Dead Island Hands-On Preview

We plunder a tropical resort, kill undead holidaymakers, and slam down energy drinks in our first hands-on look at this survival RPG.

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You've seen the trailer, and unless you've shunned television, film, or music for, say, oh, the last hundred years or so, you're probably familiar with the concept that one day, as the result of terrorism, a major biological incident, or natural selection, the undead will rise up to snatch Earth from the grips of the living. The survivor premise is one that, while unoriginal, has been successfully used in games such as Left 4 Dead and the Dead Rising series to great effect. Keen to get itself some of the sweet zombie money, Techland is aiming to put a little more drama and suspense into the first-person-shooter action role-playing game category.

We recently got to play the PlayStation 3 version of the single-player campaign for an hour and spent our time clobbering bikini- and boardshorts-clad corpses. So what do you need to know about Dead Island? Well, the game takes place in Banoi, a fictional holiday resort, and as it's supposed to be located a stone's throw from Papua New Guinea, expect to hear a fair share of cringe-worthy "Australian" accents.

The game's intro plays out a bit like The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" film clip; a drunken (potentially drug-addled) stumbling adventure through a party scene. The main character bumps through people on the dance floor and is later seen being manhandled after invading the stage that a DJ is performing on.

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Once the game starts properly, you're given a choice of four characters, each of whom appears during the opening cinematic and has his or her own area of expertise. Since the first hour of the game focuses on melee combat (handguns only appear further down the line), we chose Sam B, a one-hit-wonder rapper who doesn't mind getting dirty with blunt objects like pipes, wrenches, and boat oars.

Flash-forward as we wake up in our hotel room. It's clear that somewhere between the opening scene and the current time, something terrible has happened. Too much work for even a pack of rebellious tweens to do; hotel rooms and hallways are trashed, littered with abandoned suitcases (which you can inspect to find cash and items) and pools of dark blood. There's an eerie silence echoing through the place, and while we limited our bag searches because the code we were playing was limited to an hour of play, when the game ships without the confines of a clock, you'll be able to inspect items and bodies to collect and catalogue seemingly innocuous items like wires, batteries, and nails for the rest of the game at will. Money may not be the first thing you reach for when the zombpocalpyse begins, but it comes in handy later when you reach workbenches that can be used to modify, repair, and upgrade your gear. Like the system in Dead Rising 2, creating new weapons and items is achieved by combining found objects with blueprints scattered around the island.

We rummaged our way through other guests' bedrooms and luggage, followed a narrow path to an elevator, and descended a few floors. As we slunk down darkened corridors we came face-to-face with our first foes: a pack of brain-hungry zombies. Rather than exchange pleasant conversation, we fled, sprinting away from blood-curdling groans and screams towards the sound of living, human voices. We made it just in time, and inside the safe house was a group who had managed to avoid being bitten, becoming shell-shocked husks of their former carefree selves in the process as they tried to stay alive.

Of course, the group's initial act of benevolence turned to concern about whether or not we'd been bitten, and once they were satisfied that we were not a risk to them, they asked us to prove our loyalty by seeking out an ID card. This is zombie country, so rather than seeing a slick-looking onscreen box showing rewards and experience gains for helping out, we were handed a hand-written note on a grungy bit of paper detailing prizes for taking on the task. You can say no to objectives without penalty, but frankly, that would have defeated the purpose of us playing it to tell you about it. Killing zombies and completing quests rewards you with experience points, and once you level up, you unlock a skill tree. Because of our blunt weapon specialisation, it made sense to spend our points on improving our smashing damage.

Anyone for croquet?!
Anyone for croquet?!

As we walked out into sunlight from the dreary hideout, the screen turned slightly milky, and it took a few seconds to adjust our vision back to sharpness. We set off on our journey alone, and as the first waves of enemies spotted us and made their approach, we got familiar with knocking them away using the plethora of weapons at our disposal. Oars are great swatters, and sheds contain tools you can use to clock enemies on the melon if they get too close. It's primitive, but effective, and we inched our way across the white sandy shores of the game's pristine natural setting. Weapons come in various lengths and levels of durability, and once broken they can be repaired or thrown as a projectile. Longer weapons are great for keeping targets at bay, but each new item you pick up does bring with it a learning curve. Since there's no visual indicator of your reach with a given weapon, we ended up charging in, avoiding a bite, kicking them back using the left shoulder button before following up with a hammer haymaker to cave in their brittle skulls.

As we approached a wading pool filled with bloody water and slain bodies, a man sat there distraught at having to butcher strangers and his own family members to save himself. We left him moping and made a beeline for the nearby target bungalow, where we confronted a zombie lurking in a tiny bathroom, grabbed the key card, and mercy killed a zombie woman who was tied to the bed with a pair of video cameras pointed at her.

Health comes in a couple of flavours: Energy drinks return a few cubes of your health bar and are readily available without ill effects--except for maybe the inevitable diabetes. Med kits can be used by accessing the game's inventory screen, which pauses combat, while, if you want to continue the party vibe, you can slam down a bottle of beer or spirits, restoring a small amount of life, blurring your vision, causing your movements to slow, and giving you an immediate +10 to kebab craving.

Returning the key card to the group and winning their support we learned that our illustrious leader is the island's head lifeguard. He informs us that inside his nearby watchtower is a radio, some supplies, and a place we can set up as a safe forward command post. Of course, nothing is ever as easy as the non-player characters make it out to be, and as we approached the compound solo, a garage door opened, revealing a bigger, nastier zombie type who wanted to be our first boss fight. His heavy hits shredded our health bar, but luckily, the only thing more cliched than returning key cards is red barrels, and by tossing a propane tank, targeting it with an L2 button press, and then hurling our melee weapon, we blew it up, leaving a smouldering stain on the footpath.

Working the radio we let our team know the coast was clear, and once they turned up, the training wheels came off, reducing our blinders and giving us the option to explore the island at our leisure. Because of its sheer size, you'll be able to warp around using maps found in some buildings, or you can find and drive vehicles. Unfortunately, before we had a chance to explore any of the side quests or other environments in the area, our timer ran out and we faded to black. The final version of the game won't include the timer and will instead let you wander at your own pace.

Nah, dawg, you gotta put more soul into your dancin', like this!
Nah, dawg, you gotta put more soul into your dancin', like this!

We enjoyed our time with the game, and while we would have liked to see more of the exploratory elements and travel, available in the later part of the game, things are looking positive. Dead Island certainly wears its influences on its sleeves, and is, for all intents and purposes, Dead Rising 2 in first-person mode mashed up with some of Left 4 Dead 2's cooperative gameplay with a dash of 28 Days Later thrown in for good measure.

Even with its violence, Aussies don't need to worry about this one getting stopped at the border, with Dead Island already receiving an MA15+ rating. The game will be lurching onto the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on September 9 this year. Keep an eye out for more coverage soon. Brainssss.

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