E3 2011 – 5 Harrowing Minutes Surrounded by Dead Island’s Zombies (Hands-On)
Five minutes. That’s all you get. The floor demo of Dead Island at E3 had a running timer the entire time, and five minutes is not very long.
Except, that is, when you’re being chased by murderous, hungry zombies. Then five minutes can feel like five hours — especially because in Dead Island, they’re relentless, they’re everywhere, and they’re fast.
There’s a short cinematic kind of explaining what’s going on in Dead Island, but I didn’t get enough story for it to matter. The quick hits: the player character was drunk the night before and passed out; something happened in the interim; he/she was found and rescued by conscious characters who believe you may be immune to the zombie infection. When the character finally wake up, you’re with a group of survivors in a small bungalow, and the resort has gone to hell.
Zombies can’t seem to get in, but the survivors are also a huddled mass of fear and intensity. There’s a debate among them — whether to open the doors and help a lifeguard who has saved many of the survivors, or to abandon him to his fate. Choosing to help him is the equivalent of taking on the assignment like a quest, but you’ll need a weapon. The bungalow is littered with blunt objects — I grabbed a nearby canoe paddle — and waited for one of the survivors to fling the door open.
Just outside the bungalow is a scene that hadn’t quite approached the horrific. The lifeguard is struggling to fight off a mess of zombies, with more bloody bodies scattered around the beach nearby. I leapt into action, slamming the oar into the skull of the nearest corpse, sending it tumbling but not out for good. It took a few more judicious slams of wood against skull to keep the zombie from getting back up.
Repeat and repeat, with more zombies entering the melee and the lifeguard and another survivor helping to fight them off. After a moment, the intro into zombie combat is over and the characters are safe — and I receive my first real assignment, which sends me off to the lifeguard tower.
This is where Dead Island really excels — alone on the beach, with the remnants of a tropical resort all around by littered with gore and danger. My oar is splintering, so I toss it for another hunk of wood I find nearby. No more than two steps down the beach, and I have to put it to use.
If you’ve seen Dead Rising or Dead Rising 2 in action, you might have an idea of what Dead Island is like. In the former games, zombies mill around like they do in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — stumbling, running into things, and generally presenting more of a moving wall for players than a powerful threat, but always an ever-present danger. Dead Island is much more like Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, with zombies inert until they have a reason to get up and give chase. They run, they’re vicious and they give chase over long distances.
Immediately I found the need to evaluate my combat options for dealing with zombies. Most zombie encounters are limited to three or fewer at a time, since zombies are mostly just corpses lying around that sense you when you come near. Because they’re not actively searching for you, they don’t get up and attack you until you walk right by them, and that means you only have to deal with the zombies you trigger.
The trouble is, you’re mostly relegated to melee weapons, and those weapons are mostly things that are not actually weapons but just pieces of heavy things. Most of the items you can pick up (and you can pick up a lot of things, just like in Dead Rising) are not really meant to be used to destroy the brains of humans. They’re especially ineffective against creatures that feel no pain, like zombies, so stepping in to land a blow and then dodging clear of counterattacks is not only key to survival, but a difficult maneuver to pull off. More than once, a zombie lashed out and grabbed hold of me, being narrowly fought off by some frantic slamming of the controller.
Before long, the timer on my demo is dwindling and I haven’t made it far across Dead Island. Hugging the beach — my strategy being that it could limit the number of zombies and the directions from which they would approach — I follow the minimap toward the blinking objective. I fight when I can, but good blunt objects can be hard tough to snag, and often the best option is to throw them at enemies before they splinter entirely. Along the way I find a crowbar and a machete, as well as a useless unlit Tiki torch.
When things get rough, there’s always the option to run the hell away. It’s a double-edged decision to make a break for it, though — while you’re faster than zombies in Dead Island, you’re limited by a stamina bar that depletes when sprinting. And those guys don’t give up: they just keep coming, and gathering in a larger and larger group. The thing that Dead Island does best is create these moments where you stop running, weaponless and out of breath, and spin to see what’s been chasing you, only to find twice as many zombies as you thought, rapidly closing the gap. The game does a phenomenal job of putting you in tense situations like this, like some of the best movies in the zombie genre — they’re all around you, they’re closing in, and you’re barely equipped to deal with them. Death is always close at hand.
Before the end of my demo, which includes as much scrambling away from zombies as it does frantic searches for weapons and equipment, I make it up to the lifeguard tower. Here I have to stop and make a stand against the throng of zombies I’m dragging along with me, and in doing so, destroy my last wooden weapon. But I’m in the clear for the moment, so I head up and hit the button on the station’s garage door to raise it.
Stumbling out into the daylight as I back away is a huge new zombie, taller and more imposing than the regular patrons I’ve dealt with up to now — it’s called a Brute, apparently, and it hurtles at me in a halting beeline. I’m defenseless, and ducking around a corner, I suddenly find myself pushed into a dead end alongside the lifeguard station, a narrow corridor between the building and the fence. A nearby toolbox will hopefully yield a weapon and I crack it open quickly to find — a crowbar. Not exactly an A-plus item for dealing with something huge, but it’ll have to do.
I wheel — the Brute is almost on me. Nowhere to go and nowhere to run, I rush forward and plant the crowbar in the zombie’s head, but it’s a glancing blow. He winds up and hits me back, and I’m not just hurt, I’m flying through the air, landing on my back in a heap. This is not going to go well.
My five minutes ends there.
I had a great time with Dead Island, despite not accomplishing much more than getting nearly murdered by zombies over and over again in my demo. I got the impression that there were smaller missions and people to rescue scattered around all over the place, possibly showing up as you enter different areas not unlike the various side quests found in Dead Rising. Over and over again, in fact, I kept returning to the Dead Rising example — the games are similar enough to be comparable, but different in presentation and tone to stand apart and be interesting in different ways. I like the idea of reimagining Capcom’s series with a darker mood and a different, more frightening perspective.
Dead Island does have a few issues with the way it handles. In the demo, as fellow Game Fronter Mark Burnham pointed out, weapons seem to lack heft. Melee strikes have that sort of World of Warcraft feel to them, where there’s a lot of motion but the feeling of impact is too slight. It also seemed difficult to gauge distances when using some of those weapons, resulting in a lot of random flailing by the player character. It creates a kind of cheap feeling to the combat and can give a sense that you’re swinging randomly until you happen to be successful, rather than carefully planning your moves and actions to stay alive.
But alleviating, to a point, the weaknesses of combat was the simple fact that zombies surround and chase you, and those harrowing moments are a lot of fun. Dead Island is great at producing that giddy dread of knowing they’re all right behind you, and that resulted in a fun experience that was very full for lasting only five minutes. HopefullyDead Island can sustain that feeling for the length of the title when it’s eventually released this year.
Check out our interview with Deep Silver’s Sebastian Reichert from E3 2011.