In a shocking resurrection at Gamescom Opening Night Live 2022, dead island 2 came back from the dead. Although it’s been in development for a decade, the zombie action game’s release coming in February has much fresher blood than what was teased in 2014. That’s because in 2018 development has was entrusted to a team from Deep Silver Dambuster Studios who contented themselves with starting from scratch to create their own vision of the game.
“We thought it had a lot of potential for character locations,” creative director James Worrall told me during a Gamescom interview. “But when it came to the game engine itself, what we really wanted to focus on in Laser was close, personal melee combat. There are guns in the game – gunsies are for fun! – but it’s all about melee combat… and to do that, we had to start from scratch.
It was very obvious that this was a whole new beast when I took part in a 20-minute demo of the game at Gamescom. Rather than feeling like a 2014 game trapped in a 2022 body, dead island 2 is a modern action-RPG that happily delivers the most grotesque body horror it can think of.
dead island 2 takes players to a zombie-infested version of Los Angeles that has been in quarantine for three weeks. Players choose one of six characters and then travel through the apocalyptic version of the city. The characters here aren’t exactly scared survivors hiding from monsters; in fact, they almost seem to enjoy it a bit too much.
It’s almost like an origin story for some sort of superhero.
Tonally, it feels a bit like Overdrive at sunset, another apocalyptic zombie game that trades tense horror for sandbox violence. Characters feel overpowered over zombies, taking them down as if they were slaughtering a pack of rats. In one part of my demo, I lured a few to an exposed electrical wire in a damp room just to watch them fry. I could have cut them just as easily, but I just wanted to play with them. If you’ve seen its Gamescom trailer featuring a hero lazily chopping the undead on the way to the grocery store, that’s exactly what the game looks like in action.
“I think any game that has that level of violence, especially in a contemporary setting, you have to balance that with a strong moral framework,” says Worrall. “We only fight zombies. We never fight other humans. But also, you need that relief… One minute you’ll be killing zombies and the next you’ll get a bit of schadenfreude seeing remnants of the human spirit in that zombie as they try to stagger or fall over something comical thing.”
Worrall compares the game’s approach to its heroes to movies like die hard. He wants players to feel like mighty Hollywood stars taking down hundreds of enemies with a smirk to keep the focus on the dismemberment.
“In many ways, it’s almost like an origin story for some sort of superhero,” Worrall says. “We do a lot of ground preparation in dead island 2 for future releases. There are a lot of zombie games and survival movie properties out there. In a way, the zombies become this wallpaper on which interhuman dramas are played out. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to get players to enter the fray headlong.
A notable detail shared during Gamescom is that the game has six playable characters. Worrall clarified that players do not control all of them during the story. They’ll pick one to follow the story and largely go through the same beats with distinct dialogue. While there are no branching paths to explore during playthroughs, Worrall notes that these dialogue changes will recontextualize parts of dead island 2 a bit depending on the character.
All about scrum
Dambuster Studios notes that gaming is about “thriving, not surviving,” and the action certainly fits that mantra. It’s a first-person game, but weapons aren’t the main focus. Instead, melee weapons are the star of the show. During my 20-minute demo, I tried out an array of deadly tools that were very satisfying in their own way.
My demo started with me walking down a dark beach towards a lighted boardwalk. Katana in hand, I began slicing through the zombies wandering aimlessly across the sand, sometimes splitting them in half in a cascade of gore. At first, I wondered if the melee-focused first-person combat would get old fast. Then I had a revelation.
Over an undulating backdrop, I equipped a pitchfork I had found. As a zombie was running towards me, I happened to touch its leg in the stampede. It exploded, knocking him to the ground. A button prompt allowed me to step on her head afterwards, making her pop like a grape. After that, my playstyle changed drastically, as I switched between weapons like electrified claws and rocket-propelled axes to slice through enemies like semi-human turkeys.
This is all made possible by the game’s flesh system, which Worrall broke with childish glee.
“It’s completely procedural,” says Worall. “Other systems have separated the bodies beforehand. Here, if you shoot someone in the ankle, shin or knee, the leg will come off at the ankle, shin or knee or whatever. where in between!I think the most dramatic effect we have is that if you damage someone with a caustic axe, they will stagger towards you and flesh will literally drip from the body until they there is a skeleton and it falls.
This system isn’t just for sadistic laughs. It also allows for excellent visual literacy. “There are options to turn off the HUD elements. If you do this early you will learn the game faster. You don’t need the HUD elements. All the reactions are there in game for you to see and hear them.
I only started to get a feel for the fight at the end of my 20 minutes, but I can feel the depth level. In one particularly intense encounter outside of a Ferris wheel, I had to use every tool in my arsenal to survive. I swapped between each melee weapon in my inventory to target specific body parts, I switched to a gun when I wanted to shoot an explosive barrel from a safe distance, I knocked down zombies with a pound on the ground when overwhelmed, threw bloodbait to distract some stragglers, and (mostly) performed first-person strafing dodges. This all comes before we get into the game’s card system, which adds a layer of character creation perks on top of everything. It’s not just mindless hacking and slashing.
After spending so much time in development hell, the prognosis is healthy for The dead island 2. The installment I played showed off a polished action RPG with carefully considered melee combat and a playful tone. Even if you’re sick of zombies at this point in your life, Dambuster Studios has found a new way to carve up the genre with a gleefully grotesque approach to body horror.
dead island 2 will launch on February 3 on Google Stadia, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC.
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