E3 2011 hands-on: Dead Island

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Dead Island is an interesting case both for and against cinematic video game trailers. Earlier this year, publisher Deep Silver released an incredible trailer for Dead Island, it’s zombie survival game that takes place, you know, on an island. The trailer was quite innovative and gave Dead Island a lot of positive attention. However, after playing the game at E3 last week, I’m kind of bothered that this trailer falsely advertises the game.

The trailer shows an epic struggle of a single family to fight off a horde of zombies and how it affects a lone little girl. It does this creatively, using flashbacks and reverse motion. Unfortunately, while the actual Dead Island game is not bad, it does not live up to almost any of the potential concepts introduced by the cinematic trailer. The only thing it does have is zombies… on an island. I never thought I’d complain about beating up zombies, but my hopes were a bit too high, it seems.

Less story, more gory

Okay, so lets get to the actual game. This game is the equivalent of a much more deadly game of Dead Rising with much less story, a more realistic art style, and a first-person viewpoint. As far as I can discern, there isn’t any story to Dead Island. If anything, it’s more like a first-person version of Gauntlet. The main game is built around multiplayer, allowing you and a group of people to work together, beating your way through each mission objective. The campaign mode is identical whether you’re playing alone or with three other people.

And when I say work together, I mean it in a rudimentary sense. You can chat with other players over voice, trade items, beat up zombies for each other, and revive each other, but that’s the extent of your cooperation. Don’t expect to solve puzzles together or perform any complex tasks. Most of the missions appear to  revolve around retrieving an item from some distant part of the island or performing another MMORPG-like task. You don’t get the sense that there’s an epic story here. If you’re playing Dead Island, it’s because you love beating the hell out of zombies, and they are not in short supply.

e3 2011 hands on dead island 2

Finding the creative killer in yourself

If you like killing zombies in creative new ways, Dead Island will be a good launchpad for you. The game lets you pick bats, wrenches, knives, swords, guns, grenades, maces, and dozens of other strange killing tools. Better, all items are throw-able and usable to beat the life out of something. Be careful though, these aren’t slow, plodding George Romero zombies. These undead are fast and deadly, much more akin to the infected from a film like 28 Days Later. They aren’t playing games either. I died more than a few times during the hour-long walkthrough.

When you kill a zombie, you often get cash and other items. These are used to buy better weapons and repair the items you already have. I’m not a big fan of this, but every time you use an item, it breaks a little, eventually becoming useless without repair. It’s bad enough that its sometimes difficult to beat a zombie to death with a tire iron, but when it breaks, you sometimes don’t realize it, as the weapon doesn’t crumble in your hands, it just fails to do any discernible damage to your foes.

Still, the game does have a decent enough leveling system. Every kill will give you experience points. Levels equate to better killing power, more inventory, and the ability to combine weapons together to form crazy new contraptions, like a baseball bat covered in spikes or maybe a wrench that explodes when you throw it. The folks at Deep Silver have come up with some very creative items, and I had fun experimenting.

Experimenting is also necessary, as there are several distinct types of zombies to fight. There are running zombies, fire zombies, toxic zombies, and even huge Bane-like zombies that are too tall and strong for their own good.

It’s tough

Overall, I enjoyed Dead Island, but it’s a bit too cutthroat for my tastes. I often lost track of where my group went, and if you try to run around alone, mounds of zombies will soon take you out. It’s a bit frightening to traverse anywhere without a group. The multiplayer aspects of the game are fun, but I’m left wondering how long I could play Dead Island before I’d crave a deeper gameplay experience. Representatives said that the game is 25 to 30 hours long. Normally, I’m excited about the idea of a long game, but with Dead Island, the task seems daunting. Hopefully Deep Silver is implementing ways to take back parts of the island from the zombies, or some form of game progression. Open world games are fun, but I now understand why living in a world with nothing but zombies could be a bit depressing.

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