The developer’s promise that the game focuses on melee combat isn’t empty either; while there are ranged weapons that are similarly upgradeable and degradable, ammo is scarce and runs out very quickly. It’s clear that you’ll also need to rely on melee weapons, of which there is a humongous array. Pipes, pool cues, spades, bats, tyre irons, knives, maces, swords, planks, axes and machetes are just a few of them, and the wide open levels are strewn with items to quickly pick up and use to cave in a zombie's head.
Moving into the town with our tooled-up four player co-op group, it quickly became clear that players really do need to work as a team to be effective. Some zombies come in twos and threes and are routinely dispatched, but a sudden bunch quickly causes panic, and your health bar doesn’t last long if you're surrounded. While a mini-map shows you the route to your objective and the whereabouts of your team mates, zombies don’t always show up, so you’re always on the look-out. The fact that Dead Island’s zombies are more like Romero's (slow and stumbling) than Boyle's (fast and running) makes this all the more surprising, and it’s nigh on impossible to completely clear an area; attacks often come from over the walls of dead ends, or via closed up doorways.
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There’s also a selection of ‘unique’ infected characters that pose different challenges. Burning zombies can set you alight in the process, while pathetic suicide zombies plead for help before exploding in a cloud of gib. Tackling these requires some team communication, and thankfully the characters are smart enough to cry out when they spot particular obstacles or enemies, rather than having to rely on players’ voice communication.
The biggest challenge we encountered was a muscle bound zombie whose swinging arms knocked players back and deal hefty damage. It’s here that the game’s melee combat comes to the fore, with players needing to rush in, time heavy strikes to sever the Thug’s arms, and then duck back before eating a face full of zombie fist.
Alone, this thug is challenge, and it really emphasised the need for timing strikes at particular parts of enemies, especially as the damage model is so detailed. With four players taking him down, though, the attack became something of a knife-wielding gang affair; any enemy soon falls when there's a player slashing away on each side.
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This is one of Dead Island’s greatest challenges; balancing the gameplay to be challenging for both solo players, as well as groups of four. Unlike Left 4 Dead, the AI doesn’t take over for the other three player slots, and it remains to be seen if missions scale in difficulty depending on the player-count. This becomes doubly difficult with the RPG element too; how do you balance a game with players who can differ in experience level and equipment, so that it’s fun for everyone?
While we’ll have to wait a little longer to see how developer Techland manages this balancing act, Dead Island was a lot of fun in its four player co-op state. The gore-o-meter is dialled up to ‘bloodbath’ and despite the heart-string tugging trailer, Dead Island is more tongue-in-cheek than lump-in-throat. Zombie skulls are caved in with gusto as the XP points rise, and there’s a definite feeling of relying on the team to survive; wander off and you’ll more than likely end up respawning and having to play catch-up.
While there are certainly challenges to be overcome during the game’s last few months in development, in particular the choice of which match-making service to use in the PC version, which still hadn't been decided when we played the game, Dead Island is shaping up to be a decent game, even if the end result isn’t quite what the initial trailer promised.
Dead Island is set for release on Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 on 9 September 2011.