I've seen it. You've seen it. Your friend who doesn't know the difference between a PlayStation 3 and a Commodore 64 has seen it. In fact, I'm pretty sure my 54-year-old mother was whistling the theme tune to it the other day. Such was the impact of the Dead Island trailer, which the internet gorged upon much like a ghoul would the carcass of a cow. I told myself I wouldn't mention it in this opening paragraph, actually, as everybody has already burnt themselves out talking about it. The thing is though, it gives me some context to debunk a few myths.
Dead Island is not an emotional thriller in the same vein as Heavy Rain, only with zombies instead of Origami Killers. Nor is it a partnership game where you protect your child from hordes of hungry flesh eaters. It's not third-person, and it's not a shooter. And it's certainly not a game about killing little girls through means of defenestration.
According to the game's brand manager, Vincent Kummer, Dead Island is "a Zombie Slasher, Action RPG". Having seen 20 minutes of the game played first-hand, it's probably best to envisage it as Left 4 Dead meets Dead Rising, with a bit of Borderlands thrown in for good measure. I'm not sure whether the idyllic setting alone is enough to differentiate the game from its peers, but there's no denying it looks pretty - although the demo I saw was probably running on a high-end PC.
Picture the scene: a stretch of golden sand peppered with palm trees, surfboards and beach huts. An expanse of blue sky disrupted only by the occasional wisp of cloud, and below it lush green vegetation juxtaposed with expensive looking hotels. The holiday brochure would certainly refer to it as "paradise", but in very small print somewhere below the extortionate price tag would be the disclaimer: "WARNING: Royal Palms Resort may contain zombies."
Dead Island is portrayed from the perspective of four characters. Similar to Borderlands, each protagonist conforms to a class, with tech trees and subsequent skills unique to each. The tank, assassin, jack-of-all-trades and leader offer a variety of different strategies for disposing of the undead, although our first demo focuses solely on the first class on this list. The tank role is assumed by Sam B, a one-hit-wonder rapper visiting the island to resurrect his rotting career. After recording his new song, he hits the cocktails, drinking himself into an alcohol-induced stupor before passing out in a hotel toilet.
Sam awakes the next day to familiar symptoms: a headache, dry mouth, and unfamiliar surroundings. You'd be forgiven for thinking the rest of the island was enduring a hangover of a similar magnitude, what with all the groaning and disoriented bodies ambling about the beach - but no, it's actually the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse. It turns out Sam was rescued from the hotel and taken to a hut on the beach, where other survivors are waiting to discover whether he has been infected or not.
After determining that he's safe, the survivors persuade Sam to help a pal of theirs on the beach, who is fending off the walking dead all on his lonesome. Mr B turns out to be a good candidate for the job as he's one of the few survivors immune to the virus. Presumably the game will offer an explanation for this at some point, but Kummer isn't prepared to part with this information just yet. With no guns to hand, Sam grabs the only object vaguely resembling a weapon, a paddle, and heads outside to work off the remnants of the previous night's Mojitos.
Each successful kill is rewarded with a smattering of XP. Upon levelling up, points can then be invested in tech trees relating to combat, survival and fury - the latter is a class-specific skillset for the tank. Dead Island is predominantly a melee-based game, but that's not to say there aren't any firearms to play with. Should you come across the corpse of a policeman, for example, you can relieve the poor bobby of his pistol and start putting the bullets to good use. Once it's used up though, you'll be back to the paddles, knives and iron bars that happen to be lying about the island. While he won't yet commit to an exact figure, Kummer states that a character can carry between five and seven weapons at any one time.
It also turns out that each weapon in the game is degradable - a revelation I responded to with mixed feelings, since I'm generally not a fan of such mechanics. After rescuing a man trapped in his Jeep - one of the many side quests littered about the island - a work bench becomes available. With this at your disposal, you can repair broken weapons, upgrade them for better power and reach, or create brand new tools of destruction by cobbling different objects together. Kummer claims that the number of available items in the finished game will stretch into the thousands.
Strolling about the island in search of a safe place to relocate survivors, several different types of zombie make themselves known. Romero-style lethargic ghouls are contrasted with 28 Days Later-inspired nasties, who tear through the undergrowth with limbs flailing and jaws snapping. Despite the fact it's a beautiful summer's day, the scene is far scarier than you might imagine. Later on in the demonstration we encounter burning zombies ambling along the beaches, who can only be safely tackled from afar. Suicider zombies make an appearance towards the end, too, exploding into lethal chunks of flesh that fly across the screen.
The final section of the demo swaps the sun drenched shores of the island for dark and cramped corridors, as Sam purges a building of the walking dead. At this point Kummer shows off Sam's Fury ability, which places a red filter over the screen as Sam beats zombies to death with a single swing of his boulder-like fists. With the area secured, the survivors from the beach hut relocate to the new building. This safe house acts as a hub for side quests, shops and item customisation, with characters offering services in exchange for your zombie-slaying skills.
The portrayal of these NPCs will play a large role in how Dead Island ultimately fares. After all, a good zombie flick doesn't concern itself solely with zombies; it also looks at how the survivors react to the breakdown of society. On current evidence Sam B isn't a good example of this, spouting cheesy and horrendously clichéd lines of dialogue as he quite happily throws himself into crowds of the undead. "That's what I'm talkin' about!" he booms in the most stereotypically black voice you can imagine, with the occasional "Booyah!" thrown in for good measure. With any luck the other three characters will be less one-dimensional.
Does the game live up to the hype of the trailer, then? It's hard to tell. The teaser only served to set the tone, after all, and it's difficult to ascertain a sense of atmosphere from a mere twenty minute slice of gameplay. If the emotion that drove the trailer is in fact present in the actual game, it'll only begin to show itself once a sense of story is established - but I have a feeling this won't be as prevalent as was first suggested. Kummer confirms that the family from the trailer will play a role in the narrative, but so far it's not clear exactly what this might entail. Dead Island is certainly a game to keep an eye on, but let's not forget that hype is incredibly infectious. Remain cautious.
Dead Island is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC later this year.