PAX Prime 2011: Dead Island Gives The Zombie Experience Resident Evil No Longer Offers

Do you remember when zombie games used to really be about survival? I’m not talking about surviving a wave of zombies in some generic first person shooter multiplayer mode. I’m talking about true survival; you being thrust in an environment overrun by hordes of zombies using only what you can scavenge to defend yourself.

At PAX, I had a chance to experience the hands-on demo of Dead Island and it was definitely a breath of fresh air (by fresh, I mean the aroma of rotted flesh filled the air). Dead Island harks back to the traditional points for playing a zombie game: blood and gore, survival, and thrill. Granted, games like Left 4 Dead offer that, but not with the in-depth approach Dead Island takes.

So how does Dead Island differ from other zombie titles, like Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil (can that even be considered a zombie game anymore)? Well, for one thing, Dead Island is not just about running around and shooting up the place. It’s about carefully choosing when to engage a horde of zombies. You aren’t given an arsenal of weapons. You are a survivor; that means you can only fight with what you find, and what you find has limited durability. In the demo, the paddle I scavenged actually broke in the middle of a zombie encounter. It literally snapped in two as I cracked the skull of one of the zombies. Zombies were swarming and, with only my fists, I decided it was better to just run. This is just one example of how Dead Island makes an authentic survival experience.

Watch the brand new Dead Island launch trailer

Aside from weapon limitations, Dead Island offers an RPG element in the game. Players can choose from four main characters – each filling the typical archetype roles of “tank”, “rogue”, “damage dealer”, “healer”. While it’s not as blatant, the roles do exist and certain characters are meant for running into the middle of a zombie pack and taking the brunt of the damage. Once you choose your character, there are three skill trees to upgrade as you level up by doing quests and killing zombies. These skills include things like increased damage, faster health regeneration, and things of that sort. This RPG element makes you feel like you really are the character. Your not just choosing a character and running through a level. Rather, you are choosing a character and molding that person to fit your style of gameplay.

Speaking of gameplay, this isn’t the type of game where you just swing wildly at your enemies. Dead Islands’ zombies have specifically target-able areas. With limited ammo and weapon durability, you better aim carefully. You don’t want to be caught in the middle of a zombie swarm unarmed. As with any zombie game, the advice I was given, “Aim for the head.” Unfortunately, my one gripe is that the aiming seemed stiff and it was hard to quickly target specific areas on the zombie. Seeing as it was only a demo, the settings might not have been set to the sensitivity I’m used to, so I’ll hold all final judgements for the final review.

The encounters in Dead Island are just as chaotic as you’d expect. With that being said, Dead Island doesn’t litter the map with zombies. In an open world game, exploration would be annoying if you had to fight your way through every inch of the map. And trust me, there is plenty of exploration. Although it takes place on an island, the environment is huge and you can expect to explore every nook and cranny of the map. As you explore you will encounter survivors who will give you side quests to complete, rewarding you with essential supplies. That doesn’t mean you won’t find areas packed with zombies. In the select area I was given to roam, there were times where I was literally swarmed by zombies and had to fight my way through. The key to heightening the intensity of these encounters is the give some downtime in between to really take in the situation you are thrust into. Don’t get too relaxed, some zombies that may appear dead will suddenly jump at you (hint, hint).

Watch 20 minutes of Dead Island gameplay

Don’t expect each zombie to react the same way, either. You will, of course, have the traditional limb-dragging, slow moving zombie, but you will also encounter the zombies that run and lunge at you. You will fight against zombies that are 7+ feet tall. Have you ever tried to take down a zombie seven feet tall with a rusty pipe? It’s not easy, but it’s fun to try.

Dead Island was a great play. It has everything a zombie game should: intensity, violence, blood and gore, and a sense of urgency. After all, if I’m stuck on an island fighting for my survival, I want to be scared sh*tless. I don’t necessarily have to jump, but I want to feel that sense of being one of the lone survivors. I want the experience chaos and fear of a zombie apocalypse. In my short preview of Dead Island, it had successfully created that fear and intensity. I felt the rush of running for my life and busting zombie faces.