Hands on with "Dead Island"

Dead Island came out of nowhere earlier this year; its announcement trailer - the scariest set of reverse-chronology vacation snapshots you've seen in a while - went viral and now has more than 4.7 million hits on YouTube. And then for months we heard nothing. What was it, exactly?

Well, I played it the other week at E3 and can tell you exactly what it is: A first-person action-RPG with a focus on melee combat and weapon crafting. Oh, and you can play it online with three buddies, with drop-in/drop-out co-op.

What should hold Dead Island back instead ends up being its greatest strength. Yes, on paper it looks like you've seen this all before. The core mechanics - killing zombies online with pals, weapon making, special-powered undead, RPG elements in a shooter - have been done in other games, but somehow once I played it for myself, none of that mattered.

What did it for me was upgrading the living crap out of my barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat. Javelining my electro-charged machete at a zombie's skull, thereby separating it from its rotting trunk won me over, too. I'm a huge fan of not using guns in games when I have other means of killing, and in this respect Dead Island didn't disappoint. There are firearms here, but they definitely take a backseat to the improvisational arsenal.

While playing with strangers is not the ideal environment for teamwork, my compatriots and I did a decent job progressing through the zombie horde. Actually, it was like joining a room of randoms online. You need to help one another by reviving each other when downed, but based on my demo it was hard to tell if Dead Island will require the same amount of teamwork as the Left 4 Dead series.