Eight years and three studios later, playing Dead Island 2 resurrects its zombie promise

While waiting my turn to play Dead Island 2 I had the chance to watch somebody else hammer at the undead with a baseball bat for a while. Which was lucky, as it really let me appreciate just how over the top the gore is in Dambuster Studios’ reanimated Dead Island sequel. Later, while I was playing myself, and concentrating far too hard on the careful timing of dodges and swings needed to manage corpse hordes, I’d totally miss the finer details of the carnage. It’s real ‘red paint for blood’ style, old school zombie movie carnage, full of big fleshy gouges, severed limbs spiraling out of shot, and exposed jaw bones swinging loosely from partially degloved faces. It’s hideous, but in a laugh out loud, ‘did you see that?’ kind of way. 

To the bone

Dead Island 2

(Image credit: Plaion)

According to creative director James Worrall, there’s a cutely named F.L.E.S.H. system behind all the bloodlust – short for Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids. It’s the passion project of an apparently overzealous lead technical art director, a system that is designed to procedurally generated damage anywhere on a zombie. “It’s fully anatomical,” explains Worrall, “so we’ve got layers of skin and fat, muscle, and all the organs inside.”

Dambuster’s Dead Island 2 is going to get compared a lot to Techland’s Dying Light 2 as another first person zombie smasher, but even with the blood and guts there’s a much lighter tone overall. The FPS styling might look similar, but with a much brighter color palette and a more chipper, quippy feel to its story and characters, there’s a much more ‘fun’ vibe to all the death. One of the phrases thrown around by the development team is that Dead Island is “about thriving, not just surviving”, and that’s reflected in the more theme park zombie apocalypse vibe the studio has created here, versus Techland’s more broody rooftop botherer. Dead Island 2 is the kind of ride with warning signs saying people at the front will get wet that only makes everyone crowd to the front more. And it’s blood. The wet is blood, just in case the metaphor wasn’t clear. 

Dead Island 2

(Image credit: Plaion)

The key thing that sells this to me so far is that the core Dead Island 2 combat loop is really satisfying. By the developers’ own admission, the demo I played was getting its first public outing and what they’d planned as a 20 minute experience ended up being more like 30-45, with the difficulty hitting a little higher than anticipated for first-time players dropped into a midpoint mission. But, crucially, I didn’t care that much. I got slightly stuck trying to clear a set piece horde battle around the Santa Monica ferris wheel but, while it took me about four goes to clear, I never really minded – the fighting isn’t overly complex but the mix of timing swings and dodges, or repositioning and reappraising threats from the various zombie types, has a hard to put down flow.  

Blow by blow

In terms of zombies there’s a fairly familiar mix of grunts, heavys, spitters, explody-ones, and so on – as well as elemental things like electric types – that make a good mix to deal with. Battling these corpses easily settles into a solid rhythm of making some space to read what’s around you, picking a target, and then nipping in and out to land blows while dodging clear of attacks and other threats as they close in. There are a range of environmental factors to look out for, too, like live wires and gas canisters, which you can use to your advantage in combat. According to game director David Stenton, “the big focus is the visceral combat, it’s about killing zombies in spectacular ways” and that’s definitely what it felt like to me. 

And, obviously, there were a ton of weapons to play around with; everything from an offensively loud revolver/hand cannon to flaming axes, katanas, claws and so on. I feel like everyone’s going to have preferences, but I really liked the solidity of the axe’s heavy swing, which suited my fighting flow. 

There’s more depth to Dead Island 2’s combat than I really got to fully appreciate in 30 or so minutes I was able to play – aside from the various elemental mods that let you attach damage types like fire, electrical, and acid to your weapons, there’s a skill card system that lets you craft different character builds. For example, I could have swapped my dodge for a block move that would let me tank through problems more. Some cards have buffs and perks as well, so you could take damage to gain stamina and so on. As both Worrall and Stenton explain, these cards can be found as you play and unlock more options as you progress. Your abilities and approach are then shaped by the hand you equip, which can be changed at any time. 

Dead Island 2

(Image credit: Plaion)

As well as the combat, I also liked the way Dead Island 2 looked. Obviously I saw it running on specced out PCs, but what I played was ‘notice it across the room’ good. The bright color pallets and clean detail popped out well, whether I was making my way across the dark, nighttime sands of the beach, or working my way down the brightly lit arcade lights of the pier itself. “Our focus has been on rich environments not huge environments,” says Worrall. “So we’ve got an incredibly high level of detail everywhere.” 

That mention of “rich environments not huge environments” leads into one of the more interesting changes for the series. While the original Dead Island was an open world game that you could explore fairly freely, Stenton explains that this isn’t “a seamless open LA” and instead consists of a “series of sort of bubbles that you can fast travel between”. That’s not to say there’s not an openness within these ‘bubbles’ – with Worrall confirming that “you can branch off at any point and take on side quests…” which will include everything from locating missing persons to embarking on treasure hunts. Stenton also adds that “there’s backtracking and side quests, and other quests that open up.”

Tell no tales

Dead Island 2

(Image credit: Plaion)

As for the story tying all this together, that’s sort of being vaguely alluded to. According to Worrall, “Los Angeles has just fallen, and the game starts with you trying to get the last flight out of LA.” That obviously doesn’t go to plan, and leaves you trying to find another way out. As Worrall puts it: “From then on, it’s just an odyssey through LA as you follow various leads and attempts to escape.” However, there’s obviously more going on. The player has a ‘fury’ power seemingly derived from being infected but immune, and parts of the game I played related to attempts to synthesize a cure from your blood. But that’s all something we’ll only learn more about when Dead Island 2 releases on February 2, 2023.  

After eight years and three studios, Dead Island 2 is pretty much what you get if you Google ‘development hell’. It’s been fully restarted by the current custodian Dambuster Studios, and it seems to be doing a great job. Neither Stenton or Worrall could be drawn to talk much about the missing years or other studios – “We did carry forward the concept of LA but beyond that it’s all our own work,” was all I really got out of the game director. But, from what I’ve played of Dead Island 2, the work seems to have paid off. My brief time smacking undead on the beach suggested a stylish and surprisingly fun zombie apocalypse. One that’s more a comedy adventure than the grim ‘is man is the real monster?’ stuff we’ve had recently. Which, after a real pandemic and just the general state of the world right now, is probably what we need.

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