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Dead Island 2 had to ‘start from scratch’ to deliver better carnage

In a shocking resurrection at Gamescom Opening Night Live 2022, Dead Island 2 came back from the dead. Despite having been in development for a decade, the version of the zombie action game coming in February has much fresher blood than what was teased in 2014. That’s because in 2018, development passed to a Deep Silver Dambuster Studios team that was content to start from scratch to create their own vision of the game.

“We thought it had loads of potential for characterful locations,” creative director James Worrall told me during an interview at Gamescom. “But when it came to the actual gameplay engine, what we really wanted to laser focus on was the up close and personal melee combat. There are guns in the game – gunsies are for funsies! – but it’s all about the melee combat … and to do that, we had to start from scratch.”

Dead Island 2 - Gamescom Reveal Trailer [4K Official]

It was very apparent that this was an entirely new beast when I went hands-on with 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 joyfully dishes out the most grotesque body horror it can think of.

Origin story

Dead Island 2 takes players to a zombie-infested version of Los Angeles that’s three weeks into quarantine. Players choose one of six characters and then journey through the apocalyptic take on the city. The characters here aren’t exactly scared survivors hiding from monsters; in fact, they almost seem to be enjoying it a little too much.

This is almost like an origin story for a kind of superhero.

Tonally, it feels a bit like Sunset Overdrive, another apocalyptic zombie game that trades in tense horror for sandbox violence. Characters feel overpowered compared to zombies, clearing them out as if they were taking down a pack of rats. In one part of my demo, I lured a few toward an exposed electrical wire in a wet room just to watch them fry. I could have cut them down just as easily, but I just wanted to mess with them. If you saw its Gamescom trailer starring a hero lazily slicing up the undead on their way to the grocery store, that’s exactly what the game feels like in action.

“I think that any game that has that level of violence, particularly in a contemporary setting, you need to balance that with a strong moral framework,” Worrall says. “We’re only ever fighting zombies. We’re never fighting other humans. But also, you need that relief … One minute you’ll be slaying zombies and the next you’ll have a little bit of schadenfreude as you glimpse the remains of the human mind in that zombie as they try and stagger or fall off something comically.”

Dead Island 2 zombie

Worrall compares the game’s approach to its heroes to movies like Die Hard. He wants players to feel like powerful Hollywood stars that take down hundreds of enemies with a smirk to keep the focus on dismemberment.

“In many ways, this is almost like an origin story for a kind of superhero,” Worrall says. “We’re doing a lot of laying the ground in Dead Island 2 for future releases. There’s lots of zombie games and movie properties out there that are about surviving. The zombies kind of become this background wallpaper against which the interhuman dramas play out. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to get players running into the fray headlong.”

One notable detail shared during Gamescom is that the game has six playable characters. Worrall clarified that players don’t control all of them during the story. They’ll pick one to follow through the story and largely go through the same beats with distinct dialogue. Though there won’t be branching paths to explore on playthroughs, Worrall notes that those dialogue changes will recontextualize parts of Dead Island 2 a bit depending on the character.

All about the melee

Dambuster Studios notes that the game is about “thriving, not surviving,” and the action certainly matches that mantra. This is a first-person game, but guns aren’t the focus. Instead, melee weapons are the star of the show. During my 20-minute demo, I tried out a whole buffet of deadly tools that were sickly satisfying in their own way.

Dead Island 2 – Reveal Gameplay Trailer [4K Official]

My demo began with me walking on a dark beach towardsa lit-up boardwalk. Katana in hand, I started slashing zombies aimlessly wandering out on the sand, sometimes splitting them in half in a waterfall of gore. At first, I wondered if melee-focused first-person combat would get old fast. Then I had a revelation.

During one wave-like set piece, I equipped a pitchfork I had found. As a zombie ran toward me, I happened to hit its leg in the scramble. It exploded, knocking it to the ground. A button prompt would let me step on its head after, popping it like a grape. After that, my playstyle changed drastically, as I switched between weapons like electrified claws and rocket-powered axes to carve up enemies like semi-human turkeys.

That’s all made possible because of the game’s flesh system, which Worrall broke down with childlike glee.

“It’s completely procedural,” Worall says. “Other systems have pulled bodies apart beforehand. Here, if you shoot someone in the ankle or the shin or the knee, then the leg will come off at the ankle or the shin or the knee or anywhere in between! I think the most spectacular effect we’ve got is that if you damage someone with a caustic ax, they’ll stagger towards you and the flesh will literally drip off the body until there’s a skeleton and it just falls down.”

A screamer yells on a beach in Dead Island 2.

That system isn’t just for sadistic laughs. It makes for some great visual literacy too. “There are options to turn off the HUD elements. If you do that early, you will learn the game quicker. You don’t need the HUD elements. All the reactions are there in the game for you to see and hear.”

I only started to get a sense of the combat by the time my 20 minutes were up, but I can feel the level of depth. 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, switched to a gun when I wanted to shoot an explosive barrel from a safe distance, knocked zombies over with a ground pound when I was getting overwhelmed, tossed blood bait to distract some stragglers, and (most importantly) performed first-person strafe dodges. All of that comes before getting into the game’s card system, which adds a layer of character-building perks on top of everything. It’s not just brainless hacking and slashing.

After spending so much time in development hell, the prognosis is healthy for Dead Island 2. The slice 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 found a new way to slice the genre up with a gleefully grotesque approach to body horror.

Dead Island 2 launches on February 3 for Google Stadia, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

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