Walking around the deserted streets of Los Angeles – and you can take your leisure, in Dead Island 2, because most zombies are quite shambly – I encountered many a rich-person decor. Last week, I was given a preview build of the upcoming first-person zombie-smasher and played about the first five hours of it in single-player, taking in sights like a community of gated millionaire mansions, a slightly less palacious but still ridiculous neighbourhood, and an upmarket hotel styled after the famous Beverly Hills Hotel. They’re all full of weird stuff.
There’s a panic room where a guy turned into a zombie mid-demo tape recording. Actress Emma, who you’re battening down the hatches with, has a truly awful full-length Burt Reynoldsian portrait of herself. A shared house called the GOAT PEN, where a team of influencers all live together, has a set for a video series called LIT OR SH!T, and a whiteboard with the script for an apology video. I ask the game director David Stenton if it’s low hanging fruit, or if there’s no such thing with Hollywood rich people. “Of course, it’s low hanging fruit!” he says, laughing. “And also, there’s no such thing.”
The setting is probably my favourite thing about Dead Island 2 so far. You get glimpses of what it was like before LA’s zombocalypse saw it quarantined – the rest of the country, one assumes, hoping the problem will work itself out – and what became of it. Almost everywhere has been looted. In one house, a painting of a seascape has FUCK OCEANS spraypainted over it, which is the kind of realistic environmental storytelling I can get behind. “What I like about it is there’s just different levels of subtlety,” says Stenton. “There’s some elements that are totally on the nose and in your face. And then there’s other elements that really reward for exploration and generate a wry smile.”
Dambuster, who took over development of Dead Island 2 from Sumo Digital in 2019, are based in Nottingham in the UK, and Stenton says their version of LA is focused on a kind of pulp, hyper-real identity, choosing areas that would be recognisable to players, almost like postcards. In that sense, being in the UK didn’t really pose a problem – especially as they started the bulk of their work during lockdown, when they couldn’t travel anyway. He praises the art team for their attention to detail, not just in recreating locations, but in the smaller, explorable elements. “But we’ve not been a slave to realism, either,” he adds. “We’ve not tried to recreate some sort of Google Maps version of LA, it’s got to work for the combat that we wanted to achieve.”
“We’ve not tried to recreate some sort of Google Maps version of LA, it’s got to work for the combat”
The combat is gooey. You play as one of six Slayers (into every generation…) that you can choose from at the start of the game. You can’t switch mid-campaign, so pick one you like. Surviving a plane crash at the start, you discover that you’re immune to the virus, and set about trying to tell the authorities and escape from LA, along with Emma and some of her entourage. The slayers are a diverse bunch: a mosher, a fireman, a paralympian, a hustler, a motorcyclist, and, err, a stockbroker turned stuntman.
“We try to encapsulate different personality types within LA, you know – LA is a very internationally recognised location,” says Stenton. “I think they all do follow that slightly sort of anti-hero archetype, but for different reasons. And they’ve all got unique starting abilities.”
I played the majority of my preview time with Dani, a scene girl from Cork, but tried out all the others, and they do feel different to play. Each has a dump stat and a main stat, so Bruno, the hustler, has the lowest health but the highest crit damage, for example. I found him tough to play in the early game before I’d levelled up. Ryan the fireman is a slower, tankier bruiser who dumps agility; Amy is his opposite, a runner who mains agility and dumps toughness. On top of that, your skills and abilities are cards that you earn as you level up: dodging and blocking aren’t things you do, they’re skills you equip, and are mapped to the same button. Whether your character leans toward dodge or block at level one is a good indication of what kind of build you should aim for.
Some of the skills are character locked (like Dani’s Thunderstruck, which triggers an explosion on a heavy attack), but Stenton points out that by the end of the game most characters will have access to most cards. You can make Ryan a bit less tanky and a bit more dodge-and-slashy if you wanted, and “you’re never painted into a corner,” he says. On paper, sure, but in practice my instinct is that it’s better to build around your character’s strengths – though all this is without putting the supernatural zombie powers you get through their paces yet.
