This autumn, Escape Dead Island will mark another chapter in the ongoing Dead Island series, but don't mistake it for a rehash. Set in the same universe as all the Dead Islands games that came before, Escape Dead Island continues the overarching narrative while deviating from the systems we've grown familiar with. Sure, it still fits into the whole zombie survival theme Deep Silver so lovingly cultivated, but Swedish developer Fatshark really went out of their way to make this their own.
Earlier this month at San Diego Comic-Con, I had the opportunity to play the demo and chat with creative director Robin Flodin. Everything about Escape Dead Island seems designed to set it apart from Techland's previous works. It's single-player only, stars an entirely new character and takes place on a smaller island instead of Banoi. The story isn't quite what I expected, either, and I mean that in a positive way.
To start, I learn that Cliff Calo, whom Flodin describes as being a bit of a spoiled brat, is the name of our protagonist. After a falling out with his father, Cliff decides to prove himself (classic "I'll show you!" mentality at work) by taking a boat out with some friends with the intention of shooting a documentary about the zombie outbreak. Things don't go quite as planned, however, and everyone gets marooned on a small island where the infected are running rampant.
Cliff is just waking up when I drop into the game. He's alone and confused, so I go in search of his friends while following the quest prompts, until I stumple upon a zombie. Unfortunately for the appropriately terrified Cliff, he isn't immune to the virus, meaning he can't just run in face first, getting bitten and generally swarmed by the shambling hordes. Well, he can, but that would also kill the guy almost instantly.
An average fellow like Cliff doesn't rely on outrageous weapons or a natural immunity to the deadly affliction -- namely because he can't. Instead, players need to consider actual tactics, and stealth is made an integral element of gameplay. At first, Cliff is unarmed, so I was forced to sneak my way around zombies in order to retrieve some rope, utilizing loud noises as distractions and debris as cover. Even upon acquiring my first weapon, the mighty screwdriver, I couldn't directly confront the undead. Instead, Robin explained that the screwdriver was best used for stealth kills, and that's what I ended up doing: Sam Fishering my way through the abandoned buildings, striking lone zombies from behind.
Visually, Escape Dead Island takes on a very unique graphic look, one that appears directly inspired by comic books. Striking zombies or any part of the environment produces a different audio effect accompanied by some corresponding text; words like "BANG!" and what not visualizing every sound. Enemies even have these conspicuous exclamation points above their heads acting as detection meters.
It all fits very well with the tone of the game by adding to the somewhat surreal atmosphere, and let me tell you, things get weird pretty quickly. I realize early on that something is amiss when audio recordings of Cliff's friends screaming suggest he might have something to do with their disappearance. The young man has no actual recollection of what happened, however, so it's a giant mystery that just keeps growing. Nevermind all the security cameras following Cliff whenever he's exploring a seemingly abandoned building.
Toward the end of the demo, empty shipping containers start raining from the sky, crushing Cliff in the process. Seconds later, he wakes up again, this time bandaged and in the company of his friends, who are in fact alive and well.
When I asked about the use of what seemed to be a dream sequence, Robin eagerly points to Momento and the Lost series as inspirations for a Dead Island psychological thriller. I was almost more intrigued by this fact alone, but the game that I was able to experience stood out on its own. On one hand, Escape Dead Island didn't really feel like a Dead Island, but by now, I'm pretty used to seeing "branchises" stemming from successful IPs, sharing so little with their predecessors outside of the fictional universe and a title.
Escape Dead Island will be released sometime this fall for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
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