If Dead Island's developer Techland is out to confound expectations, then it's doing a damn fine job. First it promised us a holiday in the tropics where sun-kissed days were spent in the company of the undead and then, after several year's worth of stony silence, it grabs our attention once more by throwing a child out of a window (backwards, of course, because a little temporal distortion helps take the sting out of such a nasty image).
The game itself was revealed to offer a vastly different tone to the sombre one laid down by that trailer, more knockabout playground fun than a controversial child-killer; a melee-based game where sticks and stones may break their bones but a pickaxe will really hurt them.
And Dead Island revealed itself to have a hunger for stats as voracious as any of its stumbling horde's taste for flesh. Alongside being an open-world, first-person adventure and a four-player survival game, it's also a loot-happy RPG. In fact, it's unfair to call it a zombie game at all: Dead Island's more of a Frankenstein's monster, sewn together from ideas from the undead genre's prolonged flourish and brought to life with a little spark of Techland's own.
Its debt to Valve is told from the character selection onwards. Four playable characters are available, all drawn from crude clichés, endearingly patched together. There's Sam B, the former rapper who wakes drowsily from a heavy night to scenes of carnage at the game's outset, Xian Mei, a receptionist on the island, ex-pro footballer Logan and finally Pruna, the fourth character of which little has been revealed.
They're more than just colourful re-skins, and Dead Island's RPG credentials seep through each character's abilities. Sam B's the tank, able to soak up more damage but conversely attracting more of it, with more of that coveted flesh hanging off of his bulky frame, while Xian Mei is fleet-footed but more prone to damage. Logan, meanwhile, is an all-rounder, with Pruna a firearms expert.
These different abilities feed organically into play - the tank naturally finds himself at the centre of the action, drawing attacks and pushing the others into support play; Pruna's best off finding high ground and providing cover with firearms; while Xian Mei is best used darting around to make quick, decisive attacks.
Playing co-operatively is not aggressively encouraged, though it's certainly useful enough to make it worthwhile. Solo runs will often end in dismemberment, and it's good to stick with team mates, if not for safety in numbers then to have someone at hand to revive you when you're inevitably knocked down cold.
There are other benefits, too: it's possible to trade items with team mates, a neat extension of the inventory management that underpins much of Dead Island. Slots are seemingly limitless; in the pause menu, items can be swapped out from the cascading inventory to an eight-spoked weapon wheel. Weapons degrade over time, their stats slowly dwindling in a manner that's reflected visually in the chipping of wood on a baseball bat or the deadening of steel on a blade.
To guard against such degradation, there's a tool bench where weapons can be upgraded or created, a straight lift from Dead Rising 2 that, for its unoriginality, is nevertheless welcome in a game of Dead Island's subtly different scope. The results are delightfully devilish as well; circular saw blades can be embedded in the business end of baseball bats and melee weapons can be entangled in electrified barbed wire, an amendment that brings with it a suitably sharp impact on the weapon's stats.
They play into some pleasingly impactful combat too. The melee's not quite as refined as you might hope and the guns a little more wayward than you'd like, but the two clunky elements make a surprisingly coherent whole. A stamina bar keeps everything in check, depleted with each swing of a melee weapon and each spring to safety, and fighting off the stumbling hordes in Dead Island is fittingly panicked, with contact met with a satisfying crunch.
It's possible to use a sprinting zombie's momentum against it, patiently battering up and waiting for the right moment to swing with a sweet hit sending a severed head flying, a crimson rainbow arcing behind it. Even more satisfying is hurling a melee weapon through the air: holding the left trigger will bring up an auto-aim, making it possible to fling a pickaxe, sledgehammer or knife straight between a zombie's eyes. There it will stay embedded, and if it's a valued item, it's worth retrieving it quick; there can quite often ensue a hurried rush from scavenging teammates all too eager to steal your precious away.
Sadly, the undead opposition don't quite measure up to the playfully violent combat. They're a stumbling, brainless lot, sure, but the few strains stray too a little closely to Left 4 Dead's existing mutations and come off poorly in comparison. The Ram replaces Left4Dead's Tank, a mountain of muscle that quickly charges the group and is only susceptible to attacks from behind, while a Boomer-esque enemy explodes in a familiar cloud of noxious gas.
But it's hard to get too caught up when this is a genre so dependent on feasting on the corpses of its forebears, and when so much else Dead Island is doing earns it its place in the sun. The loot-heavy RPG elements in particular are an inspired touch - after all, isn't every zombie apocalypse met with a looting epidemic? - and they're smartly woven into the sprawling open world, where each shelter encountered hosts a side-quest and an excuse to fritter another couple of hours in Dead Island's enjoyably campy universe.
And it's Dead Island's world itself that gives away where Techland is really coming from with this one, and where the game's appeal may ultimately lie. Its backdrop is the rotting tropics, an island paradise torn apart by disease - and torn from the enjoyably nasty 1979 classic Zombie Flesh Eaters (or Zombi 2, if you're being pedantic). If Left 4 Dead bought the smarts and slickness of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Dead Rising took on Romero with its tongue poking through a decaying cheek, then Dead Island's perhaps more akin to Luico Fulci in its approach.
It's a little crass, a little off-key and a little low-budget, but it's set to be an enjoyably pulpy thrill - and Dead Island's final surprise, when it launches later this summer, should be a pleasant one.