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.