Heading into E3, one game I really hoped I’d get a chance to play was Deep Silver’s “Dead Island,” an upcoming game about a zombie outbreak at a tropical vacation destination. While I wasn’t able to score an appointment to check out the four-player co-op with Deep Silver, I did get a chance to play solo during my Square Enix booth tour. (Square Enix is publishing the game, due out Sept. 6 on the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.) The first trailer for the game pretty much set the Internet on fire, and while I wasn’t expecting the world’s first emotionally evocative zombie game, the tone set by the demo couldn’t have been more different from this:
The demo, which was a 5-minute, timed affair, started off with my character partying it up on the beach in Banoi, a fictional island in the South Pacific. The scene very much looked like an “American yokel has too much to drink before stumbling around on the beach and passing out” affair, but then suddenly everyone was under attack by zombies. The character, either not comprehending what was happening or too trashed to do anything about it, blacked out. Shortly after this, she came to in some sort of warehousey safe room that reminded me a lot of the maintenance room in “Dead Rising” or the fallout shelter in “Dead Rising 2.”
It turned out that some quick-thinking survivors had managed to drag my passed-out galoot to this safe area and worked to revive her. Before long, I was up and wandering around the safe room, getting a bearing on my surroundings. Despite what must have been a massive hangover, if not the full effects of alcohol poisoning, my character was quickly deemed the most able to help out with stuff from the area outside the safe room. (Maybe he was still drunk and couldn’t feel pain?)
In any case, I quickly learned that someone Out There needed to be saved by packs of marauding zombies, and so I quickly had my first quest to complete. After grabbing a weapon of some kind, probably an oar, I ran out to look for my survivor, a lifeguard. (Apologies for the lack of detail here. Because the demo was a timed affair and there were people waiting behind me, I didn’t pause to take notes.)
I stepped outside to a totally crazy scene, as flesh-crazed zombies ran at me while the bright tropical sun glistened off their bloody maws. It was a hell of a sight. Despite the “Dead Rising” games’ 24-hour clocks, that game is a third-person action game, the zombies are slow and most of the action takes place indoors. The placement of fast, “Left 4 Dead” style undead in the harsh tropical sun makes for an unconventional, madcap scene, as there’s no darkness to obscure the gory detail like there is in most zombie games. Nothing was left to the imagination.
Additionally, someone at my demo station had jacked up the volume on my headset to dangerously high levels, and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it down, compounding the maddening, helter-skelter feel of the whole thing.
Because this was clearly an early-game mission, it didn’t take me long to find that first survivor and get back to the safe area. (Does anyone else laugh in games when the person you’re charged with rescuing is literally within sight of a safe area and more than capable of getting there on their own? I guess games have to start somewhere.)
In rescuing the lifeguard, I got a chance to experience some of “Dead Island’s” hand-to-hand combat. It was loud (because of the aforementioned headset issue), frenetic and brutal. Simply put, fighting off the undead stressed me out, but in a good way, not unlike doing battle with the tanks in “Left 4 Dead” or the crazed, homicidal homeless people in “Condemned: Criminal Origins.”
After getting back to the safe house, I was tasked with trying to reach a far-off lifeguard station so that I could radio for help. By this point, I only had a couple of minutes left in the demo. I set off for the lifeguard station, only to get sidetracked by another survivor who needed help. I doubt there’ll be any kind of timer system in the final retail game, but I actually kind of liked the way I decided to rescue the guy, then leave him to his own devices as I really wanted to get to the lifeguard station before time expired.
Continuing along the beach to my objective unmolested proved a tough task, as the zombies were hunting in packs and relentlessly dogged in their pursuit. You can outrun them for a while, thanks to a sprint button, but it’s pegged to a stamina bar that depletes, so eventually it turns into a tortoise-and-the-hare thing. Sprinting is really only advised once your objective is in sight. As a long term strategy, I’m not sure it’s viable. I had little choice, though, as the only way I was going to make it to the lifeguard station in time was going to involve a generous amount of sprinting. Predictably, I eventually ran into zombies on a path in front of me, and had to stop to fight them. Meanwhile, the zombies who’d been bringing up the rear had a chance to catch up, and I was quickly overwhelmed, becoming a zombie hors d’oeuvre.
While “Dead Island” has four-player co-op play and a role-playing-game-style leveling system, those really weren’t on display in my timed demo. Instead, I saw a lot of features that reminded me of other game’s I like. “Dead Rising’s” open-world setting and weapon deterioration, “Left 4 Dead’s” crazed zombie horde and “Condemned’s” visceral hand-to-hand fighting. I feel like I still haven’t gotten a chance to experience what’ll make “Dead Island” its own unique experience, but I’m looking forward to getting more time with the game in the future.