Dead Island Stands Out By Being Both Splattery and Solemn

Dead Island had been sending mixed signals—I wasn't able to tell whether this title was meant to be a goofy splatterfest or emotionally devastating. Having now had the chance to experience the game first hand, I think it's trying to be a little of both. Surprisingly, the combination works.

When the announcement trailer for the game launched earlier this year, it created an enormous splash in the gaming scene and beyond. And rightfully so. Its slow-motion, reverse-chronological depiction of a family vacation gone to hell was strangely, intensely moving; set to a melancholy soundtrack, and packing an impressive amount of narrative content into a mere three minutes, it went straight to the gut. Oh, but it also spilled guts. Lot's of them. But I never felt that the zombie gore infringed upon the pathos of the trailer as a whole.

The E3 trailer, which debuted this week, was quite a different animal. Instead of piano and strings, it featured rap. And not just any rap—a ditty titled "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch." It was sillier than what we had seen before. The first trailer made me teary; this trailer faintly annoyed me. The rapper protagonist dropped a few f-bombs, we saw a lot of fake-looking breasts stuffed into bikini tops, and there were some rather uninspired looking character models and animations. Naturally, I went into my multiplayer demonstration for the title with skepticism: what was Dead Island? Trailer no. 1 or trailer no. 2?

It's both.

The game is set on a fictional South Pacific island called Banoi, and the four characters I had a choice of playing with were all in some manner involved with the locale's resort industry—either as visitors or employees. The demo began in church that had been appropriated by survivors of the zombie apocalypse. It was surprisingly solemn. A lot of attention had gone into rendering this space; it contained an array of wrecked ecclesiastical objects, and was cluttered with believable, shell-shocked NPCs. The music was hymn-like and subtle. I was impressed—the developers at Deep Silver had done a great job generating atmosphere.

The church served as a home-base. We were able to purchase weapons from a vendor, modify and upgrade these weapons at a work station, and accept quests from other survivors. I chose to play as Xian Mei, a Chinese-born hotel employee. I was told that she was good with knives, and specialized in decapitations—that's all I needed to hear. As it turned out, Xian Mei also wore a mean pair of heels. One of the game's mechanics involves using the left bumper to kick enemies back; an extremely useful tactic when you're being bum-rushed by a mob of them. It was extremely satisfying to tap the bumper and watch a slender, stockinged leg jab a zombie where it hurt; that the stockings were torn, and that the heel was a pungent shade of red, made the kicking even better. Dead Island revels in these sorts of scene-setting details.

Multiplayer is drop-in/drop-out, and the game will adjust its difficulty according to how many characters are deployed. Choosing to go solo will provide a very different experience than teaming up with three other allies. There is no cooperative-AI in Dead Island; unless you hook up with friends online, you'll be going alone. The four characters each had different weapon and combat specialties, and the game will not limit you on how many of a certain character can be active at once—if Xian Mei wants to enter a session with three other Xian Meis, the game won't object.

Deep Silver has placed particular emphasize on melee combat. Ammo was difficult to come by, as well as expensive, so I was encouraged to use (and throw) the knives, hatchets, and steel pipes I found lying around. Weapons degenerated over time, so it looks as though frequent visits to work stations will be necessary for those hoping to succeed in this game. Thankfully, there is no friendly fire from guns—otherwise, poor Xian Mei would have most certainly been turned to Swiss cheese every time she rushed in to slash at a zombie walker.

Dead Island manages to incorporate number of RPG-style systems, in addition to the weapon crafting I've already mentioned. Characters will earn experience points, which can then be expended to purchase power ups on a skill tree. Each character as a slightly different tree, and certain skills common between all characters will appear either higher or lower on an individual character's tree depending on their specialization. Likewise, looting will play a large role in how players will acquire weapons, ammunition and money; dead enemies are meant to be searched, and garbage cans and other receptacles can frequently be interacted with and raided.

The gameplay was solid, intuitive, and a lot fun. But it was Dead Island's commitment to atmosphere that really endeared me to the title. I had always thought the zombies-on-a-resort-island conceit to be clever and unique, but wondered how far the game's developers would go in exploring it. From what I've seen, they're close to nailing it. The ruined streets were flush with details and color, and had a sense of having been lived-in and subsequently worn-out by the disaster that befell the island. Lighting and ambient effects conveyed humidity and decomposition, and at certain moments the weather would dynamically alter, going from deep overcast to heavy rain. The gore, too, was overwhelmingly successful—the blood looks hot and gross, and the physics of slashing and bashing appropriately weighty.

Those of you who have written this game off as yet another indistinguishable addition to the much trodden zombie-shooter genre would do well to keep a closer eye on it as its release approaches. Dead Island's mix of solemn and silly has been a little disorienting, but it's this title's commitment to its concept that could ultimately distinguish it from the pack.

Dead Island is set to launch later this year on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC platforms.

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