The 2011 Game Developers Conference is underway in sunny, beautiful, windy, freezing cold, traffic-congested, overpriced San Francisco, and the halls of the city's Moscone Center are full to brimming with large men shuffling aimlessly to and fro. It's appropriate, then, that one of the games on display is Dead Island, which is also about large, shuffling men, though some of them also come running at you screaming, some of them explode on contact, and all of them are already dead. You're no doubt familiar with the CG trailer that made the rounds recently and seemingly got everyone talking. Since then, we've had the opportunity to sit down and watch a hands-off demonstration of the beginning of the game and have much to cover in this exclusive report.
Dead Island, as the trailer suggests, takes place on a resort island where a sudden, unexpected zombie outbreak takes the island's population--mainly regular people on vacation--completely by surprise. The events that unfold in the much-talked-about trailer chronicle how the bloodthirsty undead ambush the guests, leaving only a handful of survivors in and around the resort. This is where the game begins.
Dead Island lets you play as one of four characters, Xian Mei (a former hotel employee), Logan (a surfer), Sam B (a former hip-hop artist), and Purna (an as-yet unrevealed character). These characters will essentially act as four different character classes, described by publisher Deep Silver as a "leader," a "tank," a "jack-of-all-trades," and an "assassin." But every single character starts out the same way--suddenly attacked by zombies at the hotel, knocked out, and dragged to a nearby pool house converted to a shelter.
We began our demonstration session with our character, Sam B in this case, lying on a slab inside the pool house, fading in and out of consciousness and only vaguely aware that the survivors had dragged him in while frantically fighting off another raging zombie that had somehow made its way inside. When we came to, one of the survivors, a frenzied man in a really loud tropical shirt, was standing over us with an upraised baseball bat, screaming at us to nod our head to acknowledge that we understood what was being said (presumably to prove we weren't another zombie) or he'd crack open our skull. Our character complied, and the crazed man set down the bat with a sigh of relief, remarking that he was a doctor and not cut out for caving people's heads in anyway.
As we came to, we found ourselves surrounded by distraught tourists in swimming trunks and bikinis who begged us to venture out of the shelter to look for Sinamoi, the hotel's tattooed Polynesian lifeguard and the man who had dragged us to safety in the first place. Our character grabbed the nearest melee weapon, a beaten-up oar, and made ready to venture outside and whack some shambling corpses. While Dead Island has some role-playing elements in the form of different, unlockable attacks and abilities organized into skill trees, it's fundamentally an action game--not a slow-paced survival horror game where you encounter one or two zombies at a time and fumble to aim your gun. As a matter of fact, guns will be hard to come by because all the playable characters in the game are tourists on vacation rather than soldiers on a military base.
For much of the game, you'll be lucky to find a discarded policeman's pistol and maybe a fistful of precious, precious bullets. Later on, you may find--for as-yet-undisclosed reasons--better guns, such as rifles and shotguns. But in many cases, much of what you bring into battle will be improvised melee weapons with varying levels of damage, swinging speed, and repair levels. Weapons will degrade over time and must be repaired at workbenches. But if you're lucky, you may also recover blueprint schematics for more-powerful improvised weapons. Duct tape, wires, batteries and such can turn a simple club into a zombie-stomping death machine.
However, because we were starting out at the very beginning of the game, the broken-down oar in the pool house was the best we could get. We sauntered out of the house to find the beach an absolute mess. The pristine sands and deck chairs were stained with blood and there were mangled corpses all over the place. We found Sinamoi fighting for his life against a pair of zombies but encountered problems of our own when another zombie launched itself at us out of our periphery. This triggered a quick-time event that had the monster getting right in our face, doing its best to pry the oar out of our hands while we desperately mashed the "A" button. Finally, we won out and knocked the zombie down, and Sinamoi helpfully shouted to us that the best way to defeat our foes was to aim for the head. We did just that on the downed zombie. Dead Island has a variety of finishing maneuvers that can be performed on downed zombies, including a series of brutal stomps that popped open the ghoul's cranium like a watermelon.
After we pummeled those last few zombies into the surf, our lifeguard savior explained that there were zombies all over the island and that we needed to get the lighthouse on the other side of the beach to set up a base of operations. And to do that, we'd need to fight our way across the beach to clear a path for the rest of the survivors. Before leaving, we decided to check our surroundings for anything we could use and turned up a lead pipe, a few oars, and a monkey wrench. All were in varying levels of disrepair, but even the world's rustiest monkey wrench is better than nothing when you're up against the zombie apocalypse.
Along the way, we encountered plenty more zombies of several different varieties. Dead Island will include several different classes of zombie, including your basic slow, shambling types; infected zombies, which are far more aggressive and can break into a full sprint; and suicide zombies, which, when injured, explode like walking bombs and deal damage to any humans or zombies nearby. In addition, the game will spawn these different varieties of zombies at different power levels, and you'll also have to fight boss zombies. None of these zombies seem to be immune to blunt force trauma, though you can't keep swinging for the fences because your character has a limited amount of stamina that depletes quickly if you're attacking nonstop.
Fortunately, the game lets you perform a quick kick attack that knocks back nearby enemies and gives you some breathing room. You can also make any melee weapon a ranged weapon by throwing it, which may let you knock down or finish off a zombie at a distance. In addition, if you've gained enough experience points to unlock a new power, you can use those in battle. Each character has three different skill trees--Sam B's are fury, combat, and survival. Our demonstration version of Sam had a few fury skills unlocked, including a rage skill that tinged the screen red and let him smash open zombies with his bare fists, which was not unlike the old berserk pack from Doom.
Throughout the course of our journey, we met Hank, a truck-driving fellow who was being attacked by zombies. By rescuing him, we were able to gain access both to his truck, which he would use to pick up survivors to ferry to the lighthouse, and to his shack, which contained several types of crafting supplies and a workbench. Because we had picked up the schematics for two different types of weapons--an explosive sticky bomb and an electrified machete--we wasted no time building both. And we had plenty of opportunity to use both weapons on the next wave of angry zombies. The sticky bombs--little more than simple explosives taped to a throwing knife--worked well at clearing clusters of zombies; the machete messily severed limbs with successful hits. Deep Silver producers explained that this property of the latter weapon will become crucial in latter parts of the game when you're being overrun by slower zombies who can't all be killed quickly but can, at least, be stopped in their tracks by hacking off a leg or two.
We finally made it to the lighthouse and were greeted by a cutscene of Sinamoi arriving on the truck with the rest of the survivors to set ourselves up at a new base of operations. Throughout the game, as you reclaim more and more of the island, you'll set up new hub areas from which you can pick up quests; buy black-market items from unscrupulous survivors who assume that rescue is right around the corner and will charge through the nose for everything. While reclaiming the island isn't going to be easy, you have a few things working in your favor. One, for some reason, your character is immune to the deadly virus that is turning people into zombies; and two, the game will support four-player cooperative multiplayer with full support for no-strings-attached drop-in/drop-out play. Dead Island looks like it will have tons of zombie-smashing action. The game will be released later this year.