It's not what you think.
When Dead Island came out of nowhere (and by nowhere, I mean an apathetically received announcement three years ago) with that trailer, we got so carried away with excitement, surprise, suspicion or outrage that we forgot to ask what the game behind the advert was.
Reeling from the emotive body blow dealt by its backwards exposition of a young girl's death during a zombie outbreak on a holiday island, we jumped to conclusions. But no, Dead Island isn't some unspooled experiment in game narrative, as if David Cage had got drunk watching Memento and Night of the Living Dead and muddled them up.
Nor is it, as publisher Deep Silver and Polish developer Techland are keen to point out, a tense, furtive, orchestrated action-horror in the Resident Evil or Dead Space mould. Nor is it a shooter melodrama (despite Techland's solid work in this area with the Call of Juarez Westerns) or a low-rent Left 4 Dead on its summer break, although we're getting warmer.
It's an open-world action RPG with a first-person camera. It has character classes, levelling and skills, quests and side quests and improvised weapon crafting. It's awash with bright sunshine and brutal, close-quarters crowd melee combat. It's Fallout meets Borderlands and Dead Rising on the island from Lost, with four-player online co-op. It's not high art or low exploitation – but it has a crude novelty and looks fun.
The trailer set the scene: a sudden and unexplained zombie apocalypse which had its epicentre at a luxury resort hotel on the beautiful island of Banoi. The characters in the trailer didn't survive, but four hotel guests do, and you'll choose one to play at the start of your adventure.
Each will pursue a skill tree as you gain experience and level up, developing into a distinct combat class. The four characters are not that well defined yet: a sturdy 'tank', an assassin type, a "jack of all trades" and a "leader character". But at the start of the game, whichever you choose, you're an ordinary person, not a combat specialist. You possess no firearms and have little strength or ability, able only to lash out with kicks and whatever implements come to hand.
For the purposes of this demo (seen at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco early this month), we're Sam B, the tank. He's a one-hit-wonder rock star, touring the world singing his "only good song" and getting drunk in hotel bars. Rescued from the undead by a lifeguard, he passes out. We come to in a beach hut full of panicked survivors, staring his imminent execution by their hand in the face. But it's OK, he's not infected. In fact, mysteriously, he's immune.
The lifeguard's outside and needs help so we grab the only weapon available – a dinghy paddle – and lunge out into a blast of hot sunshine and white sand, and a mob of reanimated corpses. We desperately fend them off with blows from our rapidly splintering oar. (Dead Island's weapons decay, and will need to be repaired at the workbenches across the island, or replaced.)
The visuals are a blunt weapon, too, but a powerful one. Made in the latest version of Techland's impressive in-house Chrome engine, they're lurid, detailed and high-contrast, ramming home Dead Island's simple but effective culture-clash motif: zombies on holiday, palm trees and blood stains, rotting flesh under floral shirts. The game uses a tight, slightly zoomed-in first-person view which makes the action seem intense and claustrophobic, even on an open stretch of sand.
Lifeguard rescued, a mysterious voice on the radio tells us that the shack is unsafe and instructs us to clear a route to a more defensible location – a lifeguard observation tower. Hacking through undead, we graduate to a sledgehammer and then a fire axe.
There are sharp and blunt melee weapons which need to be used with consideration for the type of zombie attacking, and its hit zones. Break the legs of one of the faster-moving cadavers, for example; sever the arm of an armed assailant; or throw whatever you have to take out an exploding "suicide zombie" at range.
Dead Island has a level of realism to its weaponry, although it's a cartoon kind of realism. You might pick up a dead cop's pistol or shotgun and crack off a few shots with his remaining ammo, if you're lucky, but you won't find RPGs or machine guns lying around this vacation spot.
Instead, you'll gather crafting materials – carrying an almost limitless amount, although there will be an inventory limit for weapons – like wires, belts, boxes and batteries, and use them to modify what you find at the workbenches according to discovered blueprints. You might fashion an electrified machete to add shock damage to your carvery, or tape explosives to throwing knives, creating makeshift sticky bombs.
Your other tools will be skills, and we're shown two of the tank's: a "skullcrusher" finishing move (stamp viciously on the head of a downed foe) and Fury, a rage mode with a long cooldown for desperate situations. Trigger Fury, and the screen takes on a monochrome wash with enemies highlighted in splashes of red while you enter an invulnerable critical-hit frenzy, chaining attacks thoughtlessly.
In normal combat, however, you need to manage your stamina; run out and you won't be able to run, kick or swing at all. Health and stamina increase as you level up, but there are no other stats, and no equipment beyond weaponry. Dead Island is a very light RPG, but it definitely is an RPG.
And like any good action RPG, it features online co-op for four players. These can be in any combination of class, and it's drop-in, drop-out, with friends able to join each others' games at will, presumably at your own risk of plot spoilers. There'll be a matchmaking system for finding other players at your level, location, or stage in the storyline, too.
That story won't differ significantly across the characters, but will encompass "hundreds" of quests and optional side-quests across a diverse island. Judging by a teaser trailer we're shown, you'll strike out from the beach to explore the hotel, city streets choked with abandoned cars, an aeroplane crash site – possibly the jet we see screaming in over our heads towards the end of the demo – and thick jungle.
You'll encounter other survivors who will trade something for your assistance (your immunity to the undead plague automatically confers the status of a valued mercenary on you). There are factions with different interests. Help one guy fix a car, and you'll be able to use it to get around the island, giving your friends a ride if playing in co-op.
Does this violent, sprawling survivalist adventure sound like the game Dead Island's trailer painted in your head? Possibly not, but I don't think those three minutes of film necessarily misrepresented it, either.
Setting the ethical brouhaha about the trailer's shocking imagery aside, there's another reason it stirred the games world up. Here was an original concept, simply and powerfully conveyed, in the form of a game from a smaller publisher and developer. Here was a game that came without the baggage of expectation, franchising, pigeonholing or strung-out hype.
The most exciting thing about Dead Island was that it was an unknown quantity, and so was free to just be itself. And the most heartening thing about this demo – not startlingly innovative, but mustering a personality and theme all its own, despite those overworked zombies – is that it seems to be doing just that.