The Average Gamer

Dead Island – Hands-on Multiplayer Preview (360)

I checked out the multiplayer mode for zombocalyptic RPG Dead Island last week. It’s great fun.

Well… it’s great fun when you have $500,000 in cold hard cash and the most expensive items in the shop cost $7500. But that’s starting in the middle. Let’s backtrack for a bit.

Dead Island is a survival role-playing game set in, as previously stated, a zombie apocalypse. It’s really rather horrific. There are zombies all over the streets, your weapons are falling apart and everywhere you look survivors are moaning about their inhaler or their diabetes or their missing loved ones. Good GOD, people, THERE ARE BRAIN-EATERS OUT THERE! Give me a cattle prod and I’ll think about looking for your fancy-schmancy “insulin”. It’s always the druggies that survive, isn’t it?

Needs More POWER!

It's a shocking game. (This is a shocking pun.)

In a remarkable turn of events, you can construct yourself a cattle-prod. Technically, mine was a “Stout Shocking Kukri”, which used to be a “Stout Cruel Kukri” until I strapped a battery and some live wires to it. Dead Island has a robust modification system that allows you to add lovely destructive features to your weapons, like electricity, sticky bombs and something that’s rather disturbingly called the “Saw Disc Axe Mod”. Components like clamps, circular blades, and bolts can be found in lootable containers littered around the multiplayer world. You can also buy them from the various barricaded shops that you’ll come across. Be wary when you’re shopping – zombies will attack you while you’re clicking through the shopping menu so make sure someone in the team is watching your backs while you browse.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the Shock mod. Strap a battery and some wires to the melee weapon of your choice and watch the zombies spasm in a halo of electric blue light whenever you get a critical hit. See the screenshot – pretty….

A Family That Slays Together

The premise of Dead Island’s multiplayer is online cooperative – a little like Left 4 Dead 2 but the focus is on helping out the more fearful of the survivors in your shelter, rather than on trying to escape. This is not a mode you can play alone – you will be overwhelmed so stay with your team and look out for one another. Try not to get surrounded; there’s no block ability with which to defend yourself. Instead, you can give them a good solid kick and then run like buggery back to your team.

As with any RPG, you earn xp points to level up and earn skills points to apply to your skill tree. “Every character has three skill trees. They share a combat skill tree and a survival skill tree, allowing you to increase the effectiveness of medipacks and others,” I was told by Deep Silver’s Pete Brolly. “Every character has a third skill tree relating specifically to their active skill. It decreases the cooldown or the duration or the speed that they move – different possibilities to improve this active ability.” Your combat skills covers things like decreased stamina cost per attack, whereas survival can get you extra xp or increased healing.

You can choose one of four playable characters; two men, two women, one black, one white, one Chinese and one that I forgot. It’s all very multicultural and inclusive:

  • Sam B is your tank. He’ll draw aggro and take the damage for you, as long as you don’t do anything stupid. His ability is a one-punch kill from his knuckledusters.
  • Xian Mei is your assassin. She handles knives like a pro and can also use firearms if she needs them. Her active skill is called Blood Rage, allowing her to run very quickly in her stiletto heels, amputating limbs and decapitating half a dozen zombies in seconds (assuming you can aim, of course).
  • Logan is an all-rounder. He can use melee weapons and guns but his real forté lies in throwing, where he deals extra damage. His skill gives you unlimited throwing knives for a time. Don’t ask me where he keeps the knives during cooldown.
  • Purna is the firearms specialist. She’ll quietly climb up onto the roof and pick off your zombies (or any other troublemakers) from a distance. No word on her special ability just yet.

The final skill tree is themed around your character’s ability. For example, Xian Mei can gain backstab bonuses and draw less aggro from zombies even when dealing a lot of damage.

Sam B with his Zombie Prod

In the section we played, a host of survivors are holed up in a church. Conveniently enough, among the survivors is a shopkeeper and a whole bunch of people willing to pay money and items if only you’d brave the zombie hordes and help them. If you’ve ever played MMOs, or indeed any game ever, you’ll recognise the type of task they’ll give you. Go here to fetch the aforementioned insulin. Go there to find my brother and bring him to safety. Go all around the town to put up Missing Persons posters, but only on these billboards, not just any old flat surface of your own choosing. You couldn’t possibly understand how to maximise the efficacy of fly-posting so don’t even try…

It’s all right though. The focus of co-op multiplayer is on the relationship with your real-life team-mates to achieve a common goal against insurmountable odds, not on the originality of missions, right? The zombies you’ll encounter are generated on the fly (as is the weather), so it’s not like every mission will result in Suicider behind door A, Thug behind door B and so on. There are plenty of laughs to be had by teaming up to throw propane tanks at zombies or working together to distract a giant zombie while Perna climbs a ladder to get a good vantage point.

Who the What, Now?

The different types of zombies do require different tactics. Between the character classes and the zombie generation it should all work well to keeps things fresh for multiple sessions. I think. Though I only played it for an hour…

Suiciders are the ones with giant pustules that will explode when you kill them. Either throw your melee weapons at them or shoot them from a nice safe distance. Throwing melee weapons is great fun because your knife/cleaver/sickle will stick in the zombie for you to retrieve when it’s dead or lumbering in the opposite direction. It didn’t seem to me that the embedded knives offered protection to the zombies, so go nuts trying to see how many you can stick into the Thug, a powerful, lumbering fool.

The Ram. Slow but powerful.

Other zombies we battled were: The Ram, a huge, bald, straight-jacketed zombie who will charge head-first into you at every given opportunity; some sort of horrific, frenzied, screaming women rather like the fast zombies of that abysmal sequel movie 28 Weeks Later; and other zombies who shuffled around a cloud of hazy green smoke that, as a long-time Sims player, I can only interpret to mean they have extremely smelly armpits.

As I said right up top, we were given a crapload of money to buy weapons and components. There were boxes everywhere to pick up extra parts as well. You can carry a large number of weapons so I was never too bothered about throwing everything I had at a particularly hard zombie. I suspect things will be a little more tense in the final game since the money you scavenge from dead zombies is only in the double-digits and most weapons are around £5000 or more. Add weapon degradation and upgrades to that and you have yourself a pretty hefty money sink. Handily you can repair your weapons even when they reach the unsuable stage, so money spent on upgrading and modifying them doesn’t go to waste. You do have to watch out for THIEVES in the guise of your team-mates, should you accidentally throw your good knife at something. It’s every woman for herself in the post-apocalyptic universe.

Any Good?

Get together online with bunch of friends and Dead Island’s co-op can be a brilliant experience. I had a lot of fun playing with 3 strangers. Is it good enough to beat Left 4 Dead as the zombie horror of choice? I’ll have to see the single-player campaign to find out.

Dead Island is published by Deep Silver and due out in September 2011



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