California Dreamin': Dead Island 2 embraces the slaughter

Surprise choice Yager follows up Spec Ops: The Line with something a little different.

Dead Island 2 at E3 was a bit of a surprise for a couple of reasons.

One, it's being developed by Yager, the studio that made critical darling Spec Ops: The Line. I didn't see that one coming.

"Gotcha!" Yager producer Michael Kempson beams. "Yeah, it is a bit of a strange one. But it was just really great timing and kind of accidental."

This is how the story goes. Yager was finishing up Spec Ops when Dead Island came out. It went down pretty well - despite its problems - because of how easily co-op could be set up within the studio. Maybe it had something to do with being banned in Germany. We always want what we're not supposed to have, after all.

Then, Yager heard on the German game developer grapevine that Deep Silver was after pitches for Dead Island 2. In the summer of 2012 Yager put a few people on coming up with a pitch, met with the publisher and smashed it. Deep Silver gave Yager the thumbs up. Now, in the summer of 2014, Dead Island 2 is in the middle of development, and is due out on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in spring 2015.

Of course, as a result of Yager making Dead Island 2, Techland, the original creator of Dead Island, is not, which must be odd for them. Instead, Techland is making Dying Light, another first-person zombie apocalypse game that looks like it could have been Dead Island 2 if it fancied it. There are zombie apocalypses everywhere.

And two, Yager's behind closed doors presentation at E3 showed off a combat prototype from 2013. That's the opposite of what we're used to. What we're used to is developers showing off the latest builds of their games because, understandably, they want the world to see them at their best - not a year old.

And so I reckon Dead Island 2 looks rough around the edges, but of course I do, because all I've seen of it is an old combat prototype.

Still, it gives us a good idea of what Yager's trying to do with the game, its tone and art style. Dead Island 2 is set several months after the original outbreak, and the virus has spread to California. So the US government shuts it down, declaring a quarantine zone.

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My enthusiastic presenter tells us California is our zombie playground. Yager's version is bright and beautiful, with all the iconic Californian locations you'd expect: LA beaches, San Francisco piers, the Hollywood Hills, the lot. "We say, embrace the slaughter," he says. "This is the zombie apocalypse of your dreams."

Like Dead Island, Dead Island 2 features a number of characters, each designed to offer a different play style. You've got Hunter, Beserker, Speeder and Bishop to choose from. Story wise (Emmy Award-winning writer Anne Toole, of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries fame, is penning the game), they're all just having a bit of a laugh. They want to be in California, I'm told. They view it as a second chance. No bills to pay and no boring job. It helps they're immune to the virus, of course.

Gameplay wise, each character has its own skills, signature weapons, car (which, after being upgraded, end up another type of weapon) and Fury Attack. The latter is a kind of devastating combo that revolves around the first-person melee combat Dead Island is famous for. One of these is the Zombie Launcher, which sees you use a heavy weapon such as the sledgehammer to smash a zombie 60 feet into the air. It's over the top zombie violence and pretty funny.

It turns out, the Zombie Launcher move helped inspire the entire look and tone of the game, Kempson tells me, because before then, when the game was in pre-production, it was all a bit The Walking Dead.

"That was the aha! point for us because we thought, that's funny as hell," he says. "We showed that off internally and to Deep Silver, and it seemed to be one of those rare occasions where something's objectively funny. This seemed to resonate with everybody we showed it to. That's when we realised we had found a good tone to be in there.

"You could find funny moments here and there throughout the thing, but that moment crossed the line in terms of being objectively funny. We thought, this resonates so strongly that's how we're going to proceed."

So, when Yager say Dead Island 2 is the "zombie apocalypse of your dreams", they mean it. I don't get the impression you're supposed to worry too much about survival, or stress about staying alive. You're supposed to have tongue-in-cheek fun. If Dead Island 2's California is a sandbox then the zombies are your toys.

The combat demo demonstrates, albeit briefly, how this will play out. It shows the huge number of zombies that can be on screen at once, and reveals how packed some of the environments are with buildings, vehicles and materials you use to craft the thousands of possible weapons in the game, including motorised ones that run on fuel. Which, of course, you have to scavenge. This is a zombie apocalypse after all.

You can shoot zombies, and raiders, and ex prisoners, and former US army soldiers, as if you're playing a first-person shooter. You can carve them up with a machete as if you're playing Dead Island 1. You can blow them up with explosives. You can run them over in your vehicle. And you do all this in combination, because Dead Island 2 has dual wielding. So, if you fancy chopping with a machete in one hand and blasting with a shotgun in another, you can.

This all sounds great, but Dead Island - a flawed game that found huge success - was at its best when played in co-op. Dead Island had up to four-player co-op. Dead Island 2 has up to eight-player co-op.

This is what I'm interested in - the zombie playground the combat prototype hints at combined with the chaos eight players will bring to it.

"It's an MMO-like experience," Kempson says. "You could really be eight separate entities existing in your dedicated server in this area of California and just running into each other. It's seamless to the point where you don't even invite people to play."

Here's how it works: if you're connected to the internet (the entire game can be played offline and single-player) other players may inhabit the same game space as you without you even knowing it. You might find out when you see a zombie flying over the house you're about to explore.

"You're like, okay, I guess there's some powerful dude over there, I'll go check him out and see what he's up to," Kempson continues. "Maybe he wants to partner with me. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe you know him.

"It becomes a strange action MMO experience at that point. And you can scale it as much as you want within the eight players."

This for me is what is exciting about Dead Island 2. It's over the top. It's ultra violent. But, hopefully, its co-op will be fun. I don't want The Walking Dead from Dead Island. I want zombies flying 60 feet in the air somewhere over in the distance, and I shoot them out of the sky.

And I'm curious how all this will work with eight people smashing zombies to pieces. How might we grief each other? How might we co-operate? How might we mess with the game's systems and the AI that governs the zombie behaviour to create the kind of moments that end up shared on YouTube? How might eight players play the human AI off of the zombie AI? I imagine a kind of shared zombie herding, with a few players working together to send hundreds of zombies this way and that, into the paths of enemy raiders, maybe even other players.

"My suspicion is when this game goes online we'll see people do interesting things we didn't think of," Kempson says smiling. And that's what Yager wants us to do while playing Dead Island 2 - smile. Its presentation is as light-hearted as the game. We stop at a building which was ready to host a wedding before the virus took hold. Inside, Love is in the Air plays as we mow down scores of enemies. At one point we shoot arrows at balloons and they pop. We kill hundreds of zombies with all the weapons under the sun. We set off car alarms that attract scores of zombies then light them up.

And we see a picture of a cat wearing a motion capture suit. Dead Island 2 is, apparently, the first game ever to feature a fully motion-captured cat, which is nice. The cat is called Rick Fury, and lives with a maniac called Max in his camper van.

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