In way, Dead Island has arrived late to its own party. First announced back in 2005 (with an original release year of 2008), developer Techland have had to watch franchises like Left4Dead, Resident Evil and Silent Hill succeed (more or less) in their absence. That's not to mention the penchant for unrelated franchises like Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption hopping on the zombie band-wagon lately as well. Still, they call it 'fashionably late' for a reason, and it's a question as to whether the delay will help or hinder them.
It's good that they've been quick to establish a unique identity for the game. Whilst you can draw similarities from any number of other titles, Dead Island's first-person survival with zombies provides a different to experience to any other zombie game you'll play. In fact, with their focus on a realistic scenario, combat focuses mainly on melee, as being in a holiday resort you're unlikely to find a hoard of AK's and Shotguns lying around. Instead, planks, wrenches and knives will be your primary weapons.
Like most things, Dead Island is a lot more fun in a team. And in our latest play-test we put the four-player co-op side of the game through its paces. There's a hidden strategy to walking around in a group ,as each playable character has a certain function. Xian Mei, for example, is an 'assassin' class. whereas Sam B is a tank. Zombies are more likely to go straight for Sam than Xian, so it's a matter of using these known behaviours to your advantage. Still, the different classes have slightly less meaning in single-player as there's no group that follows you around. It's just you and so a lot of the strategy of taking on the undead denizens is lost.
Communication is key, as it's quite easy to lose your team mates and find yourself alone with several people trying to eat your brains. Team-mates can heal each other if they have med-packs, especially if they've been knocked to the ground, but again that's dependant on you being well stocked and finding enough supplies. It's also key as, even though there's no official friendly fire mechanic, explosions can affect everyone. Chuck an explosive at an enemy and if you're friends are too close, they die as well, so be careful.
Speaking of explosives - the weapon customization feature seems to have to some potential to it. A basic loot system exists in the sense that you can find weapons, miscellaneous items as well as cash. Cash is used to barter with vendors, and to repair your weapons as they do suffer from wear and tear. Certain miscellaneous items though can be combined with others, and a weapon, to form an upgraded weapon, usually with a special ability. For example, you can stick a battery on a knife to form a shock stick that will paralyse enemies. Or you can make it into a sticky-bomb-knife-thing, with hilarious results. Our personal favourite was the baseball bat with a buzzsaw blade stuck to it.
We've only had limited exposure to the whole quest hub aspect of the game- our test quest wasn't the most inspiring thing ever though - We had to wade through hordes of zombies just to stick up some posters, but what can you do. The hub-system is what sets it apart though from the competition, so hopefully the rest of the game will be more interesting. It's worth noting that it's not completely open-world in the sense that the whole island is open at once, but the local area you're in at the time will be completely open to you.
There's plenty left that we haven't explored - the skill tree system for example, and properly getting into the various 'classes' and who can handle what kind of weapons. The interface isn't very good at feedback in that instance, and there's a lot of weapon stats thrown at you. RPG-veterans shouldn't have a problem adapting to this, but more casual players may be put off. Hopefully they'll be plenty of information available in some form to help the player out.
At the time of writing, the game still has a fair bit of polish that needs to be taken care of - visual glitches, missing animations, etc... but we're not worried at this point. With a release pegged for the beginning of September, there's still time enough to get that all sorted. This will be definitely be a hit with gamers who loved the co-op aspects of Left4Dead, and the open world/ quest-based dynamic gives a fresh take on zombie games - we're certainly looking forward to it. Dead Island is due out on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on September 6th in North America, and September 9th in PAL territories.
Most Anticipated Features: Nothing really stands out at this point, but the customisation of weapons is interesting.