Preview

Dead Island

This is a family holiday.

Now that all the fuss over that trailer has died down, it's becoming increasingly apparent that Techland has a decent game on its hands with Dead Island. Sure, it's not an emotionally charged story of one family's attempt to protect their young daughter, but it's enjoyable nevertheless.

It's also an RPG-inflected co-op romp, an excuse to run around a tattered tropical island bashing undead nasties over the head with whatever comes to hand, all while giggling at the silliness of it all. The trailer was particularly misleading in communicating the tone of the game, but at least it has put it on the map.

We sat down recently to sample some of Dead Island's action, with a team of four survivors venturing out into the sticky heat of Banoi to see what we could find. Here's how we got on.

From the start there are four playable characters up for grabs. Each has their own unique abilities. Rapper Sam B is the tank, capable of dishing out high melee damage. Pruna is a female character, comparatively weak and more adept at long range fire-arms, and Logan is an ex-football player specialising in throwing-weapons.

I was Xian Mei, a receptionist from the island who, despite her high heels, is considerably faster than the others. She's the Assassin class.

Our mission began in a church, a refuge from the storms and the stumbling undead ravaging the island. Barricaded on high ground, the church was home to all kinds of characters, a mission hub from which to venture forth and then stumble back for supplies.

It was here that we were able to use the crafting workbench, transforming cleavers into electrified blades and baseball bats into savage nail-studded implements. It looks like a robust and intuitive system, but the truth is we didn't have long to fiddle with it. We had work to do.

Our mission involved sticking posters up around the town below. The quest-giver had become separated from his family and was desperate to be reunited with them. The posters, indicating that the church offered sanctuary, were his last hope. So, tooled up to the eyeballs with weapons and posters, we ventured out.

The island is far from the tropical paradise it once was. Descending from the church we entered the crumbling town centre. The game's lore tells us that the zombie infestation broke out overnight, without warning. But this town had clearly started to decay long before that. Possibly the run-down home of the island's locals, paint flaked from walls and detritus littered the streets.

It wasn't long before we encountered the undead. They roam in small packs, their numbers bolstered once a skirmish breaks out. But don't expect Left 4 Dead-esque swarms. Rarely did we face-off against more than five or six at a time.

They're an odd bunch, these zombies, neither belonging to the Romero mould nor that of Danny Boyle. They seem to run or walk dependent on the logistics of a situation, conjured into existence by the AI rather than naturally wandering around the island. It suits the pace of the battles, if not the verisimilitude of the fiction.

Amongst each group we had to tackle a couple of special infected. There's a few different varieties. The biggest and ugliest of these is called The Ram. They're great big hulking chaps in straightjackets capable of knocking you to the ground and charging in straight lines. Elsewhere, there's an infectious zombie that emits green, health-sapping spores and a kind of suicide bomber zombie that explodes on contact, taking out everyone and everything in the vicinity.

Taking them on requires thought and teamwork. The balance of the combat encourages you to play to your team's dovetailing strengths. So Sam B's tank-like nature means that he is most effective going toe-to-undead-toe with enemies. This is handy as zombies are drawn to him first, meaning that he's usually up to his neck in them.

Playing as Xian, meanwhile, I was best suited to skipping quickly around the outskirts of fights, approaching zombies from behind and lunging in with a few quick hits before scampering back. Xian isn't especially strong and her melee combat can be disorientating, the camera flailing about all over the place to reflect her physical effort. Short, quick attacks are favoured.

On this note, it's worth outlining the game's main weakness. At this stage the melee combat is unsatisfying and light, lacking in oomph. It's unfortunate, as that's what you'll spend most of your time doing. Let's hope it's rectified before release.

There were glimpses of promise yet to come, however. There's a huge, XP-fuelled skill tree to get to grips with - offering a screen full of quirky abilities, an underground sewer network to explore and a sprawling open world that was sadly locked down during our demo. There's promise here.

As it was, with the posters up around the town we limped back to the church to recuperate and restock. Our adventure was short lived, but enjoyable. Dead Island will undoubtedly be at its best playing alongside three friends. That's exactly what we'll do once the game hits in September.

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