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E3 2011: Dead Island Preview

14 Jun 2011  by
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You know how this works. It’s a piece about Dead Island, so we have to filter any new details through the hype-lens of that early teaser trailer. Some won’t like to admit it, but it was an extraordinary piece of advertising for the game, catapulting it from ‘that title you probably forgot Techland were working on’ to ‘holy crap, have you seen that trailer with the little zombie girl?’

Most people with critical reasoning abilities no longer fall for CG trailers. We know the games aren’t going to be like them, so why keep bringing it up with Dead Island? I think it’s because it offered encouraging glimpses of tone and style that many hoped would make it through to the full game. For a three minute clip featuring a girl trying to feast on her dad’s neck, it was oddly tasteful. The pacing was unusually subtle, the score sedate and there was a clear suggestion that the people in this game would be treated as just that; people. Some of us thought this could be the game to address a more human side to a zombie outbreak (a story often hinted at throughout the two Left 4 Dead games). For a while there, we believed the illusion.

Well, guess what? We fell for some slick advertising.

That doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation though. Dead Island is turning out to be a different game to what a lot of people expected, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If you’re interested in a first-person zombie slasher title with some RPG overtones and a spot of survival stuff thrown in, stick around.

E3’s demo featured Logan, one of the four characters from the game (each of them essentially a different character class), a chap who’s special skill is flying into a rage and chucking a handful of throwing knives at the nearest shambling hunks of meat. Other characters will be superior with, say, blunt weapons, so who you pick will largely depend on what playstyle you’d favour.

If you’ve been watching any of the non-CG footage from Dead Island, you’ll know it keeps its RPG elements firmly in view at all times. Numbers fly out of zombies with each successful attack showing the amount of damage done and the experience points gained, and Deep Silver have said that there’ll be six skills trees into which to pump these points. Hit points, speed and stamina will all be boostable, as will those other class-specific talents like Logan’s rage. When one of the NPCs dotted around the place offers you a quest, it appears as a blood-soaked piece of paper with difficulty and experience point rewards clearly displayed.

Upgrading a stamina bar probably doesn’t sound too thrilling, but it seems like it’ll be necessary if you want to survive on Banoi island. Each weapon has an attached stamina cost for using it, so if you slash away like a loon for too long you’ll be left panting like an overheated dog when the zombies descend on you. Making your blows count and having an open escape route plus enough stamina to use it seem like sound tactics. It may not be quite as crucial to manage your efforts as Deep Silver have made out, however, because the stamina bar appears to recharge fairly quickly.

Combat features a reassuring amount of location-specific damage (always welcome in a zombie title), so lopping off arms, heads and legs will be viable tactics. A few of the weapons have been shown off so far (machete, baseball bat, semi-automatic firearm) with more surely to come. In addition, the developers have mentioned a Fallout-style workbench system which will allow players to combine blueprints with relevant weapons to create refined, customised ways of dealing with the undead (and let them repair degraded armaments). Whether this will have the same scope as it did in Dead Rising 2 remains to be seen.

Whatever your weapon, different types of zombies will require different strategies to deal with them. The example shown at E3 was the burly, straightjacketed ‘Ram’ zombie. This fellow will charge around like a mad thing (so, uh, kind of like Left 4 Dead 2’s ‘Charger’ then) and has the ability to knock players down and leave them open to other attacks. He’s only vulnerable from the back (although there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason for this), so it’ll be necessary to get around him to bring him down. Or, you could make use of his one-track charging mind to knock down a few other zombies in the vicinity and make your life easier.

What concerns me about Dead Island now is not the discrepancy between its early, CG trailer and reality. It’s that I’m not convinced how satisfying the combat and RPG aspects will really be. The melee portions remind me of a cross between Left 4 Dead 2 and Fallout: New Vegas which, while a terrific title in most areas, isn’t exactly hailed for its amazing first-person fighting.

The former made up for basic slash-to-kill melee with a continuation of the tight, co-ordinated co-op play from the first in the series, while New Vegas has a wealth of fine writing, exploration and playstyle options to make up for some slightly lacklustre combat. At this stage, I’m not entirely sure what Dead Island has to break up what has the potential to become rather mundane fighting segments (though it does have kicking, which I adore).

It’s going to be sort of open world … but not really (gated areas will be progressively unlocked as you make your way through the main storyline). There’ll be elements from traditional RPGs (the skill trees and side-quests given by NPCs) but no signs, so far, of Dead Island going anywhere near as far with its choices or quest design as games like New Vegas or The Witcher 2. Not that the game ever suggested it would; but without supporting aspects like these, or something like them, the combat will have to stand alone. That may be a mistake.

Drop-in, drop-out co-op play has been confirmed for up to four players. This will be online only though, so no local split-screen antics. Friends (or random internauts) will be able to join your game and help you play through the story from any point. It’ll also be possible, after finishing the full campaign, to drop into any favourite parts with a new character and play through from that point. Size-wise, Dead Island is also sounding fairly promising, with one area (the beach) being touted as taking fifteen or twenty minutes to get across. Since the game is being divided into multiple areas (at least three have been mentioned to date), that should add up to quite a trek.

With the early trailer consigned to the ‘another inaccurate portrayal’ pile, Dead Island will have to rely on other elements to shine. Its success will predominantly come down to how satisfying and visceral the combat turns out to be; though support from decent writing and interesting survival twists could go a long way towards excusing any shortfalls in the fighting department. We’ll find out how it all comes together when the game is released for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on 6 September (9 September in the EU).

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