Dead Island – E3 Preview

Title   Dead Island
Developer  Techland
Publisher  Deep Silver
Platform  PC, PS3, Xbox360
Genre  Action
Release Date  9th September, 2011
Official Site

Zombie carjackers are a real nuisance on Banoi

Dead Island sprang to the attention of the gaming world some months ago, causing a buzz, largely thanks to its  powerful, emotionally provocative, and somewhat controversial announcement trailer.  When I walked into the presentation room at E3, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, it was, after all, another zombie game and a four player co-op shooter.  Would this be yet another title in a long line of zombie related games and content; a final nail in the coffin of a tired, and so over-used theme or were Deep Silver and Techland going to deliver something fresh, rather than something old and rotten?  What I didn’t expect first off was that it would, for the most part, be a hands on demo.  FPS certainly aren’t my forte, in truth, I avoid them like, well, a zombie plague, so it was with some trepidation (and no small amount of sympathy for my three team mates) that I slid on the nifty Dead Island headset and stepped into the shoes of character Logan.

Dead Island is set on the holiday island of Banoi, a tourist paradise about to be beset by tragedy in the wake of a brewing storm.  After a night of heavy partying and with no idea of what has happened, you’ll need to shake off any hangover you may have, hang up your hula skirt, and be prepared to fight if you want to survive.  The team have worked to stride away from the generic zombie shooter with a more realistic look and feel, blending in a host of RPG elements along the way.  I was looking forward to seeing how well they had accomplished these goals and at first glance I liked what I saw.  The other team members and I, led by an expert from the dev team, started in a church in the devastated city region of the island.  The church acts as a hub of sorts,  where our characters are able to take a brief respite, purchase weapons, and use the crafting bench to upgrade, create, or repair our gear – a great touch, and the first noticeable RPG element to the game.

The morning fight for sun loungers took a nastier turn than expected

The church was full of survivors in various states, but I only cared about how tooled up I could get and, given my lack of FPS skills, the sharper or shootier the better.  Thanks to a significant slice of cash from the devs for the purposes of the demo, the sky was really the limit and I scouted round for the best deal, aware that I may have been holding up the rest of the team who were, by then, also deeply absorbed with this new mechanic.  The first thing that I noticed, and which was swiftly pointed out by the team who were shadowing us in the presentation room, was that there were a distinct lack of firearms.  The weapon system was far more weighted towards melee combat, which was perfectly logical and fit the setting of a holiday resort.  Knives, machetes, and blunt instruments appeared to be the order of the day, so I opted for a nasty machete and headed for the upgrade section to modify it.  There are over forty ‘Craft Plans’ in the game which can be used to soup up various types of weaponry and under some good advice, I opted for an electricity modifier – ideally suited to rainy settings, which is just as well, as things looked to be clouding over pretty quickly.

It was pointed out at this stage that our weapons were even less immortal than we were; a feature of Dead Island that you have to be vigilant about is that weapons will degrade to the point where they become useless, necessitating repairs and meaning that scooping up as much of a backup arsenal as you can is a very good idea.  A quick check confirmed that I was already packing more kitchen knives than Gordon Ramsay’s voodoo doll, and with my trusty modded machete in hand, no one could stop me.  Except that pew.  Okay, I found the jump button, no dramas.

Before leaving the safety of the church for our new objective, everyone took the last opportunity to get a feel for the controls.  We were tasked with an errand of putting up missing posters for a young woman – even St Jude would hold his hands up at that one – on boards scattered around the area.  Our leader burst through the church doors and we scampered out, ready for action.  Except that I was still fiddling with the controls and accidentally managed to throw my machete away.  Shit.  I hastily retrieved it and scurried after everyone else.  The first impression was that the city lacked serious janitorial attention.  The area had clearly been hard hit by the mysterious zombie tragedy, and was largely deserted.  The environment immediately leapt out for its level of detail and for the clear attention to textures and small touches but, sadly, I didn’t have time to dawdle at the back and stare at walls and crates as I am apt to do, because it wasn’t long before we were under siege.  Zombies, thousands of them; wait until you see the bloodshot veins in their eyes lads… okay, there were maybe five.  All eager to get stuck in, we piled in for the attack, knives flying everywhere.  One enterprising guy on the team had armed himself with a wrench.  I must have missed that in the church and immediately suffered melee envy.  That feeling quickly evaporated, however, when my first zombie frazzled to death thanks to my electricity mod.  Let’s see your wrench do that.

