That Dead Island is unlike anything most gamers will have ever encountered is undeniable. What is to be determined is if that's a good thing. It looks like Left 4 Dead in the tropics. So you are instantly, instinctually driven to play it like Left 4 Dead in the tropics. And then you die a lot because you don't have awesome guns. (PS: all of you stop imagining Francis in a bikini right now.)
That's okay. What's not as okay is that the first person viewpoint leads to pretty monotonous gameplay in a melee-heavy game. A third-person experience, since the title's developers promise many RPG elements and rich characters, may have been a better bet here. What you're left with in first-person view is essentially three attacks: melee with your right hand, ranged thrown weapons prepped with your left hand, and curb-stomp style decapitations, plus a kick out "panic button" attack. Every so often, you get a grapple minigame, but, I have been told by the developers, it's the same every time a toggling of the left and right triggers.
Occasionally you'll be able to get your hands on a firearm, but only one character is a specialist in this sort of weapon. I was not playing that character, because information about her has not been released at this time. Information about a lot of things hasn't been released at this time, and the game ships in the fall. It's hard to market a game that people don't know much about, that isn't really like anything currently on shelves.
I played the washed up rapper guy, whose one hit song is about voodoo and frequently drops the word "bitch". He evolves into an expert on blunt weapons and has high stamina...which still only bought me about four swings with weapons that did much damage before I got tired with a level 20 character. Yes, okay, survival horror rules apply... sort of. Any genre conventions are overruled by the golden rule of gaming: "is it fun?" The biggest fun moment for me was when I got blown up by another player by the propane tank I was holding, because we tried shooting it just to see what would happen. Other zombie games such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Left 4 Dead are all imperfect, but their gameplay is fun and varied enough to get over their respective flaws, and they know just when to get silly. Dead Island seems like a very serious experience.
Furthermore, I would have preferred a more polished beta demo this close to the game's scheduled release date. Many graphics and audio balances were off, and humidity effects were so overdone in the sunlit areas that I couldn't see what I was doing. This took away from the immersive quality that is essential to first-person games.
That being said, there are many things to like about Dead Island, the inclusion of more minorities than just the token "I speak for all non-whites" person being a big one. Also, there is no differentiation between the single-player and multi-player experience: the game just skews difficulty based on how many characters are present.
Clearly a lot of thought went into what to include in the game. Perhaps too much. It's hard to tell based on the 45 minute demo I got whether the result of all this thought is a mashup or mush, and the success or failure of this Deep Silver/Square Enix title will rise and fall on its RPG elements.
What did I learn about these RPG elements? Not much. I got the typical "this characters aren't innocents. There's a lot more to them than initially meets the eye". But I'm concerned that there's too much secrecy here in a game that relies so heavily on its story.
Producing a great trailer and running a good demo are very different skills, and the makers of Dead Island succeeded on the former and failed on the latter. Because of the unevenness of my introduction to the title, I can't say that the game will be bad. All I can say is "I don't know", which isn't good for a new IP that even its developers have trouble easily summarizing.