Dead Island 2 has been reanimated more often than the undead ghosts that make up its sidekick.
German studio Yager Development was the first to take on the sequel Techland‘s 2011 game, with development starting only a year after its release.
Things went pear shaped after a few years and Sumo Digital took on the project in 2015. This also collapsed, and in 2019 Deep silver turned to its in-house studio Dambuster (previously responsible for Homefront: The Revolution) to get the job done.
Or rather start it. Some 11 years after development began, Dead Island 2 is finally coming out on April 21st, and after playing the first five hours of the game, we sat down with Dambuster to find out exactly how much of Yager and Sumo’s work was left when it took over. Not much, it turns out.
“It was basically a complete reboot,” technical art director Dan Evans-Lawes tells us. “Obviously there were some things that had already been said [Los Angeles] the environment and stuff like that, and when we looked at it, the setting was something that we definitely wanted to keep.
“We felt like it was an opportunity to have a really crazy, diverse set of characters, and it’s also a very iconic place, so of course we wanted to keep it. Otherwise, it was completely out of the blue.”
Dead Island 2 extended gameplay revealed
The game begins with different groups of people trying to escape from a zombie-infested Los Angeles only to have their plane crash. The good news is that they are fine, but the bad news is that they are still surrounded by the undead, and most of the residents of LA have already been evacuated, human flesh is becoming more of a delicacy by the day.
Once you’ve chosen your six characters—each with their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own unique perks they gain throughout the game—the quest begins to find a way out of LA while dealing with the conflicting personalities of the people in your party (who, thankfully, mostly stay in their own base, allowing you to go it alone and check in with them only occasionally).
Like its predecessor, much of Dead Island 2’s gameplay involves managing a constantly rotating collection of weapons that the player can match with things around them. Whether it’s a plank of wood, a hammer, a baseball bat, or an ornate samurai sword stolen from someone’s house, there’s always a search for something duller or sharper than what you currently possess.
These weapons can also be upgraded with parts salvaged from various abandoned homes that the player explores. Take the engineer’s hammer for example, and with a mod (found elsewhere) it can become a “cremator engineer’s hammer” with little mini fan lights around it that will set zombies on fire when you hit them.
One thing not carried over from the original was its optional analog combat controls. In the first game, players could swing weapons in the direction they wanted by moving the right stick in one direction and then swiping it in the opposite direction.
It was a good idea, but it lacked execution (so to speak) and many players turned off the feature. In Dead Island 2, it’s gone entirely, but in its place has come a better way to keep the many hundreds of zombie encounters interesting – with the FLESH system.
This stands for Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids, which from what we’ve played is an accurate moniker. If you hit an enemy with your weapon, they take damage in the exact area you hit, and the type and extent of damage depends on the weapon in question.
Hit them in the chest with a pipe wrench and a piece of their skin might rip off, revealing their organs underneath. Light them on fire and their faces might melt, or take a sword to their stomachs and cut them open. It’s all extraordinarily gory and strangely engaging – at times it feels like someone covered the gore in Play-Doh and provided the tools to remove it.
“Hit them in the chest with a pipe wrench and a piece of their skin might come off, exposing their organs underneath. Set them on fire and their faces may melt, or take a sword to their stomachs and cut them open.”
It’s rare that we’ve seen such detailed location-based damage in a game, but according to Evans-Lawes, it wasn’t that difficult to implement. “It wasn’t actually as hard as you’d think, I think it was more just the will to do it,” he explained to us.
“We have a really good, small group of people, like myself, the main character artist and a couple of programmers, and we just had room to experiment and develop. And we were all very committed to making it the most sophisticated and ridiculously monstrous system anyone had ever made.
“And actually the process was quite easy and the system was in use very early in the project. Obviously it’s evolved somewhat, but it hasn’t changed much, I wouldn’t say, in about three and a half years.
One thing that seems to have evolved over the course of development is the world itself and its environmental storytelling, due in part to real-life events. Several games and movies about zombies and other infected types like to go the post-apocalyptic route and show abandoned cities – 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, The Last of Us, the first Dead Island – but the theme feels especially -in the wake of recent events in which the real world the cities remained equally empty.