Whatever the case, you’ll be slashing, battering and stomping your way through zombies, with new types introduced. There are flaming zombies, zombies covered in acidic goo, electrified zombies that spark every so often, giant ground-pounders, military zombies covered in grenades… just, a lot of zombies, some smart, some slobby, some joggers, some construction workers. Even delivery drivers. “We’re a franchise that absolutely puts zombies at the heart of it,” says Stenton, a longtime fan of zombie movies and whose favourite is Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. “We’re not about that kind of navel gazing, you know, ‘zombies are just a backdrop and it’s about the ills of humanity’. We revel in the zombie slaying.”
They do. There’s a lot of gore, and Dead Island 2 has something called the Flesh system, which appropriately mushes the zombies depending on where you hit them. You batter one around the face with a tire iron and its jaw will hang off; slash at their arm and they’ll lose it eventually; whap one over the back to see the skin there split like an overripe apple. It’s gross, but in the good way, and it feels weighty. When you hit a zombie with a sledgehammer, you are really hitting that zombie. The idea is you can dismember strategically too, by, say, literally disarming a ground-pounding zombie to remove their special attacks. I usually got too excited to think that carefully about it in the heat of the moment, though.
It’s easy, too, to get overconfident. Zombies are slow but famously resilient, and I found I often got surrounded without realising it. The key is to get into the rhythm of blocking and counter-attacking to dispatch them quickly. Whatever differences the slayers may have, they take to their calling very quickly, and are all able to crush a skull underfoot.
You can deploy a lot of different weapons, too, which all degrade but also all have different stats and rarity. You can juice them with modifications, though you need to find the blueprints and ingredients to do so, and in the preview my inventory amounted to a lot of electrified knives. I was far too protective of my favourite weapons, when the idea is more to use ’em, lose ’em, and find new ones. Dead Island 2 places loads of set-piece facilitators, from pools of oil, jerry cans of water and loads of exposed wires to outdoor heaters that’ll explode as soon as you look at them. You can use them to create almost Larian-esque elemental traps, but I found them hard to pull off. I would look at a scene and know I was meant to do something with that handy crashed oil tanker, but wasn’t quite sure what. When I could figure it out, though, they were fun.
Stenton says when all the combat bits layer together you have “an element of emergent chaos”, which isn’t untrue, but I struggled with it at times. In The Halperin Hotel, which is the second area you go to, it quickly became my favourite level – until the end of it. A wedding was interrupted by the army turning the hotel into a staging ground for evacuation and/or factory line for disposing of bodies with acid, so you see the collision of pre and post-outbreak in a really cool way. The hotel has a lot of little stories that are implictly rather than explicitly told as you work your way up and around the building. But it ends with a mini-boss fight against the bride, who has mutated into a big brute (which becomes a zombie type you meet quite often).
She did for me several times as she stomped around what would have been her reception, and despite the pools of convenient water and the electric spotlights on the ceiling, in the end I beat her by slogging away with my best weapon. Most of the game feels quite open – if you need to run away or leap over a wall, you can, even if you’re in the middle of retrieving a battery to shut a gate – but there were a couple of points like that where I actually did feel painted into a corner. It was especially the case with Bridezilla, because it was just a big empty room with a DJ set up at one end.
Mostly, though, I enjoyed my time with it. There are some known issues Dambuster are still working out (I noticed some problems with collision, especially – don’t kill a zombie near a pool table, that’s all I’m saying), but overall Dead Island 2 is looking almost surprisingly polished and hasn’t, Stenton says, suffered from its publicly-long development cycle. “I guess all we can say is, that wasn’t our game. Our game, Dead Island 2 as you see it now, started in 2018,” he tells me – although he adds that he does feel sorry for some of the people on the publishing side, who’ve been working on every iteration of it so far.
What’ll be most interesting to see is how the cycle of combat and weaponry builds over time, as you get more powers and, Lord save us, guns. How will dinking a zomb’s head with a golf club feel 20 hours in? Early on, it does feel satisfying, and refreshingly unpretentious. Stenton laughs a lot when I said I’d been looking forward to an 8-minute long cutscene about how the real monster was man. “There’s lots of other stories, aren’t there, out there to satisfy that if that’s your bag,” he says. “We’re vibrant and horrific, and chaotic.”