GDC11: Dead Island is Better Than You Think It Is

Dead Island is one of those few games in which people actually reached a consensus opinion when the trailer was first unleashed on the Interwebs. While the trailer was restrained, emotionally stunning, and completely unlike any other zombie-driven video game released previously, most were resigned to the fact that the game couldn’t possibly live up to it, and almost dismissed the game entirely based on those preconceived notions.

Well, after spending some time with publisher Deep Silver this morning at GDC, I can say that, while no game could ever have lived up to a trailer of that magnitude, Dead Island will pleasantly surprise many skeptics and naysayers with its potential.

First thing that needs to be clarified right off the bat: the trailer doesn’t have much to do with the actual game. The trailer was intended to portray the first night of the zombie outbreak at the Royal Palms Resort in Papua New Guinea, and drive home the notion that even paradise can be transformed into hell, under any circumstances. The family shown has no real story significance to the game; once again, all for emotional effect.

Don’t feel cheated or dejected though; Dead Island still has the makings of a solid game. It’s an open world slasher action adventure RPG from a first person perspective. Yeah, that just sounds like something straight out of a Game Dev Story nightmare, and as the genre suggests, it sounds like a bevy of previously existing games.

And from the pre-beta, fifteen minute demo that was seen, that’s not a bad thing at all. The RPG elements seem most reminiscent to those of recent first person RPG powerhouse Borderlands. Dead Island features four playable characters, each with their own attributes. It’s standard RPG fare, with a tank (played in the demo), a fast character, a well-balanced character, and a stealthy character. There’s even a tech tree that looks pretty similar to that of Borderlands; the tank character, Sam B, even has an ability called Fury that gives him enhanced strength and the ability to punch zombies’ skulls in. Additionally, there’s a co-op element similar to Borderlands as well, where you can drop in and drop out and any time, and when that happens, the zombies scale in difficulty and number.

Combatwise, Dead Island seems more like a hybrid between Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising 2. It’s mainly melee based; Deep Silver Brand Manager Vincent Kummer made it abundantly clear that, while you’d be able to pick up pistols from cop cars and dead policemen, they wouldn’t be common at all, the ammo would be very limited, and there wouldn’t be a bunch of assault rifles, grenade launchers, and bazookas laying around for no reason. While it’s mostly close range combat, some weapons can be thrown at zombies, dealing much much more damage. Watching Sam B hurl a sledgehammer at a zombie was quite delightful, and brought up memories of the bloodiest melee moments in L4D2.

While that’s impressive, what’s even more promising is the aspect of disabling zombies with different weapons. Kummer demonstrated that in the boss portion of the demo, where you’re up against a heavily muscled up zombie. Using a heavy plumber’s wrench, Sam B was able to break both of the zombie’s arms, limiting him to biting attacks only. Apparently using blunt heavy objects could fracture limbs and render them useless, which certain slashing objects could cut them off. It was a feature that really sounded fantastic, and one that would be a joy to play with.

Much like Dead Rising 2, weapons can be upgraded, repaired, and also created, using blueprints found around the world. In the demo, an electric machete was created using batteries and a machete, and a sticky knife was also concocted, which detonates when thrown, using sticky explosives and a hunting knife. You even create these in a workbench found through a completed sidequest, although there’s no word on whether or not other workbenches will be found throughout the island.

I certainly hope that’s the case, because the island is absolutely massive and looks quite gorgeous, even for a pre-beta build. The demo started in a shelter hut on the beach right below the Royal Palms Resort, and upon looking out at the beach and across the ocean bay, there happened to be the other side of the island, wrapped along the bay.  When asked if we could traverse there eventually, Kummer stated that at some point in the main plot the player would be able to reach those lands, so calling this an “open world” truly does apply.

How the player could traverse these lands apparently depends on the story, the characters you choose, and the quests you take on. In the demo’s case, the protagonist was Sam B, a washed up, one-hit wonder rapper who was booked at the hotel the night before the outbreak. The morning after, he wakes to find himself in the shelter, and that’s where your story starts. The narrative seems fairly rough at this point; at this stage, Dead Island’s true emotional aspects don’t even come close to matching up with those of the trailer. That’s not to say they’re bad, but at this point it seems as if Dead Island is more a solid gameplay experience than a solid narrative experience.

And that’s perfectly fine. The combat looked solid and appealing, the environments were lush, detailed, and expansive, and the narrative wasn’t too offensive, especially for an open world RPG that wasn’t even in its beta phase. Sure, Dead Island looks like a bunch of other games went on Craigslist and arranged some sort of ungodly GDC orgy, but it takes the best of all these games and implements them in ways that look fun to play. It most definitely shows the promise and potential of being just as big as the games it takes inspiration from, whether intentional or no. Look for more news closer to release later this year.

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Allen Park

Allen is an utter whore of a gamer; he's completely open-minded to all games, be they AAA blockbusters or $5 casual children's games. His focus is on indie games specifically, valuing gameplay and ingenuity over sparkly visuals and ridiculous gimmicks. When he's not geeking out over the newest art game, he's out toning his sexy, sculpted shoulders while surfing epic 1.5ft waves, or having a good time with local, high-gravity microbrews.

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