Dead Island Hands-On Preview - To Kill a Zombie

We crack a few (undead) skulls during our hands-on session with Dead Island.

Dead Island, the upcoming zombie-themed action game, is the latest example of how the zombie apocalypse is already upon us. Day by day, more books, movies, television shows, and video games are joining the ranks of the undead, and their numbers only continue to grow. But this new game from developer Techland (creator of Call of Juarez) will try to evoke some of the tragedy and emotion you might expect from a getaway-vacation-turned-zombie-nightmare. We recently got a brief, hands-on demonstration of the game to see how the zombie slaying stacks up.

Developer Techland is really going the extra mile with the disgusting sound effects.

Dead Island takes place on a tropical paradise that has turned into a living nightmare after the local populace starts chowing down on one another. We started a few hours into the game, standing outside of a lighthouse. Vincent Kummer, brand manager at publisher Deep Silver and our copilot throughout the demo, informed us that we were in control of Xian Mei, one of the resort's (former) employees. Apparently, her job must have involved a lot of cutlery because Mei's weapon of choice was anything with a blade. Described as an assassin type of character, our character was one of four playable characters in Dead Island, along with a tank, leader, and jack-of-all-trades.

The lighthouse itself served as a makeshift refuge from some of the island's locals. It was a somber scene, and it set the tone for the rest of the demo. All around us, people could barely contain their desperation. Some lashed out with anger; others pleaded for help. One woman wept silently in a corner. When we talked to the leader of this group and were assigned to go retrieve some signal flares from the beach, we were relieved to get out of that den. The path leading away from the lighthouse was lined with bodies; some heavily burned, others torn to pieces. Under the circumstances, this wasn't too surprising. Then one of them moved. The low, all-too-familiar moan that followed left no room for error; this was a zombie that had spotted its next meal.

At least, that's what it thought right up until we used our machete to hack its head clean off its shoulders. Combat was all about maintaining our stamina. Attacking, running, jumping, and other such activities would all cut into our stamina bar, which would refill quickly provided we didn't do much more than walk a few steps. Without stamina, we couldn't defend ourselves. This made battles against large numbers of enemies especially challenging because our initial urge was to lash out wildly at everything in sight. As we became more accustomed to the fighting, we learned--in perhaps the same way a real survivor would in this scenario--to stop and think. Taking that extra moment to line up a killing blow to the head and not waste energy made all the difference in these encounters.

Some zombies have special abilities outside of running at you and will require different tactics to take down.

Throwing a (sharp) weapon was another great way to conserve stamina. Sending a knife or a machete through a zombie's head at a distance was just as effective as in melee, and we could retrieve it from the corpse afterward. However, even with these skills, we ended up getting surrounded once we made it to the beach. With zombies bearing down on us from all sides, Kummer decided to let us in on one of Mei's special abilities. Simply dubbed "fury," this ability sent our character into an adrenaline-fueled rage, allowing her to hit harder, faster, and with less of an impact to her stamina. We could also now see the zombies as red outlines, so none were able to escape our wrath. Though effective, this ability took a long time to recharge, so we couldn't rely on it too heavily.

The enemies you'll be facing run the full spectrum of undead horrors. You want the George Romero-style slow, lumbering zombies? The superspeedy 28 Days Later zombies? Or the monstrous and unique boss zombies of Left 4 Dead? Dead Island has room in its rotting heart for all three. We had already encountered the first two types during our time on the beach, but when we skipped ahead to the city area, we got our first look at the third. Surrounded on all sides by ruined, smoldering shops and office buildings, we could hear a heavy ringing noise issuing from nearby. According to Kummer, the church's bell tower had started ringing uncontrollably; its loud gong, gong acting as a dinner bell for the local undead population. Our mission was to help out the people barricaded within by figuring out a way to shut off the noise.

There was only one problem: the ram zombie. This hulking brute, which took the form of a monstrous titan wearing a Hannibal Lecter-esque straightjacket and face mask, was working hard to put its body through the main door to the church. The coat's thick padding and the beast's natural resistance made a frontal attack impossible. However, it was plenty squishy on its backside, provided we could dodge around its charging form without getting trampled. This proved to be easier said than done because numerous lesser zombies would run up and grab hold of Mei, leaving us helpless to avoid the charging zombie.

Finding a working gun in Dead Island will be hard; finding ammo will be even harder.

Our demonstration ended soon after we felled the beast and entered the church. Inside, we learned that someone had barricaded himself inside the bell control room before turning into one of the walking dead. We happily put him out of his misery. Fortunately, when the game is released, you won't have to face the horrors alone because it will support up to four players in online cooperative play (sorry, no local co-op here). And while the developers are still tweaking exactly how co-op will work, this mode will let you carry over some of the loot and experience you earn in co-op play to the single-player game. Dead Island will be available on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC later this year.

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