We were told that the bodies are destructible, and I immediately put it to the test, cackling to myself as I cheerfully hacked the limbs off a corpse, while the dev beside me found my delight amusing.  Meanwhile, our team leader was busy describing a skull stomp finishing move which can be performed on a downed zombie, but I left the others to their sport and wandered off to begin looting corpses and prising open chests.  Pointless I know, since we had a stack of cash, but it is a force of habit.  Most foes will only carry a few dollars and odds and ends, but we were told that the bigger bad guys will be packing better stuff.  As we progressed, slaying and looting, I noticed a number of in-game challenge notifications pop up on the screen, which should more than satiate players who love to have goals to attain beyond regular Xbox achievements – and should add more incentive to explore and milk the most out of the game.

As we prepared to rush down some steps into the waiting arms of a zombie horde, we were told about the Fury Attacks. These powerful, special moves can be unleashed when the appropriate meter on the HUD is filled, causing the screen to de-saturate and allowing your character to unleash a furious assault.  In my case, playing as Logan, the attack consisted of a rapid flurry of ranged attacks.  It was at the exact moment that the screen returned to normal that we were told it was a good idea to save these Furies for pack-attack situations.  Like the one we were now about to get into.  Bugger.

Not only had I used my Fury Attack, but my health was looking ropey.  In Dead Island, there is no auto-regen, you’ll be relying solely on first aid kits, either used by you or team members healing you.  As we waded in to the next scrap, the first ‘special’ or boss zombie turned up – the Ram.  This giant piece of festering ugliness is swaddled in a straight jacket and will lumber at you.  If you take a hit, you’ll be sent flying and end up momentarily disoriented, with a chunk of health missing.  Of course, I died in the first attack, but thankfully respawned nearby, only down some experience.

The Ram eventually went down for the count, but before I joined in mutilating his corpse, I noticed that the red health circle around my equipped weapon was looking decidedly sparse.  After a few more swipes at incoming foes, my weapon was as dead as they were.  Damn.  I scrolled through my weaponry and found only a host of small knives.  I should have packed better.  I scrabbled after the others, following our leader as she seamlessly met our objectives – I admit I wasn’t paying close attention, I was busy admiring the graphics and realism, trying to soak in as much as the broken city as I could without getting left behind.

The tedious wait for the 'hourly' island tour boat was too much for some people

After coming across another Ram, we were told about a few of the other specials that would await later in the game, namely the delightful sounding ‘Floater’ in the sewers and the Suiciders.  There will also be bikini zombies – well, it is a holiday isle after all.  It isn’t long before we happened across our first Suicider, who will run towards you and explode unless taken down quickly.  We were advised that melee weapons aren’t necessarily the best idea, given its tendency to explode, but since it was down I decided to experiment and hack at it.  It exploded, killing me instantly.  Point taken.  In fact, each of the special zombies will require certain tactics, and ranged attacks (such as with thrown melee weapons) are the best way to deal with Suiciders.  Everyone began practicing throwing their weapons and it was actually very smooth and easy to pull off.  I made sure to retrieve my knife and while hacking the limbs off a random corpse, I noticed a wrench.  Being the magpie that I am, I took it.  Shiny. A few moments later, I heard one of the devs explaining to the guy in the next station that you have to retrieve your weapons otherwise you’ll lose them. He was apparently dismayed at having lost his wrench somehow. Oops. Mine now, however, I refrained from using it in case he spotted it, and just contented myself with looking at it on occasion.

Never make fun of a zombie's shorts, they have sensitive dispositions

One thing I noticed after being attacked at a distance by closing zombies, was that some of them were actually carrying weapons.  This wasn’t something that I’d come across before.  In order to help keep the realism, it made sense to the team for some of the zombies to have things in their hands which could be utilised as weapons.  When they turned, some of the islanders may have been doing their job and will have, realistically, had tools in hand such as a chef with a knife or a mechanic with a wrench.  If they have it they’ll use it, even in zombie form and I thought it was a great touch, adding to the sense of realism that the game presents.

The next Suicide zombie that we ran across had me proceeding with a touch more caution; I decided to give the ranged melee tossing a try and hit it dead on.  It exploded, instantly killing everyone on the team – including me.  Note: stand further back.  I laughed and then lurked at the back of the respawned group, but one of the devs had noticed my amusement and announced his suspicion.  These sort of shenanigans will undoubtedly provide much fun in co-op and multiplayer for that friend who just can’t help themselves, however, it will also likely lead to much multiplayer rage with griefers and randoms.  Damn funny though.

Mission completed, we worked our way back to the church, with me managing to pull of another Fury Attack on the way, and are finally able to let our guard down once more.  Here, we asked a few questions about the other RPG elements and were shown the skill trees.  Split into the sections you’d expect, such as Combat, Survival, and Stamina, and boasting branches such as health, speed boosts, etc, the skill tree is a pure RPG mechanic melded into the shooter.  Each character has their own unique traits anyway, but everything else is in your hands and the characters can all evolve very differently depending on how the individual player chooses to spend the skill points they earn by levelling up.

