There are a lot of things you expect to find down a dirt track in Poland. Bears, a vodka factory, an actual zombie. But not the home of the most exciting undead happening since Danny Boyle made them run in 28 Days Later. Techland, best known for cowboy series Call of Juarez, have taken the best bits of zombie killing and mashed them all together into one open world adventure. Oh, and you'll want to pack the factor 50, because it all takes place on the sunny island of Banoi in Papua New Guinea.
You've seen the trailer, the little girl, the biting, the falling out of a really high window in backwards slow motion. This is all about being a bemused holidaymaker suddenly caught in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and scrambling to survive. One minute it's Bermuda shorts and cocktails with umbrellas in, the next it's bashing in the head of a walking corpse with a plank. You get to play as one of four characters, each with their own special skill set and weaknesses, such as speed or strength or ability with sharp things. I mainly got to see Sam B in action, an ex-hip hop star with a gnarly top hat and a passion for melee weapons. The other characters include Mohican-sporting Logan, an air hostess with quick moves and a glamazon bodyguard. Each is somehow immune to the infection, although, obviously, not immune to being eaten alive. Whichever you choose, there's an RPG-lite system for levelling up that should enable you to tailor your character to your own violent needs.
Four main characters? Obviously that means four player, drop in, drop out co-op for Left 4 Dead-style japes among the bloody surfboards. Not that this was always the plan; the game was originally conceived years ago, before co-op was fashionable, leaving the team to integrate the idea at a later stage.
“It's a deadly combination,” says Techland's Blazej Krakowiak “because first we've done an open game, which in itself is a huge challenge to balance and predict, and then you're screwed because you have four live players trying to mess things up.”
It's certainly tricky. Compared to something like Left 4 Dead's enclosed warehouses and fenced-in farms, the island of Banoi is massive, replete with story missions and side quests but Borderlands has shown this can work. I saw some very early missions, including going to search for a lifeguard and protecting someone from a zombie attack, but later objectives will help you discover what's happened on the island, and open up new areas. Outside the hotel resort you start in, there's jungle and even a town to explore, where you'll have to face not just zombie enemies, but human ones too, such as looters or a gang who've taken up residence in the police station. Techland say they're concentrating on the moments just after the outbreak, so people are still expecting the military to come and fix everything, there's still some semblance of law and order and, importantly, money still has value. Expect the chance to buy new weapons or equipment as you explore.
Given that this is a holiday island rather than a war zone, finding weaponry is going to be a problem. It's not as if there are racks of AK47s lined up next to the souvenir postcards and delightful shell collectibles. You might find the odd gun lying around, but even then, ammo is equally scarce, so you'll need to get a little Blue Peter on what's available to maximise the smash and smoosh. Planks, boats oars, baseball bats and machetes are all useful in their own right, but they degrade, and to really do damage you'll want to take them to a workbench and add your own special features. It's not just about duct-taping a chainsaw to a surfboard, but more like the World of Warcraft enchanting system, as with applying an electrical charge to hammers or blades.
I saw the shock machete in action – it can remove limbs and provides an entertaining light show. Krakowiak adds: “Some of them are more basic, like nails; others are more complex like the shock weapon, and there's everything in-between. So it's not about Dead Rising, putting some wacky things together and trying dozens of combinations. It's about making the weapons more effective.”
The team certainly seems sensitive to comparisons with Capcom's comedy zombie caper. “It's like comparing Dead Rising to Left 4 Dead. It doesn't make much sense and we are a different game altogether,” Krakowiak argues. “Dead Island is more about the characters you play and the story, and how it unfolds. Dead Rising, for me, is a toy box.”
There certainly seems to be a more serious mood to the whole thing and not just because of all the gore. “We're trying to do something mature – it's not about funny Dead Rising stuff. It's not like there's a crazy doctor with crazy experiments,” adds Adrian Ciszewski, a producer so committed he broke his leg showing an actor how to do a proper zombie fall during motion capture.
One of the major differences is the innovation that's gone into the enemy design. Your basic cannon fodder zombie is a pretty standard walking corpse. The only difference is that they're zombies dressed in bikinis and speedos, which just looks... wrong. They level up as you do and appear in small groups rather than unmanageable hordes. Sometimes they'll even come in handy, like when you're facing human opponents and you need a big fleshy distraction to allow you to slip past.
These basic zombies look disturbing, but they're nothing compared to some of the trickier, and massively ickier, shufflers you'll face later on. There's The Ram, wrapped in a straightjacket with a Hannibal Lecter style mask. He's an unstoppable tank who'll charge you like a furious rhino, and the only way to take him down is to hit the weak point on his back. There's the Drowner, a zombie who's spent too long in the pool, and is swollen with water, with skin stretched so tight you can see his organs beneath.
Clean freaks will want to stay away from The Suicider, riddled with pulsating, infected boils, begging you to help him. Get too close and it'll get real messy real quick, because he'll explode in a shower of pus. The most nightmarish of the lot is The Butcher, who sports redneck dungarees, a deformed face and exposed forearm bones he uses to stab and slice at his prey. To be fair, you'd probably be in a murderous rage too; those arm stumps must make enjoying a tube of Pringles really tricky.
Talking to the team, it's no surprise that the zombie designs are so spot on. They list everything from Romero to Walking Dead to 28 Days Later as massive influences and have strong ideas about why zombie slaying is such an enduring joy to your average gamer.
“Zombies on one hand are relateable. They're partially human, not like aliens or killer plants,” says Krakowiak. “I won't get into how they represent the mundane lives of office workers or something. That's a topic for a conversation after a huge amount of alcohol. In general they are human enemies, but on the other hand you can kill them without any remorse whatsoever.” Sadly, Techland did have to turn down a fan suggestion about a giant killer octopus that players could use to trap and eat zombies. Something for the DLC perhaps?
Until we've seen the real mechanics of the game – the four player co-op especially – it's hard to know if Dead Island can live up to the promise. What I do know is that what I've seen is exciting and packed with grisly promise, which isn't bad for a game originally revealed in 2007, and forgotten about since. Whatever else it's going to need to succeed, there's zombie-loving passion aplenty. “We're not trying to recreate a certain kind of movie genre like voodoo zombies” says Krakowiak. “We are following our own way, but of course remembering the zombie legacy that's out there and that we love.”