Hands-on with Dead Island at E3 2011

We get up close and personal with the inhospitable locals in Techland's upcoming zombie RPG.

Let’s get right to the point: Dead Island is not the game that appeared in that first heart-rending trailer. I got a hands-on preview while I was at E3, and while I certainly saw plenty of zombies, I never saw any young children soaring out of windows.

Fortunately, Dead Island has plenty to offer beyond unfortunate families on holiday. It’s a genuine first-person zombie co-op RPG, and if you evaluate it as such, it’s definitely got some potential. Unlike most first person games, guns are at a premium, so you have to get up close and personal with the most dangerous monsters, and going after zombies with a baseball bat instead of an assault rifle creates a natural horror tension.

The structure, meanwhile, is unmistakably that of an RPG. Our four-person walkthrough begins in a barricaded church housing a number of survivors, and it’s got all the amenities you’d expect in the average hub. The civilians are selling gear and health packs, there’s workbench that can be used to repair and upgrade weapons, and talking to the various NPCs unlocks the usual series of side quests. Techland has asked us to play through one of those missions, so after stocking up we head out into the ruined city to post flyers directing other survivors to the church.

So yes, we’re assuming that zombies don’t know how to read.

Once we’re out on the island, the gameplay is fine, with functional first-person mechanics and intuitive melee combat that downplays the realism with several concessions to video game logic. You can carry a full radial menu of weapons (thanks to weapon degradation, you’ll need them), and the upgrade system allows for a considerable amount of customization. Taping a battery to a machete creates an electric weapon, but the battery won’t discharge every time you attack so there is some give-and-take with the mechanic.

Indeed, Dead Island generally seems to have a decent sense of balance, and weapon degradation is just one surprisingly non-intrusive part of the equation. Each player has a stamina bar that decreases whenever you sprint or swing your weapon, and while it doesn’t take long to recover, you might run out of energy in the middle of a horde if you’re too reckless. You’ll need to utilize a bit of strategy against the tougher enemies – one zombie, for instance, deters melee attacks with a cloud of noxious poison gas – and the ability to throw (and retrieve) knives and other weapons adds another dimension to the combat.

I do have a few complaints – there’s a bit of grind and I had trouble targeting specific extremities with my melee strikes – but there’s nothing that points to any serious technical flaws with the game. Dead Island is both immersive and violent, and head stomping a downed zombie is as spectacularly cathartic as you’d expect.

As for our mission, we make our way towards our objective while killing and scavenging everything along the way, and it’s a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an E3 afternoon. You can wander off the beaten path – at the very least, you’ll run into some startled groups of zombies – but the game otherwise does a good job of shuttling you from one encounter to another and the zombies blend seamlessly into the post-apocalyptic game world.

However, I should mention that the difficulty curve is skewed during our demo. We’re being offered a look at some late-game content, so our characters have been power-leveled and our weapons are a little better than they should be. I even had enough money to buy a rifle, and the copious funds ensure that we don’t get any meaningful sense of resource management. I suspect you’ll have to make some tough choices when you have to repair your weapon or purchase a health pack, but it’s impossible to evaluate the balance without playing the game from the start.

The guns do make things easier, but ammo is hard to come by so it’s not a game-breaking advantage. I had more fun with the melee weapons anyway. Dead Island is built for more intimate encounters, and so you’ll appropriately spend more time with a sledgehammer than a shotgun.

Either way, we eventually hang up every last poster and – as with any RPG – we then return to the church to collect our reward. Under normal circumstances, we’d likely regroup for a second quest, but that’s the end of the demo and I’m left walking away with a positive first impression. Dead Island might not be the tragic game that was originally teased, but any zombie movie worth its salt has a scene in which the beleaguered cast has to make its way through a swarm armed only with tire irons, cricket bats, and other blunt objects, and the cooperative Dead Island truly makes you feel like one of those survivors.