2023 preview: Dead Island 2 moves from development hell to Hell-A
It’s fair to say that expectations weren’t high for Dead Island 2 after years spent in development hell (it was first announced in 2014 and has since changed developers twice), so the positive reaction that followed its re-reveal at this year’s Gamescom was without a doubt one of the biggest surprises of 2022.
Now helmed by Deep Silver’s Dambuster Studios (the UK studio behind 2016’s Homefront: The Revolution) and set in a quarantined Los Angeles, rather than an actual island, Dead Island 2 looks polished, detailed and over-the-top – just right what is needed to run a great collaborative sandbox – and practical reactions have been equally positive.
The premise is straightforward: players can control one of six characters and team up with two other friends as they hack and slash their way through the game’s “postcard” interpretation of LA. While there are a variety of colorful weapons available, the focus here is on brutal melee combat, fueled by Dambuster’s FLESH gore system, which sounds both sickly satisfying and downright disgusting.
Dead Island 2 Showcase – Another Day in HELL.A
“It probably comes from an unhealthy obsession with gore and buckets of blood, inspired by ’80s horror films,” explains director David Stenton, who previously worked on Homefront, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 2 & 3, in an interview with VGC .
“From day one, we wanted to make sure that our gore system was completely procedural … we wanted to make sure that when you cut into that zombie, you can do it literally anywhere. One of the most fun things you can do in Dead Island 2 is melt a zombie, because then you really get to see the clothes, skin, fat and organs individually modeled over the skeleton…”
While this gruesome level of detail may sound gratuitous, the director insists it has strong ties to the gameplay. “It’s important in the sandbox to be able to dismember legs and arms, to knock out jaws and eyeballs,” he said. “This also ties into the elemental aspects of combat, where you might be fighting a firefighter who’s immune to fire, for example, or an electrician who’s immune to electric shocks.”
Technically, Dambuster’s Dead Island 2 is way ahead of what has come before it. But everything else feels pretty faithful to the original 2011 game, and anyone looking for an over-the-top zombie-killing action RPG they can play with friends will probably be happy to hear that.
Regardless of the final game’s quality, the development story is fascinating. After original Dead Island developer Techland passed on the sequel, German studio Yager (Spec Ops: The Line) took up the challenge and was at the helm when the game was first announced in 2014.
A year later, however, Yager was dropped, and British powerhouse Sumo Digital (Sackboy, Crackdown 3) was brought in to steady the ship. However, by 2019, Deep Silver announced that development had moved a third time to Dambuster, although a VGC source suggested that the team was already working on their own third Dead Island game which was simply replaced.
Regardless, director Stenton insists he doesn’t see Dead Island 2’s development as particularly noteworthy, but it feels like a reminder that triple-A games are incredibly difficult to build, even with a reliable studio like Sumo and a winning formula established by first game.
“Game development is hard,” he said. “We took it on in 2018 because we thought we could bring something new to it … it’s been quite a development. Dambuster was moved to the project and we got it going very early. The Gore technology has been through a few iterations and fine-tuning along the way, but we always wanted it to be procedural, targeting 60 frames per second.”
Despite two versions of the sequel being started separately before Dambuster, and even early builds of Yager’s game leaking onto the internet, Stenton insisted that he drew no inspiration from anything other than Techland’s original.
“We started from scratch on our own thing. We took the location and the premise – it was really about going back to the first game for us. There’s definitely stuff and maybe recurring characters in there for longtime fans of the franchise. We’re fully aware that this game is a long time coming, so we’re committed to delivering what fans have been waiting for.”