I've just played Dead Island for the first time, and I can confirm that if you like tossing sharp objects in the faces of zombies, this is the game for you. It's a four-player drop-in, drop-out cooperative zombie shooter with persistent characters.
If that sounds familiar, it's because it is, but while Left 4 Dead focused on tight, scripted missions, Dead Island takes place on an open, tropical holiday island. You can go anywhere and you can do anything. As long as it's throwing sharp objects in the faces of zombies.
My team and I begin in a church, the only safe place in one of the island's villages. There's a guy here you can buy guns from, a mission giver, and various wailing survivors. My team consists of Dead Island's four characters: Logan, a holidaying surfer; Purna, a bodyguard; Xian Mei, a hotel worker; and Sam B, a former rapper. After playing the game for 45 minutes, I don't think I heard any of them say a single word, but each is a different class with a different skill tree. I'm playing as Xian Mei, the assassin class.
A member of our group accepts a mission, its details delivered without recorded dialogue. I don't see what we're going to be doing because I'm at the other side of the room, talking to the weapon seller. For the purposes of this demonstration, each character has been pre-levelled and given huge amounts of money. I buy a bat, another bat, a bat with razer wire, a machete, a cleaver, four other knives, an AK-47, bullets, and a large pile of crap. I then head to the workbench at the other side of the room, and start applying the crap to my knives and bats. Bats with nails in, bats with blades in, knives that electrocute.
This is the fun of Dead Island. There's not many guns or much ammo to find at a holiday resort, so you'll be forced, most of the time, to use melee weapons. To make those weapons as varied as possible, you can customise them. It's not as silly as Dead Rising's wheelchair-with-a-cattle-prod combinations, but it's fun.
We head out of the church; the village is a dump. Our goal is to place posters on walls around the place, I think, and to survive while doing it. If we get bored of this mission, there are routes along the way that lead elsewhere. Heading down these paths requires a majority of players to activate the door before a new level will load; if you're the only jerk who wants to head into the abandoned house, you can't just leave the team to do it.
I discover this when I try to leave my team and head inside an abandoned house.
Dead Rising got around its zombies' shuffling pace by throwing hundreds at you, and Left 4 Dead did away with the shuffling pace altogether. Dead Island is surprising in that there's only ever a few after you at a time, and they toddle along like pensioners. What makes it challenging is that they'll keep getting up again until you decapitate or crush their heads.
So that's what we do. I throw bats at zombie heads. I swing bats at zombie heads. I stab at zombie heads, then I throw my knives at zombie heads. It's a few minutes before my pockets are empty – weapons can be picked up again after being thrown, but I think my teammates are stealing them. I throw so much in part because the melee attacks don't feel right. They're clumsy, a little weak, and the weapons you're swinging have a habit of clipping through your enemy.
These regular zombies are supplemented by the occasional special infected. We encounter The Ram first. He's seven-foot tall, wrapped in a straitjacket, and knocks players to the ground with a quick charge. This turns out to be fun because of the scarcity of guns. You can't just pump him full of machinegun fire, but instead all four players crowd around him and thwack him with clubs. If Queen's Don't Stop Me Now played, this could be the greatest zombie game ever.
There's also an infectious zombie that poisons you if you get too close, incurring a small amount of damage for each second you're within its radius, and a suicide zombie that explodes on contact. My one encounter with the latter came when I activated my character's frenzy mode. The brief burst of energy turned my stabs into one-hit decapitations. I sprinted into a crowd, took off two heads, and then sliced the head off the suicide zombie. It exploded, and I died.
This brief frenzy was the only glimpse I got of one of the class-specific skills, but a brief glance at the upgrade tree hinted at a lot of potential variation in how you shape your survivor. I respawned just a few feet away, and after killing a bunch more zombies, we returned to the church for our reward.
It remains a shame you can't play Dead Island in slow-motion and reverse, but I enjoyed my time with the game. It's not as open, and its weapons aren't as thumpy, as I would have hoped. But as a four-player riot in which you can hurl meat cleavers, I'll take it.