The last time we here at Eurogamer previewed Dead Island 2 was way back in 2014 when I went hands on with a playable demo at Gamescom.
At that time the game was being developed by Yager Development, but when that studio was removed from the project in 2015, Sumo Digital took over and attempted to pick up the pieces. Sumo's involvement was short lived though and it was also taken off development sometime around 2019.
After that, Dambuster Studios took up the reins and since then all has been worringly quiet. I'm sure I'm not the only person out there who thought that this troubled sequel was dead in the water but surprise, surprise, not only has Dead Island 2 risen from the grave in true zombie fashion, but it also has an actual, set in stone release date.
In a bid to prove once and for all that Dead Island 2 was still (un)alive and kicking, publisher Deep Silver invited us to London to go hands-on with a 20 minute demo of the game. While there we also spoke to David Stenton [game director, been at Dambusters 8 years] and James Worral [creative director, been at Dambusters 4 years] about their new and improved version of Dead Island 2.
How much of Yager's original vision remains in the project?
David Stenton: To be honest Dead Island 2 has almost been almost a complete fresh start - Homefront was on CryEngine and this is on UE4, we spent a lot of time on Dead Island to develop our gore tech and a lot of the tools are completely new with Dead Island. Obviously we've been able to keep personnel and staff and talent, but in terms of techniques it's a fresh start.
Is there a connection narratively to the first Dead Island?
James Worrall: It follows on, yeah, but we do a lot of brand new world building. So there's a bit of a clean slate, but it follows on in the timeline, and you might have spotted a character from the first game.
David Stenton: We've genuinely focused on the areas that we feel passionate about. We really set our stall out to be the best first person melee combat game. And I think we've you know, this was genuinely fun to play. And we put so much effort into that first person fighting experience.
During our hands-on we played a mission that blended linear, story-driven gameplay with a small open section that allowed for a bit more freedom to explore and experiment. Is this a good example of what to expect from Dead Island 2's open world?
David Stenton: We've divided L.A. up into a series of districts. Some of them are really expansive, some of them are a little bit smaller - the one that you played today is one of the ones on the smaller side. You can travel between the districts as they unlock, according to the story progression. There are all sorts of side quests of various different types that go on within those districts.
James Worral: Each district has its own zombie population, and they're all curated and dressed to reflect that area and particularly LA life. So for example, we've got a rollerblading screamer with a helmet on rollerblades. We've got Muscle Beach, which is kind of where you sort of get introduced to a lot of these steroid soaked big crusher kind of guys. It's about being in your face, right? We're not interested in dropping hordes of World War Z zombies from a distance, you know, this is all about the struggle and the immediacy, and so these zombies have to feel like they used to be real people.
We had a lot of fun hacking away at the undead and discovering different and bloody ways to inflict damage. Tell us more about the 'gore tech' you've implimented.
James Worral: It's just fully anatomically correct models, we've basically done everything from hair, skin, fat, muscle, bones, and all the organs are stuffed in there. It's all procedural. Melting is our favourite. Sometimes when you hit two or three zombies with a serious caustic melting attack or something like that, they stagger towards you and you can see them falling to bits, and they don't quite make it because they've dissolved before they get to you. It's really rewarding.
It's all part and parcel of making sure that our monsters are monsters, but there's enough humanity left in there that when you see them staggering around after explosions or hopping along because I've only got one leg, you have that moment of humour. But, you know, morally there's still clearly monsters and humans against monsters. I guess that's another difference between us and other zombie games is you're never fighting other humans, it's not about the factions, it's not. I find with a lot of IPs and this is a clear decision we made about two and a half years back. We didn't want to go down the route of the zombie virus becoming like a wallpaper in the background that just becomes a backdrop for intra-human battles. We want it to be that classic 80s horror sci fi movie feel which is all about the monsters, and every story beat is about you finding out more about the monsters the virus, how it's affecting you and where all this might be leading.
David Stenson: We've been working on this stuff for years and years and years. We love those 80s horror films, pulp horror films - our aim was to make it absolutely the goriest game out there. But it ties into the gameplay, with dismemberment and melting and electric charging and burning the zombies and all, so it's not just there as sort of window dressing, it genuinely ties into the way that you play the game.
It's no secret that Dead Island 2 has had a tough time development-wise. How has it been working in secrecy for so long when people like us have been presuming the worst?
James Worral: It's been frustrating, but you kind of feel like a sneaky kid, you know, you feel like you're building something amazing in the backyard. And that's what keeps you going right? Because with every milestone, you can see how close we are to getting something that's really, really unique.
David Stenson: We're massively excited as you can imagine. This is the start of the homestretch. It's funny seeing the reactions, you know, like questions on is that an eyeball hanging out? And we're like 'there's also brains and we can make the jaw hang off as well.' It's really fun seeing people play, even though it's tough, right? Because the combat has got a lot of depth to it.
James Worral: When I joined the company, I joined on the strength of just the gore tech demo that they showed me. I just went okay, this is the next big game.