Hands On: Dead Island

By John Walker on June 23rd, 2011 at 12:29 pm.

Here, have this axe. It's a present!

Oftentimes with games, what you want is to gain knowledge from scratch. There’s a title, a genre, and what we need is to build information upon that. With Dead Island it often feels like things are working in the opposite direction, thanks to that trailer. Everyone invented their own version of the game, and the reality can often feel like the result of chipping away at this impossible ideal. So let’s scrap all that, forget the trailer since it has no real bearing on the game you play, and start getting interested from the ground up.

What surprised me most came after I’d finished playing a section of the game, in four-player co-op, when one of the developers mentioned to me that it’s quite a different game when played on your own. It’s the difference between an action-focused survive-em-up, scampering to your next goal while looking out for each other, smashing everything you encounter to undead bits, and caring about the world you’re in. In co-op the game’s story is largely in the background, a justification for the tasks you’re completing. In single player, they say, the people matter, their lives matter, and your motivation is shared with theirs. It’s perhaps playing alone – and this is purely speculation – that any glimmer of the horror of the original trailer could permeate through your experience.

Which is not to say anything bad about the co-op. Because what we played – a section about six or seven hours into a 30 hour game – was good fun. And surprisingly involved. I hadn’t learned much about the game before I sat in front of it, so anything more than hitting zombies with planks was a pleasant surprise. Because here you can hit the zombies with really complicated planks.

There’s no getting away from comparisons with Left 4 Dead. Four-player co-op zombie fighting – you can’t not draw the comparison. And it’s just as packed with enemies, and you can kill them just as brutally. In fact, I’d venture more brutally. While there’s no doubt it’s fun to attack a L4D zombie at the lower end of its legs, it’s nothing like as entertaining as sweeping the feet from under one of Dead Island’s inhabitants, watching them trip over in confusion. The gore is set to 110, things getting quite shockingly brutal in places. But this is far more involved than Valve’s lunchtime filler. For a start, you have quests.

The game sees you progress through the island, offering you different hubs as you make your way, from which you can pick up very many sidequests. Along with the main plot, a distressed mother sheltering in a church may ask you to find her son, and so on. A minimap shows you very clearly in which direction you should be heading (getting lost surrounded by that many dead people would be extremely unfun), and off you head. Except not yet, Mr Keeno – hold your horses. You’ll need weapons. So as was explained very early on, you can improvise with most items you find to beat the dead to even deader, using workbenches found in safe areas. For the demo they’d unlocked us a silly number of weapons and options, so we were spoiled for choice, but here you can add nails to your baseball bat, knifes to your hammers, etc. Indeed, it’s the Dead Rising element that makes it screamingly impossible not to blurt out at some point, “It’s Left 4 Dead meets Dead Rising.” Because it is.

As I mentioned, the combat is violent, but also satisfying. And this is thanks to one rather brilliant ingredient: stamina. You can’t just run around swirling axes all day long. You’d get extremely tired. And so it is in the game. But as much as I know if I weren’t me, but some other less handsome person reading these words, at this point I’d stand on my chair, take my clothes off, and shout: “STAMINA RUINS EVERYTHING!” Get back down and put your pants back on. Because they seem to have gotten it right here.

You’re not an insane weakling. And you’re also not Geoff Capes, strongest man in the world. You can’t just endlessly wield a baseball bat and expect your arms to be okay with that. Which means stamina becomes the game’s main resource, and combat is so much more than wildly running toward things with your weapons whirling like a helicopter blade. You need to think, aim for their head, or legs, judiciously applying your available energy and relying on the help of your buddies. Guns don’t require stamina to fire, but ammo is scarce, and the kickback can make their use problematic. And of course all this scales depending how many people are playing.

My questions about whether the game would have some sort of equivalent of L4D’s Director didn’t cross the language barrier too well, but we eventually settle on “sort of”. Quite what that entails I’m not yet sure, but I’m confident it won’t be anything like as elaborately involved as Valve’s frighteningly silent overseer.

So no, it’s not the “somehow survive as you freely explore an entire island full of zombies” that some had desperately hoped it would be when it was first hinted at. But it’s not fair to look at this as the bits left over when you drop your expectations. It’s by no means purely linear, with multiple quests available at any time, but there is a narrative, and you are going to make your way through it, and seemingly more meaningfully the fewer people there are playing. There are shops, NPCs, intricate customisation options, side-quests, and an awful lot of moving corpses. I’m certainly looking forward to 9th September (6th in the lucky US) to see how it all fits together in one coherent whole.

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64 Comments »

  1. Fwiffo says:

    So it has more in common with Borderlands then? That’s not so bad!

    • JohnnyMaverik says:

      As long as the writing is better than Borderlands… although being a Techland jobby as well as co-op I’m guessing it won’t be unless they’ve hired somebody decent since Bound in Blood.

    • Kdansky says:

      And if they do not have stupid things like reload animations that move your viewpoint (any borderlands shotgun), coupled with shotguns that only carry 2 shots, coupled with enemies sporting billions of hp and requiring reloads nonstop. Borderlands had such potential, and fell short due to really dumb things like that.

