Looking up, I realize that I'm standing alone on a street overflowing with the wreckage of cars, and the burning remnants of what once was. My weapon nearly broken, I begin to search frantically for the rest of my team as a pit of despair begins to open in the well of my stomach. I can only go a short distance before I'm attacked by the walking dead, and as I slash at them in a panicked frenzy, sending arms and heds flying in great founts of blood, I begin to hear the shouts of the other players who are running to my aid. It isn't long before my desperate strikes are joined by the swings and blows of their weapons as well. One player kicks a zombie in my direction and I cleave its head clean off with one strike. Turning to my right, I see a zombie about to attack another player from behind. Too far away to swing at it I aim and throw my machete through the air. The zombie falls as the machete cleaves into its head with a loud Ca-Chunk. I run over, pull it out, and charge back into the fray.
As the last zombie falls, I'm given first aid by one of my teammates, and a fresh weapon since the machete I'd been using was now broken and nearly useless. We were alright – for now – and had about another 10 blocks to explore.
This is what Dead Island Co-op is like. And while Dead Island single player is a thrilling and danger-filled romp that's been rendered to be a zombie survivalists dream come true, the co-op takes all of these fantastic virtues and combines them with an AI system which requires nothing less than careful teamwork, communication and a primal love for chopping up the dead.
Our co-op demo started our group in a small church where we had the opportunity to really see the meat of Dead Islands RPG elements. We were able to get a mission by talking to one of the NPCs, buy some new weapons from another one, and then repair and modify those weapons at a workbench. Modifications work by combining one of Dead Islands hundreds of weapons with materials found out in the world that can improve its stats, or add effects just as electricity or fire. We then leveled up our characters and spent our points in any one of three skill trees. Think of a Borderlands type skill system but with even more skills to choose from, and each skill tree focusing in one general ability such as attack / defense, or survival abilities. There is lots of room to tinker with the skills, allowing you to make a pure battle build, or one that is more team oriented. Needless to say, the RPG elements do not feel tacked on in the least, and you can tell that a lot of work was done to ensure that they are an integral part of the gameplay experience.
After we received our mission we left the church and began exploring the area outside. Our mission was to put up a series of posters around the city. General locations where shown on our mini-maps, but the city is so sprawling that I never felt like I was being hand-held to the next location. There are a variety of ways to get to any one point and I cannot understate enough just how large these areas are. In our 40 minutes romp through the city area we had only explored about 50% of this one small section, and the developers stated that exploration is a key factor to not only finding new missions in the game, but also for survival as well.
Dead Island's focus on survival means that your weapons won't last forever, and eventually you're going to need to get healed, so you'll need to scavenge the city for materials with your friends in order to survive. Boxes containing weapons are located around the city, as well as debri which can also be picked up and used. It may be a little broken, but that piece of re-bar is going to be much better than your bare fists. This emphasis on survival conjures a feeling of worry and desperation that was sadly missing from titles such as Fallout 3 and Far Cry. Dead Island, on the other hand, get's it right in the most thrilling way possible.
As we continued exploring we came in contact with a variety of different zombie types. There were your normal shambling zombies and then a series of special zombies which required different tactics to take down. One zombie called “The Ram” could only be injured from behind and required some players to act as bait while the other attacked. One called “The Suicider” would explode, so needed to be taken down at long range. And “The Thing” which had a powerful knockdown ability, would leave you vulnerable to further attacks by the horde. Most of these special types required the attention of the team and pity to the poor chap who found himself all alone and facing one. In fact, it's extremely important for the team in Dead Island to stay together. Those who fall behind were quickly picked off after a good fight and learned their lesson quickly.
In order to better deal with the onslaught of the dead, each character has a special ability which they can trigger once their ability bar has filled up. My characters had an ability called “rage” which allowed me limited immunity, and increased strength, which allowed me to slice through groups of zombies with humble abandon for a certain amount of time. Triggering these abilities at the right time can certainly help one out in a pinch, especially if they made the grave mistake of finding themselves separated from the group.
Drivable vehicles are also a part of Dead Island and even though we didn't see any in our playthrough, the developers also stated that it would be possible for a co-op party to enter the vehicles for easy travel. The idea of zombie-head drive-by baseball should bring a smile to any of our faces.
So how did I fair during our romp around the island? I was separated from my group, leading to calls of “There's always one!” from the devs, and tried to fight off a Rammer with my bare hands. But I certainly had more fun than I've had in a long time playing a co-op game. And sure, maybe I really, really enjoyed just throwing knives into the bigger zombies – all of which could be seen sticking in them and pulled out later for reuse – but I think I did enough damage to play a small part in our victory.
Dead Island looks to be a fantastically good time when it arrives. It takes the most successful features of some of the best FPS's from the past few years, and grinds them all up into a deliciously bloody soup to create something completely new and fresh. As if beating zombies around with a wooden oar wasn't enough, you can beef up your oars' stats and do it in an open world with 4-player drop-in / drop-out Co-op. I can't imagine it getting any better than that.
Dead Island comes to North America on September 6th 2011, and September 9th, 2011 worldwide, on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Onlive.