Though we only saw a small fraction of it, the game world is said to be huge, with a variety of different areas to be explored as the game progresses, from the city streets, to the sewers, to jungle environments.  Not only that, but Techland are promising a wealth of secret areas and hidden characters, shops, and rare items to be found.  The gameplay will weigh in at a meaty 25/30 hours with side-quests and we were told that the game world will be open to explore after the dust has settled.

With the hands on part of the hour open, I was able to sit down with Adrian Ciszewski, one of the producers at Techland to find out more about the game which started off research and development four years ago.  One thing which struck me instantly was the level of realism, the sheer grittiness of the environment compared to other zombie titles and we began to talk about it.  “We were trying to create a zombie game for real,” Adrian explained, “so this is not Dead Rising with this crazy stuff and it’s not Left 4 Dead which is always the same – in the first second you know everything about this game… it doesn’t give you anything special in progression.  We wanted to change it into something much more mature, much more close to reality.”

Ever have one of those days?

And it appears that they have succeeded.  The tone of the game, from what I saw, seemed to be more mature than its kin, with a dark and gritty feel.  Of course, setting the game on an island – making it immediately more claustrophobic – was inspired, at once creating an interesting contrast between the notion of a happy holiday paradise and the grim violence that was to come.  Adrian agreed: “Making the clash between paradise and zombies was perfect.” He went on to explain that they wanted it to be as though this could happen to any family, something which was also stated in Deep Silver’s explanation about the game’s controversial announcement trailer.  “It could happen to everybody, to me on vacation.  That was the main goal – paradise lost.”

I was curious to know whether the game had started off so dark, or whether it had evolved to be so grim and human, and was assured that it had always been the team’s intention.  The story itself starts off light, but soon deteriorates, as Adrian explained: “At the beginning of the game, everything is shiny, the sun is nice, but the monsoon is coming; you have dark clouds on the horizon, with a storm visible.”

The calm won’t last, however, and he continues to set the scene for the impending darkness: “…very nice weather, you could go swimming if you want, but then… there are zombies; the swimming pool is full of blood.” People are clearly scared and no one understands the situation, not even the player at this point.  The characters’ dialogue reflects their confusion; at first they are unwilling to attack these aggressors, not wanting to hurt them, but they are soon left with no choice.  Later, however, things have changed, with them having to adopt a focused ‘power-killer’ mode to survive, and these dialogues change to mirror this.

The island isn’t all resort, there are a number of locations, as previously mentioned, with a very unique feel to them, and each area’s survivors react differently to their situation.  Whereas in the city most people are dead and the situation is hopeless, things in the resort are far more proactive: “In the resort they are trying to do something.” Adrian goes on to explain that this may take the form of trying to turn on the lighthouse to attract outside help, or even making a sign on the mountainside to try and snare the attention of passing aircraft.  “They are very creative.  They’re trying to contact the outside world using radio and combining transmitters.”

Don't be fooled by the view; good luck getting your money back from the travel agent though

In the jungle parts of the island, there are a denser number of survivors as everyone has fled the city.  Here though, there are mostly people with guns, but also tribes and even cannibals to add to the player’s woes.  What was interesting though was that zombies were not the only source of aggravation for the characters – fellow survivors will also prove to be a thorn in their side.  “In the city there are rascal gangs… they have a base in the Police Station, killed all of the Police officers and are just living there. They’ve got guns…” Adrian reveals.  Thankfully, the human enemies had been switched off for our hands-on demo, which was something of a relief as knives are no match for the AK47s packed by the motley gangs.  It was a concept I found most interesting in a zombie game – that fellow humans also posed a real threat.

Obviously, the meat of the story will only be revealed as the player progresses, but with such a huge game world promised, I wondered how much of the story would be linear and whether it would be affected by the gameplay or co-op.  The answer was that the game would indeed be linear due to the nature of the game, however, a player could be taking on the single player campaign and have a co-op mate drop in to help for a while before vanishing again, with no adverse impact on the gameplay or story.  If a player is leaping into a friend’s game at a higher level, then they will be warned that there will be potential spoilers ahead, but it won’t impact your game, no matter how many co-ops you take part in.

