Proper marketing really is everything, a fact that publisher Deep Silver knows as well as anyone. The Dead Island debut trailer hit the gaming community with an emotional bang, and we knew immediately this wasn't going to be another zombie shooter.
So what is Dead Island? The first-person perspective leads many gamers to immediately label it "another shooter." There certainly isn't anything wrong with making more shooters, but that really isn't the focus of Dead Island. Instead, players will find a uniquely rich co-op experience that defies genre restrictions, best described perhaps as an open world first-person hack 'n' slash zombie RPG.
Hell breaks loose at the Palms Resort on the fictional island of Banoi, located off the coast of Papua New Guinea, where locals and visitors alike have fallen victim to a mysterious zombie outbreak. You'll step into the game as one of four playable survivors, each with his or her own backstory. As the game progresses, these individuals will grow and adapt to the nightmarish circumstances around them and eventually become hardened zombie killers.
Slaughter Zombies, Level Up
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dead Island may be its heavy use of RPG mechanics. Each character falls into a specific class, like your archetypal rogue or tank. During the demo, playing as these four different class-types didn't seem to hinder anyone's performance in combat, though the differences might be made more apparent in the full game. Everyone does have an exclusive Rage attack as well, and once activated, you'll see the world in black and white and receive some kind of combat boost. For the character who specializes in knife-throwing, he'll be able to throw more quickly and perform instant kills; it varies depending on who you're playing as, obviously.
Dead Island also implements talent trees, which unlock a variety of active and passive abilities for your character. Not all skills are necessarily combat-related either, as you'll notice RPG staples such as lockpicking thrown into the mix. Your character's background and personality can influence the type of skills he or she is predispositioned to.
Customization extends to weapons as well, though we didn't see the process during the hands-on demo. We did, however, see some of these customized weapons in action, like exploding knives (and we mean big explosions) and electrical machetes. Weapons can be found or bought and differ widely in quality, which determines how effective that item is. Obviously the higher quality the weapon, the more expensive it'll be from a vendor. Firearms, as Techland previously mentioned, are harder to come by than melee weapons like knives or pipes, and ammo is incredibly rare, thus adding a layer of realism to the game. Honestly, who expects a tropical island to double as a guns and ammunition emporium?
Expect tons of exploration opportunities as well. Like with most RPGs, your character actually levels -- implied already by the presence of talent trees -- and to level, you need to earn XP from completing either primary or side quests. During the demo, we received a quest from an NPC hiding out in a church, and our party was tasked with heading into town to put up missing persons flyers. The quest rewards are as you might expect: money, experience, and rare collectibles.
Banoi is a completely open world too, from the towns above to the sewers below. Make an effort to look around, and you may find a few material rewards waiting to be picked up.
Stick Together or Die Alone
Left 4 Dead fans will find certain elements in Dead Island familiar, like the four-player co-op setup and the emphasis on teamwork. Wander too far from your team, and the AI will punish you for your indiscretion. That said, if you're soloing or just playing without the full set of four, the game will automatically tone down the difficulty to better suit your numbers. Dead Island will support full drop-in/drop-out co-op, and you can play as whoever you damn well choose, even if someone else in the game is already using the same character.
Don't expect the same hordes you're so used to seeing in other zombie games though. Instead, the infected populace of Banoi are found scattered throughout, meaning you'll only deal with a couple to a handful at a time. But the zombies in Dead Island are tougher than your average undead, as we learned during the demo, and the survivors have their own physical limitations to consider (measured by a fatigue bar). Unless critically wounded, zombies will keep crawling back on their feet when knocked down, though a downed zombie does present the perfect opportunity for a brutal curb stomp a la Gears of War -- or you can just slowly kick it to death. "Special class" zombies present an added challenge, much like the Special Infected in Valve's zombie series; in the demo, for example, we encountered a unique type surrounded by a flammable poison cloud.
Suffice to say, Dead Island is unlike any zombie game we've ever played before. In its current state, gameplay feels plenty solid, and the game looks rather nice as is. Techland still has some rough edges to smooth out before Dead Island is released, but there's no reason to think they won't be finished in time for the September 6 launch date. The studio has no plans for multiplayer, but the game will be getting an arena-type DLC shortly after release (unless you pre-order).