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.
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