It’s difficult not to mention Valve’s superlative Left 4 Dead series when discussing Dead Island, but the comparison is a good way of highlighting the stark differences as well as the similarities. The similarities are apparent immediately; four player drop-in, drop-out co-op, a vast variety of enemies (all demanding to be tackled in very different ways) and gameplay that definitely doesn’t reward lone wolves. But the very prominent RPG elements – and a much stronger emphasis on realism – make Dead Island feel instantly distinctive. The co-op campaign – which is the same as the single-player campaign and not a separate entity – owes something of a debt to Borderlands too.
The main thing that differentiates Dead Island from Borderlands (as well as from Left 4 Dead and its sequel) is that guns (and ammo) are prohibitively expensive and at a notable premium. We got a chance to go hands-on with one of the game’s pricey machine guns – as we began the mission fully tooled up, and with a near-infinite amount of funds to hand – but it was always very apparent that each bullet was going to be costing us more than a weighty claw hammer (for example) would have done. As such, the guns are probably going to stand as a sturdy last resort, but you’ll have to employ your A-game because only headshots really count.
Dead Island’s developer Techland are evidently keen to make things as realistic as possible – as realistic as you can make a game about walking dead people, anyway – and this means that it’s all about the melee combat. You can carry up to eight weapons at any one time, and you’ll regularly happen upon work benches that allow you to mend or upgrade busted tools, or create hybrid weapons if you own every element of a specific hybrid recipe. You can also use every weapon in the game as a projectile, but if it doesn’t boast a sharp edge it will simply bounce off your attacker, doing a less-than-minimal amount of damage and forcing you (if you’ve been careless with your other weapons) to run over and pick it up again.
The mission that we played – from the game’s eighth chapter and entitled ‘No Good Deed’ – involved the four of us having to place a small handful of posters around town to inform a bearded man’s missing family – who’d only recently vanished – that their father was alright and where he could be found. Waypoint markers helpfully explain where each board is located, and although there are multiple pathways to each objective, straying from the waypoint line (your HUD map can be switched off if you’re feeling really ballsy) is even less advisable than straying from your teammates.
Each of the four characters have very different attributes; and one character can basically be used as a zombie magnet when the situation demands. Some (but not all) of the zombies tend to be more attracted to one of your number than the rest of you, and this gifts the game with some very enjoyable moments where synergy is absolutely mandatory. To take down a rushing, Tank-like behemoth whose speciality involved running at our partner at full speed, we stood back whilst our teammate used the side-step move (which intuitively utilises the standard jump button) to grant us access to his assailant’s back.
The quiet spots between encounters like this aren’t free of tension either, as you’re only too aware that one false step down an off-path alleyway could result in a skirmish that nobody was adequately prepared for. The importance of teamwork and communication is perpetually paramount, and although the campaign is clearly going to work just fine as a single-player experience, co-op is where the real fun is going to be had; if only because watching three of your friends battering the same zombie simultaneously with a boat paddle, a wrench and a mace is hilarious as well as damn good fun.
Dead Island is currently due for release on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on Friday 9th September, 2011.
Watch the Dead Island trailer here: