Dead Island Is a Decade's Worth of Zombie Games in One

There is blood on the wall, a smear that drags down to the floor, bits of hair swaying gently in the breeze. It's not in the game booting up on the computer, but in the mock-bamboo and straw cabana in which I'm sitting, somewhere in an office tucked away in San Francisco's Moscone Center.

The couch is comfortable. In a nest of green faux leaves above is a wood sign that says "Welcome." In front of me on a television coming to life is the opening scenes of a video game I first saw nearly four years ago.

It is everything good about zombie games, a shambling stitch-work of the best bits of the last decade's undead gaming and fiction.

Or at least that's what I think as I watch Dead Island unfold before me during a demonstration earlier today.

Dead Island Is a Decade's Worth of Zombie Games in One

Dead Island is the story of paradise gone mad. That's what Vincent Kummer, brand manager with publisher Deep Silver, tells me.

Banoi is an island resort, a place where people go for two weeks to take a break from the normal.

The game has you playing as one of four characters, each of which came to the island for different reasons.

Sam B, a one-hit-wonder rapper, came to perform at the resort and soak in the drunken revelry of Banoi. Sam B awakes, though, to find himself at the epicenter of a zombie outbreak. Shocked into unconsciousness by the uprising, lifeguard Sinamoi drags him to the safety of a beach house.

The game opens with Sam B regaining consciousness. The world is tilted, Sam B groggy. We see through his eyes, a lean man standing over him, a baseball bat raised over his head.

The man shouts at Sam B, asks him if he can understand him.

"Nod your head. Do you understand me? Nod your head!"

He's going to kill Sam B, worried that he's turned, but the rapper finally snaps to and gets up.

"Thanks god," the other man exclaims. There are other survivors in the house. Babbling. Wandering aimlessly. One sits with her knees pressed to her chest, rocking back and forth, muttering.

Dead Island Is a Decade's Worth of Zombie Games in One

This is the reality of people facing the unthinkable—the rising dead.

"The game is supposed to represent the paradox of paradise and hell," Kummer tells me. "A lot of people die, a lot of people are turned. There are arms, legs, heads lying around."

There is nothing zany, nothing stealthy about the game's experience. It is meant to be an in-your-face action slasher with a touch of role-playing.

Sam B is playable as a sort of tank. He has his own special abilities and can upgrade over time. (As can all four of the game's characters.) In the case of Sam B he can crush a zombie's skull under he foot, kicking it into the ground until it explodes like a the world's most intelligent melon.

Sam B can also enter into a "Fury" mode that tints the world red, and allows him to punch zombies into mush. Other upgradeable skills, which all four characters share, are more generic combat and survival systems.

Dead Island won't be set conveniently near an armory or ammo dump, so using what weapons you can find on a resort island will be key to survival. Players can also uncover blueprints and use them to craft other weapons—something that will be very familiar to gamers who've played through Dead Rising 2.

But Techland's international brand manager Blazej Krakowiak is clear that this is no Dead Rising 2.

"We're absolutely not like Dead Rising 2," he says.

Dead Island Is a Decade's Worth of Zombie Games in One

Kummer points out that the weapons you find and the weapons you craft are meant to be things that represent the sort of things a person might use if they were dropped on an island and, you know, had to face the undead. There's nothing wacky about the weapons you'll be creating or how they will be used, he says.

Back in the game, Sam B grabs a paddle from the floor of the beach house and opens the door. Viewed through his eyes, the undead that greet him outside are much closer, much more threatening than they would be if the game showed them from a third-person perspective.

That view allows zombies to push up against Sam B, lean into him, bite at him. One of the slow-moving zombies takes a swing at Sam B. Sam slaps the zombie down with blows from the paddle, beating him until the creature drops in a mist of blood. Sams B wanders around until he finds a wrench, and then beats another zombie in the head with it, knocking it down and then stomping it until it stops moving.

The game is grisly—but with a purpose.

Kummer says that you can break legs, lop off arms. These attacks will slow zombies down, take away the weapons that some will use. About that time another zombie wanders up the beach, weaving between surfboards and umbrellas. He's on fire.

You have to take these zombies out from a distance, Kummer says, or they'll injure you. Hope you are a good distance shot with a wrench.

Dead Island Is a Decade's Worth of Zombie Games in One

Sam wanders over to a lifeguard hut where he discovers a workbench. He uses some of the items in the hut—wires, batteries, and a machete—to create an electrified blade. The weapon sounds a bit weird, but in practice it's more gruesome than humorous.

The workbench also allows players to repair and upgrade weapons. While developer Techland doesn't have any hard numbers yet, Kummer says that there will be a couple of thousand weapons in the game when it ships for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 later this year, if you count all of the customization options.

Weapons will be mostly blunt and edged weapons, though there will be a very limited number of firearms. They'll be the sort you might find on a dead police officer, perhaps with six bullets in it and no reloads.

The slow zombies aren't the only ones you'll come across, Kummer says.

Those slow zombies are called vessels. As we make our way through the beach a new type appear in the distance: Infected. And they're running.

"Those first zombies you saw were sort of like George Romero zombies," Kummer said. "And now you have 28 Days Later zombies."

Sam B throws a knife at one, neatly severing its leg, slowing it down. He cuts through them, taking them down with fists, with wrench, with sledgehammer, with machete.

Then he runs, not from the fast ones, because they're too quick, but from a new crowd of those slow vessels.

Topping some stairs Sam B grabs a propane tank and tosses it down into the crowd and then throws a weapons at it. The tank explodes, taking out a few of the zombies.

It's time to get to the safe house.

Sam B unlocks a fence surrounding a home, walks up to a garage door and shoves it open.

Inside the house is a hulking zombie, a larger version of the dangerous infected. In Dead Island, it appears, safe houses aren't safe until you make them safe.

Sam works takes out the large zombie with a knife attached to an explosive, and then methodically works through the three-floor home, cleaning it of zombies.

When he's done he radios the survivors, telling them it's safe for them to join him.

Dead Island Is a Decade's Worth of Zombie Games in One

The assortment of characters, some with skills you need, all drive over to your new safe house, essentially creating a new save point and base of operations for you.

There is so much more hidden in the game to see still, it seems, but my time has run out. Kummer tells me that the game will have characters that can help you not just with advice and side missions (there are more than a 100 in the game). Characters may sell you goods, or give you vehicles you can use to explore the island.

The game will also have quite a wide variety of zombies including some that explode, some that will vomit on you. There are planes, survivors, a light tower, an armored truck, signs of voodoo, indigenous people.

Watched from a couch, Dead Island appears to be a game that has carefully plucked the best of zombie games and lore and made it something better. Dead Rising's weapon crafting, Dead Space's limb lopping, Left 4 Dead's safe rooms, Grand Theft Auto's open world, Oblivion's character progression and enemy difficulty, fast zombies, slow zombies, mutated zombies, they're all in here in some bizarre, twisted way.

Dead Island Is a Decade's Worth of Zombie Games in One

And then there's the island, a fictional resort in Papa New Guinea with a story of its own.

It's almost overwhelming when the game starts to see so many different things in action, but as I watch the game played I can see how they fit together and how they could deliver an entirely new experience. Not bad for such a well-shambled subject.