“Yeah, it was actually funny,” Evans-Lawes recalls, “because I remember when we were all locked down, I was at home playing the game and I thought it was really interesting how some of the things in the game already had similarities to the real-life pandemic, like some of our guides and stuff like that.
“But there was also a lot of stuff that we hadn’t fully predicted in terms of how people would react, and I think maybe something new in terms of signage went in that maybe took away from that. But I remember thinking that it was definitely interesting to compare art to real life.”
Instead of portraying these true influences in a dark or gory way, Dead Island 2 goes down a satirical path instead. The LA setting gives Dambuster free rein to introduce a variety of quirky characters, many of whom deal with the crisis in their own interesting ways.
Our favorite example of this so far is the large house that belongs to YouTube groups. Although it’s mostly abandoned, it has plenty of jokes that make a cheeky look at the culture. Most notable is a whiteboard showing YouTube’s scripted apology, which says “this is not scripted, it’s from the heart” and offers one. Notable lines like “sorry to all my fans for disappointing but most importantly my sponsors” and the vaguely anti-vax line “please take the evacuation seriously, it was a mistake, I shouldn’t have joked about it”.
Later in our introduction, we actually met one of these influencers, the (intentionally) annoyingly loud Amanda Sykes, who is stuck filming the end of the world in the hopes that it will increase her views and subscribers. In one mission, an influencer stands on a roof filming you while you kill waves of zombies for him in various ways, but not before reminding you not to swear in the first 10 seconds because “I already have two strikes on my account.”.
“One mission has an influencer standing on a roof filming you as you kill waves of zombies for him in various ways, but not before reminding you not to swear in the first 10 seconds because ‘I already have two strikes on the account’.”
There’s also other stuff in the form of audio and text logs that show Dambuster is trying to walk the tightrope between laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation (and some of the resulting idiotic behavior) and throwing up at random. moments that make the player realize that this is still serious business.
One particularly poignant transcript of a text message conversation between two partners stopped us in our tracks and caught us momentarily off guard. However, without wanting to give too much away, another Deep Silver game, a recent one, immediately came to mind. Saints Row reboot, which was shot down before it was even released due to excessive accusations of being “woke”.
We wonder if Dambuster was prepared for the possibility that some on social media – and especially some influencers playing on their egos – will not be able to see the funny side and try to sway public opinion against it.
“We wanted all the characters to have these larger-than-life personalities,” replied narrative designer Lydia Cockerham. “They’re not meant to be real people that you actually come across, they’re huge bombshell personalities.
“Especially everyone who gets left behind in LA — we wanted them to have a reason. They are all weird in the sense that they all have reasons for staying behind, something has kept them there. The normal people are gone, only the weird and the weird are left.
“That being said, hopefully influencers don’t read into it and see themselves — if they do, maybe it says more about them than us.”
Maybe they’re too busy with the narrative that Dead Island 2 has been “in development” for over a decade at this point.
Everyone loves the “development hell” story, and this seems ripe for that angle, although in reality (as previously mentioned) this iteration of the game, led by Dambuster, has apparently enjoyed a straightforward development cycle and delivered in typical time. . framework, even though the global pandemic is in the middle of the process.
We asked Evans-Lawes how he felt working on a game marked by “11 years” of development through no fault of Dambuster.
Rather than seeing it as a weight on the team’s shoulders, however, he has realized what it could mean if, as we suspect from our playthroughs so far, the general reaction is positive upon release.
“It certainly worried us in the beginning,” he explains. “I remember when we started the project I was like, ‘is this a poisoned chalice’, you know what I mean?
“However, I think when we released the game people were interested because they knew it had been in ‘development hell’ for however long, and I think people expected it to be terrible, so they were pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t
“And I feel like it’s ended up giving us quite a lot of goodwill. But of course that depends on people liking the game. But as long as they’re doing what I think they’re going to do, I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all.”