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Leipzig GC 2007: Dead Island

6:56 PM on 08.24.2007 // David Houghton

I've noticed over the years that I have three main reactions to new videogames I like. Firstly, I have the "serious" reaction, whereby I take on an expression of thoughtful reverence in the face of a something groundbreaking or artistic in respect for what it achieves. At other times a game will incite a giggly, childlike sense of excitement and have me unashamedly whooping like I'm eight-years old again. Miyamoto tends to do that to me a lot.

Lastly, and in a lot of ways just as good as the former two reactions, is the phenomenon of a game making me burst out into spontaneous cackling laughter. I can't explain the exact circumstances that cause this one, but it often comes from games with an unashamedly balls-out attitude and cool or fun way of expressing it. Resident Evil 4 did it to me, as did Burnout 3, Doom 3 and F.E.A.R., and today Techland's Dead Island did it too. I haven't played the game yet, and it's still a fair way off release, but if the short burst of zombie slaughter (pun unintended but entirely appropriate) I saw demoed this afternoon is expanded into a finished game experience worthy of it, I'll be laughing for a good while to come. 

It has to be a good start when a developer begins his explanation of a zombie game with the words "We're going to have trouble getting this released in Germany." Zombies are a videogame treasure not to be wasted on watered down and half-hearted efforts, and with the capabilities of games this generation, there's more potential to exploit their creepy nastiness and intense splatterability (It's a word. Shut up) than ever.

For those of you who didn't read my preview when the game was announced, Dead Island follows the story of a couple separated when a plane crash drops them on a tropical island resort of blue seas and shimmering high class hotels. It also has zombies in really large numbers, which makes me now think I've been going on the wrong holidays for years. The four main objectives of the game are to find the protagonist's wife, find out what caused the zombie plague, get off the island and avoid a good chewing on the way. This all happens across miles of island which can be roamed freely from the start, and those four objectives can be tackled in any way the player sees fit (A very fashionable approach to first-person games recently, and particularly at this year's Leipzig).

Techland made the point that a lot of people have been wrongly labeling the game a first-person shooter, whereas in actual fact it's a first person survival horror. They told me there'll be very little shooting to be had, with guns being thin on the ground and traditional weapons in general being a scarce commodity. The key point there is the word "traditional", as despite the game's approach the protagonist is far from defenseless, which brings me onto my aforementioned cackling laughter. 

Dead Island uses an improvised weapon system, whereby all kinds of day to day items and pieces of wreckage can be grabbed and used for impromptu defense and attack in a sticky situation. It's a set up which sounds similar to Dead Rising, but two factors make the game stand out. The first is the first-person perspective, and the second is the damage modeling. Sensibly realizing that zombies have to splatter properly, Techland have built up the models using three breakable layers, going from skin, to muscle, to bone. This led to the scenes of anarchic carnage I saw at the live demo today, during which the protagonist scrambled through the detritus of a destroyed beach-side bar beset by the old drooling muscle-munchers, eventually settling on a broken up wooden chair and setting about bludgeoning the shufflers with admirable enthusiasm. Skin was torn, blood flew, muscle and sinew became ever more exposed, and eventually bone was visible everywhere, just begging for a smashing. And when the chair eventually broke through gleeful overuse? A quick scavenge behind the mostly empty bar found a discarded kitchen knife, at which point skulls cracked like eggs and brain met sky en masse.

It can't be underestimated just how much the simple tweaks Dead Island makes to the zombie action genre add to the frenetic immersion. The feeling of tussling with and beating down the undead by any frantic means possible, whether by bludgeon, blade, bullet, or plain old fist-power, is made fantastically visceral and satisfying (and yes, sometimes hilarious) by the use of a first-person perspective, and seeing the already horribly misshapen zombies systematically taken apart with every thump and gouge is revolting and rewarding in equal measure. 

It's not only walking meat counters who populate the island though. There are two mysterious human factions to be found, both at war with each other and available to interact with freely. This part of the game adds an RPG overtone as response choices in dialogue shape the nature of the player's relationships with the various NPCs. Making a friend of one side makes an enemy of the other, leading to what I've been told will be a host of optional missions available from both groups. Of course, the player will be completely free to ignore both sides and find his own way through the island, but he'll miss out on the variety of gameplay available in the side-quests. One particularly tasty example I was given today was the possibility of attacking the enemy faction by inciting a hoard of zombies to give chase, only to lead them straight to the target's territory and hide behind a tree, waiting to wade in and mop up whatever's left afterwards. If that doesn't sounds like a big slice of quality fun to you, then frankly I question your whole value system.

It's still early days yet, as Techland haven't even got a distribution deal for the game at the moment (though I was told they've been talking to some "big publishers" this week) and they have been known to turn a brilliant concept into a flawed game before. Read Anthony's thoughts on Call Of Juarez for details on that. Right at this stage though, I'm very, very excited about the potential here. If Dead Island turns out as it should, it has the potential to become one of my sleeper hits of the GC so far, as is funnily the case with something else Techland are cooking up. More on that soon though. 


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