After swaggering into the Mana Bar to take a look at Dead Island, I was greeted by the outstretched arms and murmuring of a gore-splattered female zombie. A few seconds later, I realised that she had offered me a lei in perfectly coherent English and I hadn’t really been paying attention. The interior of the Mana Bar had been decorated in a Tiki theme, for obvious reasons, with totems, fake fire and felt quite intimate. We were treated to appropriately themed cocktails and some excellent food. I took my carved idol of ‘zombie islander’ to the gaming area and watched.
Dead Island didn’t have the creepy atmosphere I usually associate with zombie games. After seeing the brilliant trailer, I was interested to see how Deep Silver could create fear and paranoia using such a delightful, tropical setting. There was clear water, sandy beaches, green foliage… umm… zombies eating people and lots of sunshine. However, everyone was playing rather cautiously. They followed their maps, moved slowly between checkpoints and used their crude weapons for ranged attacks rather than melee. Being a reckless, hack and slash gamer, this confused me. However, the zombies were getting picked apart by sprinting broomstick throwers.
People picked up items, makeshift weapons, random combustible elements and a blueprint or two. In the same vein as Dead Rising, it looks like there will be some pretty cool makeshift weapon construction. One player got close to making what I believe would be an oar with nails in it, but didn’t manage to get enough parts and cash within the trial timeframe.
A slow, steady approach seemed to be working for everyone. More items were found, cash was looted and players were staying alive. People jumped in trucks for a bit of arcadey Carmageddon, gas bottles were detonated by accurately thrown sticks and zombies were dying… again. The zombies can be knocked down by attacks to the ribs or legs, and get back up. The standard Level 1 walker can get back up if you don’t “double tap” its face with a rusty pipe. By the end of the hour, everyone playing conservatively was roughly in the same spot, and anyone that was up for a scuffle was getting their hands oh-so-dirty by busting skulls.
At the changeover, the first round of players went to the bar for Health and Mana Potions. I sat down with another tiki mug full of awesome and started by picking a character. I decided to choose the small Asian girl who specialised in stabbing weapons. Though my extensive knowledge of awful zombie movies suggests a blunt weapon user would have a clear advantage, I was in the mood for some stabbin’s, possibly due to excess consumption of ham, cheese and pineapple toothpicks.
I found the aiming a little awkward. I did put it down to my inexperience, but after a while, it’s just punishing for newbies, and when I say punishing, I mean embarrassing. I made myself a little motion sick because I couldn’t follow what I was doing. I felt sorry* for anyone watching.
Within the first fight, I really loved the sound effects. Bones break with sickeningly satisfying crunches. The zombies groan and yell startlingly loudly when in close proximity, which made the easiest of fights a panicky button mash. The groans just before the attack make the action excellent when you’re being overwhelmed. Instead of calmly stepping back and readying yourself, Dead Island uses ‘boo-scare’ tactics to keep you on edge.
What I really loved about the game was specific body part targeting. In the precious few moments you have when a zombie is gathering itself, crosshairs appear to show you which area you’re about to thwack with an oar. You can move the crosshairs around the zombie and it will snap to specific areas. You can break legs, arms, ribs, I could have sworn I kicked an ass, or you can go for a headshot (as you can imagine, that’s the most effective way you can take out a zombie). The drawback is of course, you have to be close and if you’re slow, you’ll get pounced. Unfamiliar depth perception is definitely not your friend here. Like so many underestimated ledges, it’s quite easy for the untrained eye to line up a perfect sweeping headshot only to find out they’re actually 2 metres away.
The attention to efficiency of movement was definitely a sign that I’d been doing it wrong. I sprinted everywhere, and charged in, oars blazing. Each zombie isn’t the hardest hitter in the world, but unless care is taken, the weight of stinking, rotted corpses will get the better of you. When the action gets frantic, it’s likely you will lose sight of one or forget ‘finishing touches’, and get swamped. If one grabs you for the maul-quick time event, you can punch it off, but it costs you precious time. It was at this point I realised why the first round of gamers were being so cautious: they knew what they were doing, whereas I was getting lulled into a false sense of security and thought I could bash my way around.
What I played of Dead Island was predominantly in the tropical island outdoors. You’re wandering a holiday resort with some truly gorgeous settings. It was a bit difficult for me to realise that the casual setting didn’t really mean I should be paying less attention. The outdoor areas seem a bit more ‘safe’, like you can just wander around. Visibility is good, you can see things coming and you have plenty of space to move and think. However, this makes the ‘insidey parts’ that much creepier. You’ve lost your full field of vision and had your space restricted significantly, lucky you didn’t skip over the part where they showed how to use a torch because you were eating something, right?
I found myself walking slowly, being ever so cautious, looting, opening everything, playing smart and surviving. Then I’d find the exit, run, be temporarily blinded as my character’s vision adjusted to the light, then realise I’d casually sprinted into three festering cadavers, who promptly bludgeoned me into a crimson mess.
Unfortunately, because I was so interested in killing zombies, I was completely oblivious to the game mechanics and attributes that ‘heavily persuade’ you to take a bit of care. The stamina draining rapidly, the horrendous bonus damage allocated for direct head hits, the amount of things scattered around the setting, I missed all of it in my bloodlust. If I had been a little more attentive, I may have noticed the dead bodies littering the resort were not ‘dead dead’ but instead, animated corpses, just hanging out on banana lounges or sitting by the pool enjoying a snack till the next crazy person ran through.
Dead Island is definitely a game best played with care and caution. I can see there are a lot of elements which will make it fun, the improvised weapons, and the nice touches with different weapon kills and ‘crits’, but like any good RPG, you have to do the grind and make do with the basics. One player found a ‘vendor’, but despite looting a lot of corpses (zombies tend not to carry much cash), couldn’t afford anything. I… didn’t actually get that far in the game and was too intent on mayhem. I managed to find a crude knife for my stab-expert to play with, and things really started to get interesting. The attacks were faster and more suited to my character. I even had a quick animation of a particularly brutal head stab, and started feeling a bit more confident that I wouldn’t be better off throwing broken blinds and hand towels.
I finished my trial by showcasing my ridiculously awkward skills and amassing a huge number of deaths, both mine and ‘theirs’. I put the control down and scurried away. Funnily enough, as I sat near my earphoned friend finishing her game and prepared to startle her, I noticed there were a lot more zombies than there were at the beginning of the evening. There was some disturbingly good face painting going on in another section of the bar.
We left the warm glow of the fake fire and my precious tiki drinks. What I’m most interested in is the depth of the combat in the game. Having been exposed to what was only a taste of the whole cadaver, and what ‘could’ be, I’d love to see just how far things have been taken regarding weaponry, zombie killability and what else there is on the island itself. The environment is huge and to accommodate a 4 player co-op, there has got to be a hell of a lot of fun to go around.
* crudpigeon may not actually feel sorry for anybody.