    • Raniz says:

      Don’t forget shotguns with better scopes than any sniper rifle

    • torchedEARTH says:

      It’s a shame they didn’t explain this right from the start.

      It’s like Borderlands – but with zombies! Like the Island of Dr Ned, which was ok I guess…

    • Thants says:

      Hey, Borderlands had pretty good writing. There wasn’t that much of it, but what there was was good. Except for the ending.

  2. McDan says:

    It’s gone from looking amazing, to another zombie shooter to excellence again! Good stuff.

    • Temple says:

      What he said ^
      I’m not sure what game could be made according to the excellent first trailer.
      If that happened as a cut scene I’d be angry, and tech ain’t there yet to look so awesome in game.

      Worry is that the footage we saw seemed very *looks for other word than console* shiny? Too much HUD on the screen and achievements popping out etc.

      “at this point I’d stand on my chair, take my clothes off” is it wrong that I’d want to see that?

  3. Vexing Vision says:

    So it’s L4D meets Borderlands?

  4. LionsPhil says:

    But I already own Left 4 Dead 2 and, more importantly, so do my friends who I may want to co-op with. This has a much steeper slope to climb than can be scaled with “oh, uh, side-quests, nails in bats, and, uh, uh, we changed how the melee cooldown works”.

  5. Antsy says:

    I don’t like zombies.

  6. jaheira says:

    Heh. Geoff Capes. He could rip a telephone directory in half.

  7. gohemis says:

    Its good.. Its decent.. Its good.. Its decent.. its good.. I’m running out of flower pedals Dead Island!

  8. Monchberter says:

    I’d say the director was L4D’s biggest innovation. If Dead Island doesn’t have anything similar, then it’s just a predictable and slightly gimped knock off. Still, I will ‘try’ to reserve judgement.

  9. Bilbo says:

    The production values seem far too high for this to be just a left 4 dead clone. Disappointing. It still looks very pretty and sounds like a laugh, so I’ll probably give it a fair throw when it ships, but it’s off my “excited anticipation” radar and I’ll be taking further trailers with a hefty pinch of salt.

    • John Walker says:

      In what way did I ever say it was a L4D clone?

    • Birky says:

      John, when will you learn, no one come to RPS to read the actual words. That would just be silly

    • ucfalumknight says:

      What is this “reading” you speak of. The innernets is only fer pikturs and videeos.

    • Bilbo says:

      John, I wasn’t putting words in your mouth. I was expressing my own opinion.
      Is that ok? Is that allowed?
      For what it’s worth, I didn’t make very much of your “it has stamina and ad-hoc quests” assertions. It’s still a first-person action game starring zombies with an emphasis on co-op. For my money, there either isn’t enough distinguishing it from L4D, or if there is, neither you nor anyone else who’s covered the game (yeah, there are other sites out there) have done much to make me believe it.
      As for you two, that’s a paddlin’. I did bloody read it.

    • John Walker says:

      Yes, if you dismiss all the ways it’s dissimilar to L4D, it’s a L4D clone. Good thinking.

    • Bilbo says:

      *Acknowledges the distinctions, and suggests that they don’t seem like enough of a distinction for his own tastes*

      *Is told that he is simply dismissing the distinctions unfairly, and is insinuated as an idiot*

      Remind me why I come here, John?

    • Chris D says:

      For the puns?

    • Bilbo says:

      Yeah, that must be it.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      So…. don’t come here?

      This sort of thing seems to happen a lot when you comment. Maybe this isn’t the site for you?

    • Bilbo says:

      Well, in my history of visiting RPS, i’ve had three minor irritations, and they’ve all been in the last week. Clearly I’m doing something wrong at the moment. Cheers for the encouragement though JA, being told to piss off is always nice

  10. MattM says:

    Bleg. Co-op ruins good single player games.

    O.K. lemme clarify that. Making a game that has separate single player and co-op parts can work but trying to design a campaign that can be played either way seems like an impossible task. When ever I am playing co-op I people get impatient and want to rush through everything. If the game is designed that way it can work (l4d) but other wise I feel guilty whenever I stop to appreciate something, mess with my stats/equipment or don’t skip a cut-scene. Too often the other player and I don’t really seem to be working together, we are just separate games in the same world. On the flip-side, a well designed co-op game requires complex player cooperation. A.I. just doesn’t seems to be capable of working with a player. At best they just add some damage and stay out of your way. If I want to turn a single player game into a social experience, usually the best way is just to take turns playing and watching.

    • Chibithor says:

      I hate it when they advertise “co-op” and have five missions with forced co-op action like boosting your partner up some ledge. I guess you’re mostly talking about playing with random people, but with friends none of those should be an issue.

    • Viper50BMG says:

      I must disagree with you there; look at Borderlands or the Rainbow Six: Vegas games for some good examples of single-player being the same game as Co-Op. Both games series were excellent, in my opinion. In Borderlands, you had to play differently as a single player, compared to when you had friends to help you; and in Rainbow Six your co-op buddies simply took the place of AI, and again, it was pretty much the same game. I think you can do co-op and single player in the same areas, if you make allowances for the different styles of play that this results in. This game sounds like, to me, to be more on the order of an island-based zombie apocalypse Borderlands, with less guns and health scattered around, giving a more “survivalist” undercurrent.

