Dead Island 2 is finally set to launch in just a few weeks. Ahead of the game's arrival, I got the chance to go hands-on with the first few hours in order to see just what is in store.
The results are gory and fun with crunchy melee combat that feels just right, but there are some technical issues that need to be addressed by launch. It's a blast to play, so if the developers can iron out some of the problems it may end up being one of the best games to pick up for anyone that just can't get enough of killing zombies.
The game opens up with a failed evacuation attempt as a cast of colorful characters attempt to get out before zombies overrun Los Angeles entirely. Things naturally don't go well. As the plane makes an abrupt re-entry to the city, you pick the protagonist you'll be sticking with for the rest of the game.
There's Amy, a quick-thinking Paralympian; Bruno, an LA native with a penchant for charm; Carla, the rough-and-tussle stunt bike rider; Dani, a former roller derby player; Jacob, a stuntman with a love of Hollywood; and finally Ryan, a muscular dancer who just wants to find his little brother.
All six characters play differently with a range of stats determining how quick they are, how fast they heal, and other important attributes. They also each get two unique Skill Cards that help determine some starting abilities. Skill Cards are earned through playing the main path and some select side quests, allowing you to swap things out based on your play style.
For instance, some characters can dodge enemy attacks, but after unlocking the right Skill Card, you might prefer to block instead. You could gain health back from dodging an attack, but you can also choose to do extra damage with a flying kick. The system is simple, but it helps keep each character feeling distinct while still allowing for a bit of overlap and experimentation.
I went with Amy for my time with the game, using her speed to evade larger threats and trying to maneuver zombies in order to take advantage of the environment. There's a wide range of status effects to take advantage of. Zombies can be soaked in water and then electrocuted, covered in gasoline and set on fire, or simply doused in acid and melted. Different kinds of zombies have different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, a Burning Zombie won't be damaged by any kind of fire. This means that you always need to think on your feet and carefully examine the environment in order to succeed.
The combat system is built around backing up this idea, allowing you to improve a wide range of blades, hammers, crowbars, axes, and more that you find scattered around. Sure, you can use a machete, but an electrified sword is even better. There are also guns, but these are treated as rarer options that are best not to use unless you're about to be overrun.
The Flesh system implemented by the developers means every weapon does gruesome damage whenever it hits, shattering bone, severing limbs, and skewering individual organs. I tried dozens of different weapon combinations over my five or so hours, and it always felt fun to see zombies go flying or get blasted apart by different attacks.
This long-anticipated follow-up to Techland’s original adventure has had quite the journey over the last few years. Initially announced in 2014 with a memorable trailer, the game was being handled by Yager Development until the team was replaced by Sumo Digital in 2015. In 2019, the game changed hands again, with Dambuster Studios stepping up.
Alongside playing this preview, I spoke with Adam Duckett, design director on Dead Island 2, to talk about the approach Dambuster Studios has taken with this sequel that was first announced almost nine years ago.
To start off, I asked about how the team tackled a game that had already been in development for years at other studios. Duckett was surprisingly candid, sharing that they essentially started over.
"We got the opportunity to start it again right from scratch, it was kind of a blank slate for us," Duckett says. "We loved LA as a location, which had already been talked about before, so that for us was really a no-brainer, to keep the setting the same. But everything else was our choice and we were very lucky that we got the opportunity to start from day one."
With so many years removed from the original Dead Island, I asked what the most surprising thing about developing a sequel has been. Duckett said the positive reception to everything shown so far stands out.
"Is it surprising? Obviously as a designer you hope it's not surprising," he adds with a laugh. "The love of the Flesh system in particular, I think it's [been] a very pleasant experience so far."
Despite the complexity of this system, Duckett says that getting it working across a variety of hardware wasn't actually that difficult, though the team did put a lot of effort and time into the system early on.
"We did a lot of, for want of a better phrase, watching zombie movies while eating popcorn, really immersing ourselves with the genre and seeing what people want," Duckett says. "We are a zombie game for zombie lovers."
The love of older zombie films and Hollywood in general is apparent, with several missions set in and around Beverly Hills and even on a movie set, where zombified extras stumble about between sets that still have effects like explosions rigged up for filming. Notes from producers on how to approach particularly difficult actors and actresses feel tongue-in-cheek in a good way.
One particular side quest was amusing as your character is tasked with aiding an influencer in recording some footage with increasingly-more-extravagant zombie kills. As you explore this shared mansion, you can even find a YouTuber's apology written out in detail, with notes on how to make the faux-regret for unspecified actions seem real and not scripted.
When I asked if getting this setting to feel authentic was one of the team's big focuses, Duckett responds with an enthusiastic "Absolutely."
"It was one of our core pillars. Brutal melee combat, zombies, Los Angeles. And it's Los Angeles through the lens of Hollywood," he explains. "It was a conscious design choice to not go big and expansive, to really focus the levels into high-quality bite-sized chunks of Los Angeles."
I had access to roughly the first five hours of the game. However, the full game will be around 20 hours long, with some variation depending on how many side quests players choose to tackle or how much they opt to explore off the beaten path.
"The focus really hasn't been on time, it hasn't really been on length, it's been on quality," Duckett says, adding that this was another choice that was made very early on in the game's development. This extends to the map design, which is segmented into a handful of open levels, instead of being one massive map that can be explored from beginning to end.
While I enjoyed my time with the preview, there are unfortunately a number of technical issues that brought the experience down. I played on PC and some form of stutter plagued the experience, happening on a frequent basis regardless of how quickly I moved through an area. No matter how I adjusted the graphics settings it was present, even though the game felt smooth whenever it wasn't subject to the stutters.
Outside of that, there were a number of bugs (which the developers had noted ahead of time could be present), with the audio cutting off early in a handful of conversations, or enemy music repeating on a loop despite clearing an area. A handful of animation problems also cropped up, with a couple of weapons being held backwards or not connecting with zombies properly during slow-motion kills.
I'm hopeful that all of these can be addressed, because what Dambuster Studios has crafted here seems promising. Anyone that wants to spend some time mowing down zombies but not have to spend 100 hours doing it should keep an eye on Dead Island 2 when it arrives later this year.
Dead Island 2 is scheduled to launch on April 21, 2023 for Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PC, PS4, and PS5.
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