Dead Island preview

By Jeff Mattas, May 17, 2011 9:00am PDT

Nothing can ruin a tropical island vacation quite as well as a massive zombie outbreak. Such is the premise of Dead Island, a first-person action-adventure game set at the Royal Palm Resort on the picturesque (and fictional) open-world island of Banoi in the South Pacific.

I took on the role Xian Mei, a Chinese receptionist with a proclivity for knives, working at the Royal Palm Resort. In the final release players can also choose to play as Sam B (a one-hit wonder rapper Xav saw in his GDC preview), or two other characters - Logan and Purna - about whom little is known at the moment. Dead Island's opening cinematic begins with a party at one of the resort's nightclubs. Suddenly, the festivities turn deadly as zombies appear and begin to devour the party-going patrons. Then everything fades to black. It's visually "in-your-face," appropriately chaotic and disorienting, and does a fine job setting the stage.

I assumed direct control of Xian Mei the next in-game day; apparently, someone pulled her out of the club and across the island to one of the beach lifeguard towers. The tower was populated with other survivors with various missions to take, including a guy in need of an amplifier for a broken radio antennae. He asked me if I could retrieve a spare from a nearby lighthouse. Before heading out, I stopped and upgraded some of my weapons at a nearby workbench. Weapons can also be combined to make new tools of destruction, once the proper blueprints are collected. I used one such blueprint (provided for the purpose of the demo) to add some nails to the business end of my Louisville slugger. Inventory management in Dead Island doesn't pause the game, however, so it's best to do your battle preparation in a safe location.

Combat in Dead Island is brutal and gory, with a purposeful focus on melee weapons that send body parts a-flying. Machetes, cleavers, and knives slice through zombies like hot butter at close range. All melee weapons can also be thrown from a distance, and can be retrieved for re-use. I couldn't help but chuckle after I skewered a zombie's torso with my thrown machete, ran up and retrieved the blade as it continued toward me, and then decapitated it with the same blade. Physical actions, such as swinging a weapon or sprinting use up player stamina, which automatically recharges. It's a nice touch that ensures fights require a bit more strategy than simply spamming the attack button. There are also powerful guns to be found or purchased from survivors selling black market goods, but they're very rare and will only include thirty to fifty rounds of ammunition apiece. Players also have a melee kick at their disposal, which can be used to knock zombies down and provide some breathing room.

After slaughtering more of the walking dead in the sunshine, I finally made my way to a bungalow close to the hotel and noticed a pickup truck parked nearby. After a messy three-point turn, I was barreling up a dirt road towards the lighthouse. Zombies, as one would expect, are no match for a truck, and I watched with satisfaction as the undead meat-sacks splattered under my wheels. A couple of zombies even flew over the truck's hood and cracking the windshield, which Xian Mei proceeded to knock away with her fist - a nice attention to detail. After mowing down dozens of zombies (and crashing into a couple of trees), the truck was battered and smoking as I reached the lighthouse.

The lighthouse itself proved to be another "safe zone" filled with survivors to talk to and more missions to accept. A guy named Trevor asked me to head down and gather some signal flares from some wrecked ships down the beach. It was here that I encountered my first of the "Infected," which are incredibly fast. Zombies in Dead Island come in at least a few other flavors, including "Suiciders" - zombies covered in pulsating growths that will explode if you get too close.

Next, I jumped ahead to a part of the game about ten hours into the story, where I found myself standing outside of a church. The bright sunshine had been replaced by ominous storm clouds. Upon entering the courtyard, I was immediately attacked by a seven-foot zombie wearing a straight jacket. Too powerful to attack head-on, dispatching the hulking foe required dodging his charge and then stabbing him in the back. Because the fight took place in a fenced-off space, it proved to be a bit of a challenge, and was a welcome change of pace from the standard zombie fodder.

Once the battle was finished, survivors in the church could be chatted up for more missions, including a nun who requested that we disable the church bells, because apparently, zombies find loud noises irresistible. Bells disabled, I again ventured outside to see that rain had begun to fall. The island of Banoi had taken on a much gloomier tone, due in no small part to the encroaching storm.

My vacation abruptly ended there, but what I saw of Dead Island is enough to keep me checking with my travel agent for a return flight until the game is released. Survival horror fans and avid zombie killers might want to keep their eyes on this one, which is planned for a Q4 2011 release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

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