Dead Island 2 Impressions: We've played Dambuster's zombie slaying sequel
We took a trip into London to see how Dead Island 2 is shaping up, almost a decade after its original reveal.
After years of silence, the Dead Island franchise is finally back from the dead. As has just been revealed during Gamescom's Opening Night Live show, Dead Island 2 is in fact almost here, and as part of an exclusive preview event in London earlier this month, I've learned all about the game's campaign mode, which is already completely finished, with development in its final stages. Plus, I was able to play the game for about 30 minutes to get a look and feel of this upcoming zombie slaying game, taking place in a "bloody combat sandbox environment".
For those who remember, the original Dead Island game and its successor, Dead Island: Riptide, revolved around surviving a zombie apocalypse on a tropical island and zombie-killing as one of a number of characters. The game followed a storyline with plenty of side quests, but also allowed for open exploration. There were many ways to kill zombies, courtesy of a large numbers of (melee) weapons lying around and the ability to craft new weapons yourself. For example by adding batteries to a stick, to create an electrifying weapon.
Dead Island 2 carries over a lot of the core elements from the first Dead Island games, but in a completely new setting. L.A. was announced to be the location for the new game a couple of years ago already, but obviously development halted before its completion. At the London event, the current development team from Dambuster Studios explained that they still really liked the idea of a "HellA" and therefore chose to stick to this idea. However, everything else about the game has been rebuilt from the ground up.
Dead Island 2 drops the player into a quarantined L.A. that has been overrun by zombies, where the military has already given up and retreated. The six playable characters which will be in the game are immune to the virus and very determined to survive. Because when playing Dead Island 2, you won't be running away from the "Zompocalypse", the developers told me. Instead, you're part of a group who are not just surviving among the zombies, but are in fact thriving. While exploring iconic places in L.A. such as Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica Beach, players will have to "find the slayer inside of you and perhaps also the zombie inside of you".
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After that introduction, I started my 30 minute play-session at the event. I was playing as a character named Amy, starting out on the sands of Santa Monica Beach at night, somewhere midway along the campaign's storyline. The atmosphere was very dark, with fires and smoke visible in the distance. Among my starting weapons were a katana sword, an assault rifle, a pair of wolverine-like claws that had electric sparks coming from them, a big sledgehammer that seemed to do fire damage, and a hefty revolver. A quick look into the UI showed me weapon crafting is back, as are character abilities and special perks for your weapons. A flashlight again provides light in the darkness.
I decided to approach the first few zombies wandering around the beach. These were still slow ones, allowing me to familiarise myself with the controls. When they got close, I immediately noticed the detail in the zombies compared to the previous Dead Island games. When I hit them with my sledgehammer, this caused parts of their bloodied faces to come off. Closeup shots with my revolver decapitated them in a splurge of blood. Another zombie lost a limb from a katana strike, so it fell down and kept crawling towards me. I learned afterwards that I was observing the completely new FLESH gore technology at work. With this, "anatomically correct layers of skin, fat and muscle can be ripped away", revealing "breakable bones and internal organs that are individually destructible". The unique gory effects certainly add to the game's immersion.
I encountered different zombie types as I made my way from the beach onto the Santa Monica Pier. I almost died fighting a zombie with exploding gas tanks on its back, before I managed to electrocute a couple of them when they were standing in a pool of water near a broken power cord. Further on, I entered an arcade game room, where I got attacked by a bunch of zombies, including one that screamed electric pulses at me, slowing me down. The melee fighting gets really intense in such situations in Dead Island 2, and I was running back and forth, attacking, healing and dodging attacks in order to survive. Complementing the action is an electronic/rock soundtrack that ebbs and flows just like the action does.
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After a while, I had exhausted most of the ammo for my assault rifle and pistol, as ammunition is scarce in Dead Island 2. The developers have put the focus on melee combat and put their efforts into diversifying the melee attacks at your disposal. There are now also finishing attacks on stunned zombies and power attacks that charge for extra damage, among others. The power attacks are different for each weapon, for example, charging the pitchfork allows you to thrust it into a zombie's face from below for extra damage and gory effects. Then there's also a special attack, which in the demo was set to 'Ground Pound'. This stuns zombies around you temporarily. Additionally, there is a Fury special attack that charges in combat, which speeds you up and allows you to kill zombies with your bare hands upon activation.
When I approached the Ferris wheel on Santa Monica's pier, another intense round of fighting followed. I also got a good laugh, because an objective appeared called 'Line Jumpers': it ordered me to kill all zombies trying to skip the line to the Ferris wheel. Additional zombie types made their appearance. There was a 'Slobber' which spits vomit and a big 'Crusher' zombie that smashes its fists into the ground and is very hard to kill. 'Runner' zombies are best taken out with a hard hit to the legs, breaking them and allowing you to finish them on the ground. Another zombie with big explosive lumps on its body forces you to kill it from a distance, something also true for a zombie emitting green gas from its back.
With so many different zombie types coming at me, this was a real challenge. Using another special attack called 'Curveball', which allowed me to throw Molotov cocktails and blood bombs to distract zombies, proved instrumental. It took me four attempts to kill all zombies, with the help of some of the developers who gathered around me. The zombies changed in appearance with every new attempt, showing a randomisation of the zombies present in the game. Despite or perhaps because of the difficulty, I can only say that this was a very fun and exciting experience. It felt rewarding each time I killed a zombie in a different, gory way.
From a graphics perspective, Dead Island 2 also looks the part. The Santa Monica pier and Ferris wheel with all of the festive lights on looked both beautiful and creepy at the same time. Dambuster Studios has gone for a "pulp tone" for the game's atmosphere. To me, the game's environments are both chilling and life-like, with lots of little details in the pier's stalls for example. The final part of the demo was especially scary: when I entered the Ferris wheel, a zombie clown with metal spikes as arms and legs climbed up and threw me out of the cart during a cutscene. I then walked down an unlit and charred part of the pier. The combination of chilling sound effects, darkness, smoke and creepy, foreboding music was another moment illustrating that Dead Island is a very thrilling game.
When I entered the charred pier building, another cutscene followed. The creepy clown pushed me to the ground and started eating a dead zombie's face next to me, before jumping on top of me. I'm pretty sure that people with a fear of clowns are at risk of a heart attack playing this part, because it was downright terrifying. Another intense fight followed, with the clown zombie regenerating by eating nearby corpses. After a few attempts I found out my fast-attacking wolverine claws and constant dodging were the way to go, and I was able to complete the demo.
In all, this preview shows me Dead Island 2 expands on the gameplay mechanics from the previous games, but is a lot more dark and scary. With many different types of zombies requiring different types of attacks, the game's combat is both challenging and satisfying. The bloody effects, lifelike zombies and atmospheric locations add variety and excitement. It also came to my mind that playing this in VR would be awesome, but the developers present couldn't comment on whether this was going to be an option, though they did put on a big smile. What is definitely included is the option to complete the game's campaign in co-op with up to three players and a release on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, PC (as an Epic Games Store exclusive), and Stadia.
I still couldn't get anything confirmed on what else the game will feature besides the (co-op) campaign story to play. Dead Island 2 still retains much of what was already done in the previous games, upgrading and expanding on what worked well before. Based on my impressions so far, I think this could be the Dead Island 2 fans of the series have been waiting for. In any case, it's a game to look out for, for anyone who likes zombie games or scary games in general. Just stay away if you're afraid of clowns.