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Techland drops us headfirst into a zombie infestation on the tropical island of Banoi...
It was never going to be representative of the teaser trailer, was it? Anybody who really thought the video short (which premiered across the web in February and subsequently won its creators, Axis Animation, a Cannes Lions Award) was going to resemble Techland's actual game code should have had their head examined. Simon Pegg may have liked the teaser, it may have been the top trending topic on Twitter for a day, and game commentators predictably made a fuss about the film's infanticide imagery, but ultimately it was just an impressive CGI short that did what it was supposed to do: drum-up interest in the game. Dead Island, the game, is about a zombie infestation across a luxury holiday resort in the tropics and here is where its similarity to the teaser trailer ends.
Sitting down to actually go hands-on with the game, it feels like many of Techland's previous projects: it's very rough around the edges and the gameplay mechanics are a little, well, odd. For a start, whoever came up with the idea of basing such a huge portion of Dead Island's combat around melee weapons is either mildly crazy or a borderline genius (perhaps both). First-person games that rely on melee combat aren't usually attempted by developers and there's a very good reason why: it's usually rubbish. Melee is great as a supporting act (Master Chief's rifle butt, for example) but not as the star player simply because the perspective doesn't lend itself to slog-fests and close quarter engagements. First-person means that it's more difficult to check what's coming up behind you, while melee combat can't easily be varied into combos and it's also more difficult to judge the reach of an axe or hammer when you're swiping it haphazardly in front of your eyes (third-person, it would seem, is better at aiding depth perception).
And yet somehow, much like with Techland's last title, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, the game still manages to be enjoyable despite this lack of refinement. It's the minor touches, such as the ability to combine various weapons and objects to form new instruments of zombie slaughter, which make the combat interesting. A sticky bomb and a knife, when combined together, make a knife that explodes once it's been stuck in a zombie (particularly useful when thrown), while razors and a baseball bat combine to form, well, you get the point. The sheer range of the melee weapons is equally impressive: knuckle dusters, morning stars, meat cleavers, machetes, and axes to name but a few of the many, and they're all upgradeable to new levels of zombie dicing strength when you've accrued some money to spend.
Regular refurbishment of each weapon adds an element of survival to the mix. Unless you spend a bit of dosh fixing that mace before you go out on a mission, it's liable to cease functioning once you've crushed the skulls of a handful of zombies with it. And then there's the option for ranged combat with these melee weapons too: once a horde of zombies becomes too much to handle, you'll often resort to throwing everything you've got at them until the last thing you've got left is a med-pack, which you'll probably lob at them for good measure anyway. The lock-on system works well for this and Techland has made sure that there's a price to pay for lobbing weapons at zombies by removing the item from your inventory once you've done so. The only way to get it back is to return to the zombie corpse you've impaled and dislodge it from the bloody torso, which ensures that you can only use the throwing option sparingly if you want to have any hope of survival.
That's not to say that guns don't play a role in the game at all. One playable character from the range of four specialises in ranged weapons and firearms, for example, and we did find the odd AK-47 dotted around the game world during our hands on session. It sort of makes sense, I suppose: how many assault rifles would you find on a luxury holiday resort anyway? On the other hand, presumably maces wouldn't be that commonplace either but that's hardly the point. The tendency towards melee combat, at least in three of the four character classes, does distance Dead Island from the likes of Left 4 Dead. It gives the zombie gaming genre a fresh feel, which is something that Techland has always done quite well in the FPS genre with Call of Juarez despite the many deficiencies elsewhere. And the open world setting, one of Dead Island's key selling points, also makes for an original experience.
Yes, there are problems with that open world: running through the procedurally generated packs of zombies without confrontation is pretty straightforward. Many of the necromancers will follow you for quite some distance despite your best attempts to lose them, but then again a lot of them seem fairly unperturbed by your presence as you sprint through the shady alleyways between each villa. During a straightforward FedEx quest, like the one we did during our hands-on, this 'run away!' tactic is perhaps a little more successful than it should be, but then it's a balanced alternate tactic to some extent as well. Techland has implemented a stamina bar so that you can only run so far and are more liable to damage from attacks when the bar is drained, so there are disadvantages to the flight rather than fight approach. Additionally, if you use the tactic too excessively then eventually you'll be left with more zombies on your tail than you know what to do with. All in all, the game seems to work out a solution to these problems fairly solidly and isn't unbalanced even if it is a little wobbly. One thing we did notice is that a lot of the game environment we played through was cordoned off by concrete walls with Biohazard signs, so it'll be interesting to see just how 'open' the island of Banoi is in practice. Nonetheless, the game world we played in offered plenty of opportunities for exploration through missions and side-quests that were approachable in the usual non-linear fashion.
Those varied classes that we mentioned earlier do help to add elements of strategy and variation too, as do the range of zombies. Xian Mei plays the assassin class and can be used to sneak past zombies without them noticing, which is perfect for flanking while characters like Logan (the all-rounder) and Sam B (the tank) bulldoze through an onslaught of the undead. Meanwhile, the aforementioned firearms specialist, Purna can use ranged attacks to lighten the load. From zombies on fire to zombies emitting noxious gases, and charging zombie mini-bosses restrained by straightjackets, the variation in enemies then manages to put the various playable character classes to good use.
Technically speaking, Techland is getting a lot of the core elements right with Dead Island: there's an original premise with gameplay that's both well varied and balanced (just about), so if the Polish studio can focus on shoring up some of the game's production values and overall sheen, then it could even have mini-blockbuster potential when it launches in September.