PAX 2011: Dead Island Preview

In: Articles by Nick "Alsop Live" Dinicola

26 Aug 2011

You wake up drunk and everything has already gone to hell. This is how Dead Island begins, both the demo at PAX and the final game itself.

Sadly, the intro doesn’t change depending on which character you start as, but that doesn’t mean they’re indistinguishable from each other. The demo forces me to play as Xian Mei, a very commanding woman, a natural leader, and her skill sets reflect that trait: A lot of her unlockable abilities focus on team buffs, and she takes care of people. Oh, and she’s good with knives, which is very important since Dead Island is a melee-focused game. Guns are rare, proven by the fact that your very first weapon is a boat’s oar.

The demo is only five minutes long, which isn’t anywhere near long enough to get a proper sense of the game, but it’s more than enough time to get a sense of the combat. And combat is fierce. It’s much slower than you’d expect; this is not a button masher. Attacking takes stamina, so swinging wildly with any weapon will wear you out and leave you exposed, helpless, and pretty much dead. I ran a lot to try and get to my quest objective in time, and every time I encountered a zombie I tried to stop and instantly attack; this did not work out very well for me. I was bitten a lot, but thankfully Mei is immune from the virus. So you want to take things slow, you have to approach each encounter methodically, and you have to kick. Kicking takes very little stamina, and while it doesn’t hurt the zombies it does push them away, giving you room to breathe and time to think. Kicking will save your life.

Given the brutal and unforgiving nature of combat, you’d think long range weapons would be best, and you’d be kind of right. I definitely preferred using the oar since it had a pretty nice range to it, but since Mei is good with knives, once I found a meat cleaver I had to choose between power or range. I couldn’t have both. This might make Mei an unpopular character in co-op, since most players might prefer someone who gets more damage with boat oars (or things of a similar length) but it’s hard to tell without playing as the other characters.

Another reason you might want to use someone else is that the damage you do to zombies is best appreciated from a distance. You cause damage to whichever specific limb you’re targeting when you attack: Aim for their arm and you break their arm, aim for their leg to break their knees, aim for their chest to knock them down, or better yet just smash their head in as soon as possible. In fact you always want to smash their head in; even if they’re knocked over they’re not dead. There’s no shame in kicking a zombie when it’s down; it’s actually probably better that way. The dismemberment animations are particularly bloody: Breaking a leg exposes the bone, and when you smash their head it literally gets smashed in, brains and blood flow freely so you’re just left with a shell of a skull.

You can build and combine new weapons, but you need to find a blueprint and a workbench first, and yet again the short length of the demo prevented me from exploring this part of the game. However, from talking with the developer I learned that weapons will be treated like loot in a modern RPG, and colored accordingly: White stuff is common, purple items are better, and orange things are the best. The dev told about an orange crowbar he found and came to love, he always went to fetch it after throwing it at a zombie; you’ll get attached to your weapons as you upgrade them. Some possible combinations you can create are electrified throwing daggers, flaming bats, and deodorant bombs. Such items suggest that Dead Island isn’t trying to be firmly realistic, yet it’s still nowhere near as crazy as Dead Rising; it exists at a nice in-between place that befits the game’s mood, which isn’t as emotional as it’s infamous trailer, but more intense.

As soon as Mei steps outside her hut where she wakes up with a hangover she’s attacked by undead and she has a chance to save another survivor. There are a lot of living people on the island. Sometimes you’ll encounter single individuals like this man outside the hut, other times you’ll encounter larger groups in safe havens. These various groups are treated like factions: You can only help so many people, and if given a choice the survivors will always demand you help them over anyone else. You may reach a moment where you’re forced to abandon people. Hey, it’s the zombie apocalypse.

What survivors you do meet will give you more missions, and the menu for missions is handled quite nicely: The objective and all its information is written on a piece of index paper. It’s a nice touch, an attention to detail that keeps you in the game.

It’s a shame the demo was so short, I’d have loved to go exploring more, but time constraints kept me focused on fighting zombies, and experimenting with the deliberate timing and brutal dismemberment. Dead Island makes a good first impression; it certainly stands out amongst the faster actions games coming out by stressing timing and patience in combat. Even though I only saw a little, I’m interested in seeing more. It helps that I’m interested in any game that doesn’t coddle the player, and if this demo is a proper indication the only time Dead Island will coddle you is when it’s about to chew your neck to pieces.

Dead Island
Publisher: Deep Silver/Square Enix
Developer: Techland
Release date: September , 2011

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3 Responses to PAX 2011: Dead Island Preview

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Pax upates and more! - Dead Island Forums

August 27th, 2011 at 8:28 am

[...] He got Xian Meis class wrong thinking she was the "leader" but other than that it's not a bad one:PAX 2011: Dead Island Preview – GameHounds a tiny bit about Dead Island here: Pre-PAX Spectacular! Dead Island, Mass Effect 3… by [...]

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The.Dude

August 27th, 2011 at 6:53 pm

I think the writer confused Xian Mei with Purna, Xian Mei is the bladed weapons expert and Purna is the leader. Also the item rank system is white, green, blue, orange. Just got back from PAX and playing dead island, it was awesome.

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Nick "Alsop Live" Dinicola

August 28th, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Hm. The guy showing off the demo said I was playing as the leader character and her skills supported that, but he also said she was good with blades and I killed a zombie with one hit while throwing a meat cleaver. Maybe it was just a lucky shot. I’m not sure who I was playing as now.

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