Having had a lot of fun with the original Dead Island games, slicing and dicing my way through hordes of zombies after, it was awesome to discover at E3 that the series would be carrying on. The announcement trailer had a twinge of humour to it, and with Yager Development at the helm, building the game from the ground up in a new engine, I was eager to see more of the game.
“For Dead Island 2, we really started by taking a look at what players loved the most,” said Senior Producer Carsten Lindner, “and what really made it stand out from other zombie games. That’s what we tried to increase.
“I think the most obvious thing is the tone that we have. All through Dead Island, you were playing in this holiday resort and it was always bright and beautiful, so that’s why we decided to bring it to California, to have it in a more urban location, but also have it still be a very beautiful one. We wanted to have an awesome countryside and the great weather, since it’s always sunny there.”
Hopping into a small suburban sandbox, with the Hollywood sign looking down on the action, it had a particularly sunbaked take on that destroyed beauty that we see so often in games these days. Of course, cars are strewn across the road in various crashes and accidents, but you can still see the opulence beneath the chaos. Though it loses the titular island setting, the shift to California is the logical one, keeping many of the fictinoal Banoi’s attributes with a huge world set to feature San Francisco and Los Angeles, letting you visit Santa Monica and other famous locations.
Naturally, the emphasis remains on first person melee combat, and almost as soon as our group of four hopped into the demo (once as the Berserker class and again as a Speeder class), we were battling away with zombies. Alongside the regular zombies, the Thug and Suicider both return from the original, but seemed to be a fair bit tougher to take down than I remembered, and certainly featured an updated visual style.
Starting off with some basic melee weapons, scrounging in a nearby store to find generic electrical parts and then collecting gasoline from a petrol station at the end of the road allowed me to upgrade my melee weapon and gun to include this elemental damage. This was automated in the demo, but should be a much more involved process for the final game, thanks to the on-the-fly weapon upgrades.
While it’s still a good idea to get up close and personal with the Thug, the Suicider is best taken from afar, unless you want to get caught in its explosion, and here the improved ranged weapons come into play. It’s not necessarily that you can take a zombie out in a single shot, just because of the action RPG underpinnings, but they feel more impactful.
Really, they’re still just an additional option for you, as Carston explained, “Of course, the guns were quite weak in the first game, so we put some guns in Dead Island 2 and made them more [usable], to have that variation, but the focus is still on melee. You can play both ways, and have a dedicated ranged character.
“I think for the guns, we tried to also give them a downside. So they make noise, and that will attract more zombies, and if you are surrounded by a horde of zombies, melee slashing makes a lot more sense, so it’s quite a good idea to change a bit to have that variation in combat.”
As we came to the play area’s main mission, a straightforward and rather easy defence of a barricade, some more of those options and variations came into focus. Atop a bus, I stumbled upon some additional weaponry, from a big mace to swing at zombie heads, to electric and fire traps that I could chuck onto the floor.
Of course, the main course will be the melee combat, with the locational damage and dismemberment key to its gruesome appeal. The red of the blood is so vibrant, as it arcs from every slice, and there the amusingly over-the-top splash of red on the floor from every brutal curb stomp.
The Berserker was all about barrelling into the action with his heavy fire augmented axe, while the Speeder could be a little more nimble to try and get round behind. Their Rage attacks epitomised this, with a lightning quick stab through the back for the Speeder, while I was able to quite hilariously boot a zombie a good 50m, arcing through the air with the Berserker.
“With the combat, we really iterated it a lot, to make it fun to play,” revealed Carston. “It’s easily accessible, but should have a lot of depth in the long run, with different conditional attacks that you can trigger, but you can start playing it much easier.”
The brief demo has certainly left me eager to see more of the game, and especially the quite promising sounding overhaul to the co-operative play. What I saw was a mere stub of what’s possible, with four players thrown together on a small map, and although nothing has been said on this front, a disappointing duplication of player character models. For the final release, rather than the drop-in, drop-out co-op of the first games, Dead Island 2 has an even more streamlined online experience.
“We decided on the seamless co-op,” Carston explained, “which means there are no classical modes anymore, you just start the game, click on play and you’re directly on a server. It’s up to eight players, a bit like a very small MMO, but you can just start your missions, start the quests you want to do, and then all of a sudden in front of you in the gas station is another player.”
The idea is that, though you can play with friends, this could potentially bring random players together. World events will crop up as you’re playing, calling players to particular locations, to defend a bar full of survivors, for example, or defend a gate while a party is going on, as was featured in the demo.
“Other events are also PvP driven,” said Carston. “For example, there’s one event which we call the chopper crash, where you can look into the sky and see this big chopper flying by, burning and then crashing down somewhere in the level. There’s also sign to tell you, ‘Hey, there’s a chopper there,’ so you know there’s going to be some awesome loot, with all the technology and everything that’s in there.
“This chopper turns the area around the crash into a PvP area, but it’s mixed, because when the chopper crashes, it makes a lot of noise and attracts a lot of zombies and, since everyone saw it, it attracts players too. So you can go there and look for the loot, but that’s only available for one player.”
The move to this always connected style of gameplay is really epitomised by these live events. Carston continued to say, “I think the main structure of the game is very much event driven, as it feels very good in co-op. We experimented a lot with that, whether it would be a lot of quests and all that stuff, but the events system is so dynamic that this will be the majority.
“Of course, there’s also going to be the main storyline to give you a bit of flow and feeling in the game, but yeah, there are millions of events there, so it’s up to you. It’s an open world! Explore!”
It’s interesting to see many of the hallmarks of the Dead Island series within Dead Island 2, but also recognise that peeling these away, the game is doing a lot of new and interesting things behind the scenes. Of course, while we’re seeing not too dissimilar systems in the likes of Destiny or even Need for Speed: Rivals, they don’t exactly let you wade through hordes of zombies with your mates, cutting through them like a hot knife through butter.
Before I tottered off to my next appointment at Gamescom though, I simply had to ask about the motion captured cat.
After chuckling to himself, no doubt picturing cats covered in little white markers for motion capture in his mind, Carston replied, “The cat? The cat is a really cool sidekick in the game. It fits so well if you’ve seen the pictures of Max, where he is the one who collects the heroes together in the game. He’s the main story anchor of the game and he’s like your safe hub, and yeah, a cat was so fitting for him.
“We thought we’d make it good, so we decided motion captured it! We had two cats on the set and one didn’t really want to do want we wanted it to do, but the other one was working quite good, and yeah…
“I think we’ll show something about this later on…”