Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cold-Blooded Killer: A Dead Island Preview

A cursor glides across the browser window and hovers over the “Play” icon. With an audible click the Dead Island trailer begins, a gory Memento of a thing that plays mostly in reverse. It does not begin well, which is really to say that it does not end well, for a vacationing family that is gruesomely un-devoured by a rampaging hotel room full of zombies.

I am most likely among the last of the world’s videogame writers to see this clip. It’s not rare for me to be this late to the party, and the problem wasn’t that I failed to hear about this video. The week before, Twitter was ablaze with people raving about it—the game had been delivered to me with an extreme amount of hype, created entirely by my own friends and online acquaintances.

Truly, the game shown in this trailer looks like it has the potential to be revolutionary, but for now, my excitement is somewhat tempered by the events of the past 24 hours. I’ve seen something my fellow gamers hadn’t—and in most cases still haven’t—had a chance to see.

* * * * * * *

“The first thing we need to discuss is what Dead Island is not,” says our host.

We have stepped out of San Francisco’s Moscone Center and into a tiki hut. There is a woven canopy over our heads. Palm fronds and safari gear adorn the walls. There are sandwiches and licorice and bottles of water.

Dead Island, we learn, is not going to be an experience akin to Heavy Rain. It is not intended to be an emotional experience about a family and grief and loss. It is a game about killing zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. I nod my head,  acknowledging that these are some of the expectations floating around the gaming community, apparently inadvertent side effects of The Trailer.

I was hoping, upon leaving my house today, that they would show me this notorious trailer in a gesture as much about the success of the three-minute clip as the exposition contained within. It is not to be—our host assumes that we have seen it (in what universe could we not have seen it?), and his tone all but confesses that his role here today is to help guide us through the transition from The Trailer into the light of gameplay.

The demo build places us in first-person control of Sam B, a rapper with a solitary hit who has been hired for a gig at a resort hotel on the fictional island of Banoi. He passes out drunk and awakens the following morning in the midst of a zombie outbreak. “Motherfucker!” he calls them. He hits them with a baseball bat. He zaps them with an electric machete. He levels up and then stomps on their heads, which burst like ripened cantaloupes.

Although the demo seems to follow a fairly fixed path, we are told that the game will feature an open world. There will be experience and levels and perks (including the aforementioned cantaloupe effect), an unfolding narrative, multiple playable characters, online co-op, and a bustling resort island’s worth of zombies. What I’m seeing looks like Left 4 Dead meets latter-day Fallout, set in a Rockstar Games sandbox designed around Sandles Royal Caribbean, and if that equation is anything like reality… well, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Make no mistake, I love killing zombies. At this point in my zombie-killing career, I’ve killed them by the tens of thousands with almost no regard for their particular persuasion or point of origin. Zombie, ghoul, necromorph, husk; hunter, hunted, survivor, dinner. Dead Island looks like a really fun game about killing zombies.

But an emotional zombie epic? A family torn apart, literally and figuratively, by a zombie outbreak? It would seem as though that story has yet to be written.
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