like a laser point on a rotting zombie head. We saw it back at GDC, and the fusion between Borderlands-esque co-op, open world gameplay, and first-person perspective coupled with a Dead Rising sense of item and weapon resource is a compelling concoction.

Last week, after a gentle ferry ride across the San Francisco Bay, I arrived in the small town of Larkspur to visit Deep Silver’s small and unassuming offices. It was there that I stepped onto the fictional island of Banoi for my first real hands-on with Dead Island.

Back at GDC, journalists were shown the first area of the game. Players controlled washed up rapper Sam B as zombies quickly overtook the resort island. As one of the only people resistant to the infection, he’s tasked with getting to a nearby ranger station, a quick drive away. Then the preview ended.

This time I was starting up right where the GDC demo ended: in the ranger station with some other survivors. Two things were different. One, before I was able to move around, I screened a cinematic of a massive club party with drunk twenty-somethings everywhere. Two, I watched the zombie apocalypse occur through the eyes of a drunkard stumbling to his hotel room, but not before seeing a young Asian woman attending to a bitten victim in the bathroom. Our “hero” passes out in a hotel room only for my hands-on time to begin.

My character was that Asian woman in the bathroom, Xian Mei. She’s one of a few survivors who are immune to the virus. Unlike Sam B, she's a little faster, and her specialty is bladed weapons. Knives, machetes--anything with a sharp edge is her domain. Each of the four characters has slightly different abilities, and besides her speedy demeanor and knife mastery, she can enter a rage mode to deal extra damage. Overall, she should fulfill the rouge or assassin role for players hoping to team up.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to play Dead Island with other players, though from what I saw, the experience looks quite a bit like Borderlands. While the individual characters have some slight plot differences, they generally follow the same path of acquiring missions, exploring the island, and taking zombies out.

One area players will want to tease apart are the skill trees and stat boosts. While I'm not allowed to get into specifics, expect to see different options for players as they level up. Everything from passive stat bonuses, inventory slots, and abilities are broken up into three skill trees, each with a different focus.

Back to Xian Mei. At the ranger station, the leader of the survivors asks her to travel to a nearby lighthouse. After talking with the leader, I was able to accept a bunch of missions on the side from the other survivors. Before heading out, I went to the workbench to repair and upgrade my weapons. Every weapon can be improved by repair and upgrades, which also change its appearance. However, combining weapons proves much more effective at taking down zombies. Combining weapons to create a makeshift invention like a spiked bat is easy. Collect the right resources, and you can make it happen. It’s very evocative of Dead Rising. I’ve been told there are thousands of different weapons once you account for upgrades and combinations. Most of these weapons are melee, but the occasional gun may show up. However, those are only marginally more effective.

Once stocked up and ready to go, Xian needed to find a car to drive to the lighthouse. Adventuring outside the safety of these zones is a calculated risk. The map in the corner is sparse, with only a white line offering guidance and some red dots highlighting important areas. Medical supplies and weapons are randomly dropped, and zombies move around in packs. There are different types to deal with, and each one has to be approached in the right manner. For example, the standard zombies don’t pose too much of a problem--just whack on them until they die. They have a habit of sneaking behind you, forcing the player to QTE out of the attack.

Suicide zombies charge at you and explode, forcing players to react before they can get close enough to kill. These zombies are a serious threat, as you’ll have to toss your weapon at them, rendering it useless until you pick it up again (smart players will build bombs to solve this problem). There are also speedy zombies inspired by 28 Days Later. Other zombies you’ll come across include stronger tank zombies, which can take more damage, and the Ram, a huge zombie that I’ll discuss in a moment.

Xian quickly locates a truck not far from the station the survivors are hiding in. Along the way, players can talk to NPCs to accept more side missions, and it seems that almost every human character has a quest for you to perform. With people everywhere, there's a lot to do.

But first, players have to reach the lighthouse. Survivors have holed themselves up here as well, creating a safe zone from the zombies outside. These types of areas are all over the island, so players will never have to go that far to find shelter. Anyway, the people here are trying to be a little more proactive in dealing with the undead problem, so after talking to the vendor (people are always trying to make a buck or two) and stocking up, it’s off to a nearby beach cave to collect some flares.

This would probably be a good time to talk about Dead Island’s visuals. From a purely technical standpoint, Dead Island isn't remarkably good looking. However, the game has a glorious sense of detail, with items littered around the zombie-populated ruins of a beachside resort. This early in the game, Banoi is lovely, with bright sunshine and tropical warmth, and if there weren’t horrible zombies roaming a certain cave, it would be a great place to explore.

Unfortunately, that all changed when I was taken to a later portion of the game and dropped into the main city of Banoi. While the resort area is rich and sparkling, the city itself is rundown. Besides the outbreak of zombies, a storm is advancing on the island, darkening the skies and pouring rain onto the land below. At this point in the game, my stats were much higher, so zombies tended to fall easier by my hand. A nearby church rang its bells nonstop, which caused zombies to shamble near the building. It’s a safehouse containing a helpful nun, but to get in and stop the bells, you have to bypass the Ram. A gigantic zombie wrapped in a straight jacket, the Ram has a huge amount of health, and he’ll charge into you if you’re not fast enough. To make matters worse, a troop of normal zombies surrounds him in an already tight area. I’ll be honest: I died here a lot. However, my high death toll does indicate one positive aspect about Dead Island. The game isn't stingy about starting over. After a short loading time, I was back to taking on the Ram in no time.

Inside the church, the typical groups of quest-givers, vendors, workbenches, and leaders offered their different options on where to go next and what to do. I could quick travel back to the previous safe houses at the lighthouse or station or choose to investigate the new area. There’s a lot to see and do on the infected island, and while Dead Island is a challenge, I never felt like the game was being unfair. There is plenty of promise here, and fans of Borderlands, zombies, and exploration of a realized world should certainly look forward to Dead Island. It’s slower, it's visceral, and it’s exciting.

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