Dead Island Hands-On Preview: The First Hour (Twice)
“You seem to be immune”
When you finally awake in Dead Island after its opening prologue, you find yourself having been saved by other survivors from the island resort where the game takes place. Apparently, you’re immune to the game’s zombie virus, but whatever has happened on the resort since you fell into a drunken stupor during the game’s opening full-motion video, it has been pretty devastating. Now the survivors are holed up in a tiki hut near the beach, and they’re looking to you — the weird guy or girl who didn’t turn into a zombie — to help them.
This is Chapter 1 of Dead Island, in a preview build sent to Game Front by Deep Silver and developer Techland that allows us to get through as much of the game as possible in an hour. That’s a far cry from the five-minute demo offered at E3 2011, which was a tense experience. This is much moreso, although the difficulty feels ratcheted down, and while Techland is sure to note that what we’re seeing isn’t the game’s completed code, it feels pretty damn close.
Because I had a chance to spend those five minutes with Dead Island at E3, picking up the game now feels pretty familiar. But there’s a whole lot more going on in this demo than in the previous iteration, obviously — there’s the prologue portion in the hotel, the seemingly thousands of pieces of luggage that the player can rifle through to find everything from money to weapons to components for constructing new things, and there are new characters to play as. For the first time in my experience, who the player embodies in this first-person action title actually have some substance.
In fact, there are four characters to choose from, each with a deep backstory and a specialization. There’s SamB, a washed-up rapper performing the one hit single he’s been coasting on for a decade at the resort, bigger and heartier than the other characters and specializing in melee fighting; Logan, an adrenaline junky former NFL star who crashes his car in a street race, killed a woman and destroyed his prospects at reaching the Hall of Fame, specializing in throwing weapons; Xian, a Hong Kong intelligence officer stuck with a paltry informing assignment at the resort simply because of her gender, who knows her way around blades; and Purna, a specialist in firearms and former cop who turned to private security when she realized she’d never be allowed to rise in her Austrialian police department.
Each character is wrought with some pretty deep and painful backstory. They may come off as a bit stereotypical, but Techland has also done well to give each one a painful past from which to earn redemption and a fair amount of drive to survive. None of the characters is especially likable, which is interesting as well. The four characters and their specialties give players a choice when they take on Dead Island alone, but they also leave options for the game’s cooperative mode, which can take all four characters at once, allowing them to attack missions separately or together.
Unfortunately, all that personality and characterization — a surprising amount — is left on the character select screen. In the hour demo that I played (which I played twice, sprinting through the second time to get as far as possible), the personality of the characters in-game amounted to little more than whose voice says “Okay” when you accept a mission from an NPC. Hopefully there’s more to the story than that, but at this point, I kind of doubt it.