Of course, for me, story is key but there are some gamers who undoubtedly like to rush through a campaign – here, however, they stand to lose out as Adrian elaborates: “In some cases there are a couple of storylines parallel to the main storyline which are trying to answer the questions that players will ask themselves.  What is going on here?  What about the zombies?  What has happened to them?  The question of where are the soldiers – this situation is very, very bad, so soldiers should be there.” Of course, the game contains a number of side-quests for players who care to explore further and will better reveal just what has happened on the island of Banoi.  “There are a couple of side-quests with mission chains that are trying to answer these questions.” Says Adrian.  “Of course, if you don’t do the side-quests, you’ll miss out.” Cut scene skippers and speed-runners beware – this is more in-depth that your average zombie blastathon.

One of the most interesting RPG elements to grab my attention was the weapon crafting and I was keen to find out more, including just how many weapon varieties were available – especially since Techland admired Borderlands greatly and admit to taking some inspiration from Gearbox’s surprise hit.  The game contains forty Craft Plans, but these cover a huge amount of weapons since they apply to type rather than individual items.  While some are basic upgrades, such as electricity, there are more powerful plans to be found and utilised, such as a beefier electric attack, zombie shock, which will explode a zombie’s head, an impact hit to send them flying, or even mods that will set foes on fire.  With the team keen to encourage exploration, some of the more complicated plans are tucked away and are extremely rare, but they will, undeniably, produce the best effects.

For the sort of gamer who enjoys tinkering on craft-benches, customising weapons, or mulling over skill trees, these additions sound ideal, and appear, from the little I’ve seen, to have been well integrated.  They help transform the game from being merely another zombie shooter, to something a little different and the mature, dark tone of the story and the violent contrast with the luxury setting offer much in terms of atmosphere and story potential.  With up to 30 hours of gameplay between the main story and side-quests, along with multiplayer, and drop in co–op, Dead Island could well be the adrenalin shot in the arm that the genre needs.

Dead Island is due to be released Q3 2011

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  1. Chris Toffer says:

    Can totally agree that the Zombie market is becoming stale. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next GTA game had a zombie mode ‘just cause they can’ I think the setting and general theme is good juxtaposition for the usual turf we end up fighting on. Cities / Hospitals / Farms / Malls / Streets. It’s been done before.

    I’m liking the RPG element also. Definitely one to watch.

    Great piece Lorna

  2. Samuel Samuel says:

    I’m not all zombied out the way some gamers might be, because I’ve more or less avoided the games that feature them up to now. Left 4 Dead 2, Plants vs. Zombies, that Red Dead Redemption DLC and Dead Rising are about all I’ve played this generation, not counting Resi Evil 4 ported to the Wii. And Dead Rising was so rubbish I never finished it too. The demo for that game lied to me so very badly…

    Anyway, despite my lack of zombie fatigue, I am intrigued by Dead Island, in a good way. It looks visceral, brutally violent, and unrelentingly realistic in a sub-genre that is by it’s very nature usually given over to the absurdly unbelievable. That pushes my buttons, and would do so with or without the zombie element.

    That said, I need to seriously limit the number of games I’m after getting this year, because I’m starting to want more games than I have funds for, and I’m liable to get myself into a preorder clusterfuck that ends with my going overdrawn and eventually bunged into debtors gaol. I’m going to say I like the idea of this, and will possibly pick it up on the cheap in the distant future, as other games are taking priority unfortunately.

    Awesome preview all the same Lorna, pretty hefty and detailed, exactly as I imagined it would be after listening to you talk about this game on the E3 round-up podcasts.

  3. Kat says:

    Zombie-haters be damned, I can’t wait for this game!

  4. Jo Jo says:

    I agree with Kat! *drool* I’m looking forward to this!

  5. Richie rich says:

    I hope this game has a demo cos it’ll take a miracle for me to buy a zombie game on faith these days.

    Nice, detailed write-up though, Lornmower.

  6. Tania Tania says:

    The only zombie game I ever played was Resident Evil on Gamecube but the RPG elements of this one have piqued my interest. I’ll have to keep my eye on this one.

  7. Edward Edward says:

    I’m actually quite intrigued by the co-op zombie rpg 30 hour fest stuff, but I’m a lot less thrilled about the emphasis on melee. One thing that felt quite clear to me during L4D2 was that while melee weapons were a nice novelty, there was no way I could survive without using guns. Lots of guns. However, as this game’ll be more geared towards melee, it should be pretty good, but it’s going to be jarring playing it and experiencing it after THAT trailer.

    Great job, Lorna :D

  8. Anon says:

    Having seen the superb trailer in all its CGI glory, I thought that this might be a very different game to all the zombie games now available. I guess the issue here is that the game would probably not live up to the great trailer, and I fear that this will fall into the large category of just another zombie game. Would be good to see if this is actually the case, like the idea of the drop in drop out 2 player co-op.

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