Dead Island Hands-On Preview: The First Hour (Twice)
Arriving at the lighthouse, I drop off my charge and meet the other leader of the survivors — a man named John who was with Sinamoi when he saved the player character. The two have had a falling out as to what to do and John brought “his people” to the lighthouse to try to signal for help. They’re a more proactive group, he says, where Sinamoi’s people just want to sit and wait to be rescued.
After gathering up more missions from a whole new batch of survivors, the demo ended as I chased in a few more things. I didn’t get much beyond that point, but I did find myself wondering how Techland would challenge the player with these two groups of survivors. The missions I was able to complete for each in the opening moments of Chapter 2 didn’t require any choice on my part — one group needed medicine, the other radio parts, and neither group challenged me for helping the other. But I definitely got a bit of a “Lost” split tribe vibe from the whole situation, and Techland has a lot of fertile ground to explore in asking the player to pick sides, or try to toe the line, or just say “screw you” to everybody and gather up all the guns to go wait on a rooftop somewhere. The open world allows for that kind of choice, so long as Techland has created a story to support it.
RPG-style character progression
Much like in Dead Rising, as you earn experience points for completing quests, finding collectibles and busting up zombies’ skulls as effectively as possible, you’ll unlock new abilities. These are broken into three branches of a tech tree: Fury on the left, Combat down the middle and Survival on the right. Survival is mostly made up of passive buffs that make you heartier — more stamina, more health, less damage taken, etc.
The Combat tree also is fairly passive. You’ll become a more effective fighter with blunt weapons on hand when you spend your experience points there, but you won’t necessarily gain additional moves. In the Fury tree, however, you’ll add new things your character can do. Build up enough “Fury,” measured in a bar on the screen and powered by your aggressive tendencies for skull-crushing, and you can unleash special attacks that play to your characters’ strengths. In the case of Logan the quarterback, for example, Fury makes his throws highly accurate and effective, and one throw can potentially take out multiple zombies.
Each skill tree has to be unlocked in tiers, however, so even though I made it to about Level 5 and completed around 8 or 10 percent of the game by the end of my hour run, I still had unlocked very few of the cool skills. But the progression does feel substantial, allowing players to take more damage and dish out more punishment relatively quickly.
A lot of promise
There seems to be a lot of world to explore and a lot of things to do in Dead Island, and through the first hour I was highly compelled to keep moving. I have a few misgivings, however: there’s the story, which I fear might be a little thin, given the way quests were dolled out without a lot of attention paid to the characters and survivors. If the two groups of survivors don’t really affect one another, it’ll be a massive missed opportunity, but set-piece situations like heading out to find that downed plane in the jungle could be very cool.
For the most part, the mechanics seem solid and there are quite a few of RPG elements to give customization and progression to characters. Driving is the worst of them, and melee fighting can be tough when you have no way of sensing the reach of your weapons, but for the most part the gameplay mechanics are more than workable. Dead Island has a lot of the best portions of Dead Rising, with a different, scarier premise and perspective and the worst aspects (like punctuality) seemingly chopped free. That’s all good news.
I’m excited to play the full game, that’s for sure, although I hope the experience amounts to being more substantial than being a go-fer boy for 20 survivors and their irritating whims. We need a Jack-Locke conflict going on here, or a Last Man Standing set of situations, where the player takes on the Bruce Willis role. Dead Island has a lot of darkness in its story and its characters — hopefully it gets used to great effect. I’m very optimistic for the potential here.