    • MattM says:

      Played the Vegas games and felt like they suffered from poor AI companions. They were unreliable and their effectiveness depended on their high health. They could take about 5x more hits than the player character before being incapacitated. Borderlands felt good in single-player, but I felt like it didn’t work so well in co-op. It felt like there was little need for cooperation.
      I am not down on co-op games, L4D showed me how much fun they could be, but I feel like the new trend of co-op mixed with SP in every game is a bad one. One or the other mode suffers.

  11. LuNatic says:

    So… is it an open world or not?

  12. arienette says:

    It looks good, I couldn’t possibly deny that. But it’ll forever be soured by my expectations of grimy survivalism.

  13. Ergates_Antius says:

    Sounds like the kind of thing my co-op buddy and I are looking for. Good-o.

  14. Alexander Norris says:

    Well, at least there’s still Dead State and Project Zomboid.

  15. Stevostin says:

    “So no, it’s not the “somehow survive as you freely explore an entire island full of zombies” that some had desperately hoped it would be when it was first hinted at. ”

    I am not sure to see what’s the difference between that and what the game (in singleplayer) is. Does it mean the game is a succession of missions, with no possibility to freely travel from a zone to another ? Or is it STALKER like ?

  16. Ovno says:

    “Just Left 4 Dead Cause Rising Island” then…

    Sounds good,

    Just a pity the trailer was so good that everyone was hoping for something much more brutal…

  17. Nick says:

    Really looking forward to this actually. Sounds great.

  18. diebroken says:

    I remember seeing footage of Dead Island years ago (?) before ‘that trailer’ came out, and it reminded me more of Condemned’s HtH melee combat at the time. Also, WTF happened to Techland’s Warhound game?

  19. Garfo says:

    deffo on my buy list die u undead scum bags :)

  20. FieldOfTheBattle says:

    Finally a more meaningful L4D that wasn’t made on a shoestring budget.

  21. BathroomCitizen says:

    I’m quite curious about this game.

  22. Muzman says:

    One of the things that turned be off Left4Dead was that it was co-op (not because that’s bad it’s just very unlikely I’ll find circumstances to play it). So ‘single player L4D’ with more besides sounds very good to me.

    • Melmoth says:

      That’s like saying “I didn’t like Counter Strike because i had to play in a team.”
      From beginning to end L4D was concepted and designed to be co-op, so it shouldn’t have surprised you as much as it seems to have. There’s a ton of singleplayer and multiplayer shooters out there and I welcome every exception from this rule.

  23. Temple says:

    So when is Dead Island 2 due for release?

  24. je66b says:

    so is the multiplayer true free roam or not? thats all i want to know about this game

  25. Juan Carlo says:

    As a fan of L4D I really couldn’t be happier if this was just a left 4 dead clone. But the added gameplay elements like “Stamina” and “Crafting” and quests sound interesting. Plus, the possibility of an interesting single player experience would be cool too (as great as L4D is, it sucks balls if you’re playing it alone).

    I just hope it has it’s own version of L4D’s “Versus” mode.

  26. passingstranger says:

    The fact that one of the in-game achievements gleefully references the O RLY owl has me worried more than anything else. That’s more dated than DICE’s “EPIC FAIL” every time a player’s death is counted as suicide.

  27. scienceshoew says:

    “The gore is set to 110, things getting quite shockingly brutal in places.” Oh great, so the Australian OFLC will withhold a rating, and I won’t get to play it.

  28. DOLBYdigital says:

    I like what I hear, glad to hear about the sub quests and hope its a more open world than just a linear trail/map that you run back and forth in. Also like the sound of the melee and kickback of guns, makes it seem almost strategic in combat…. I’ll keep my hopes low so I either get unexpectedly surprised or not surprised at all….

    Also, I love you RPS, I laugh more reading your posts than any other time in the day which may be sad…

    “….Get back down and put your pants back on.”

  29. magnus says:

    Hopfully I won’t regret buying it because of some ridiculous end-game difficulty spike like the countdown at the end of Prototype 1′s final boss fight, AAAAARRRRRRRGGGGHHH!

  30. Grayvern says:

    I’m still more excited for Doublebears game, Dead State, they should do a kickstarter for that I’m sure they could get some serious cash and release sooner.

  31. AgamemnonV2 says:

    I love it when ever someone mentions the trailer for this game. Pretty much the masses responded like this:

    Dead Island trailer: OOOOOH, a zombie game with an engaging story!

    Dead Island gameplay video: BOOO, I am disappoint!

    And yet this was their L4D reaction…

    Left 4 Dead trailer: OOOOOH, a zombie game with an engaging story!

    Left 4 Dead gameplay video: Who cares, it’s Valve!

    Frankly I’m tired of all the black pots–especially the ones proclaiming Left 4 Dead “is teh bestest gaem evar!”

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