Dead Island 2’s developer explains why its ‘dev hell’ reputation has worked out well
“I think people were expecting it to be terrible, and so were pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t.”
Dead Island 2 has been reanimated more times than the undead ghouls that make up its supporting cast.
German studio Yager Development was the first to take on the sequel to Techland’s 2011 game, starting development just one year after its release.
Things went pear-shaped after a few years and Sumo Digital stepped in to take over the project in 2015. This too ended up collapsing, and in 2019 Deep Silver turned to its internal studio Dambuster (previously responsible for Homefront: The Revolution) to finish the job.
Or, rather, to start it. Some 11 years after development first started, Dead Island 2 is finally out on April 21, and after playing through the game’s first five hours we sat down with Dambuster to find out exactly how much of Yager and Sumo’s work was left when it took over. Not a lot, it turns out.
“It was basically a complete restart,” technical art director Dan Evans-Lawes tells us. “Obviously there were some things that had been communicated out already, the [Los Angeles] setting and things like that, and when we looked at it the setting was something that we definitely did want to keep.
“We felt that it was an opportunity to have a really crazy, diverse cast of characters, and also it’s a very iconic location, so obviously we wanted to keep that. Other than that, it was totally from scratch.”
Dead Island 2 - extended gameplay reveal
The game opens with a diverse group of people trying to escape a zombie-infested LA, only for their plane to crash. The good news is they’re all okay, but the bad news is they’re still surrounded by the undead, and with most of LA’s residents already evacuated human flesh is becoming more of a delicacy by the day.
After choosing your character from a selection of six – each has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own unique perks they gain over the course of the game – so begins an attempt to find a way out of LA while also dealing with the clashing personalities of the people in your group (who thankfully stay at their own base for the most part, allowing you to go it alone and only check in on them occasionally).
Much like its predecessor, a lot of Dead Island 2’s gameplay involves managing an ever-rotating collection of weapons the player can scavenge from whatever’s lying around. Whether it’s a plank of wood, a sledgehammer, a baseball bat or a decorative samurai sword stolen from someone’s house, there’s a continuous search for something blunter or sharper than what’s currently in your possession.
These weapons can also be upgraded with the parts salvaged from the various abandoned homes the player explores. Take an engineer’s hammer, for example, and with a mod (found elsewhere) it can be enhanced to become the ‘cremator engineer’s hammer’, which has little mini blowtorches around it, setting zombies alight when you hit them.
One thing that hasn’t been carried over from the original was its optional analogue combat controls. In the first game, players could swing their weapon in whatever direction they liked by moving the right stick in one direction, then flicking it in the opposite one.
It was a sound idea but was lacking when it came to execution (so to speak), and many players turned the feature off. In Dead Island 2, it’s completely gone, but it’s been replaced by a better way of keeping the many hundreds of zombie encounters interesting – the F.L.E.S.H. system.
This stands for Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids, which from what we’ve played is an accurate moniker. Hitting an enemy with your weapon will cause them to take damage in the exact area you hit them, with the type and extent of damage depending on the weapon involved.
Hit them in the chest with a pipe wrench and a chunk of their skin might be lopped off, revealing their organs underneath. Set them on fire and their face might melt, or take a sword to their stomach to slice it open. It’s all exceptionally gory and oddly compelling – at times it feels like someone covered a bunch of guts with Play-Doh and given you tools to remove it.
“Hit them in the chest with a pipe wrench and a chunk of their skin might be lopped off, revealing their organs underneath. Set them on fire and their face might melt, or take a sword to their stomach to slice it open.”
It’s rare that we’ve seen such detailed location-based damage in a game, but according to Evans-Lawes, it wasn’t that difficult to implement. “It actually wasn’t as hard as you’d probably think, I think it was more just the will to do it,” he explained to us.
“We’ve got a really good, small team of people together like myself, the lead character artist and a couple of programmers, and we just had the space to experiment and develop. And we were all very committed to making it the most sophisticated and ridiculously gruesome system that anyone had ever made.
“And so, actually, the process was fairly easy and the system was in place very early on in the project. Obviously it has developed somewhat, but it hasn’t changed a lot, I wouldn’t say, in about three and a half years.”
One thing that does seem to have evolved over the course of development is the world itself and its environmental storytelling, partly because of real-world events. A number of games and movies about zombies and other infected types like to go down the post-apocalyptic route and show abandoned cities – 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, The Last of Us, the first Dead Island – but the theme feels particularly on-the-nose following recent events in which real world cities were left similarly empty.
“Yeah, it was funny actually,” Evans-Lawes recalls, “because I remember once we’d all gone into lockdown, I was at home playing the game and I was thinking it was really interesting how some of the stuff that was in the game already at that point did have parallels to the real-life pandemic, like some of the signage we had up and stuff like that.
“But also, there was loads of stuff that we completely hadn’t predicted in terms of how people would react, and I think maybe there was some new stuff in terms of signage that went in, that maybe took some influence from that. But I remember thinking it was definitely interesting to compare the art to real life.”
Rather than portraying these real-world influences in a sombre or mawkish manner, Dead Island 2 goes down the satirical path instead. The LA setting gives Dambuster free rein to feature a variety of eccentric characters, many of whom are handling the crisis in their own interesting way.
Our favourite example of this so far is the large house that belongs to a group of YouTubers. While mostly abandoned, it does have plenty of in-jokes lying around that make cheeky jibes at the culture, the most notable being a whiteboard showing a YouTube apology script that says “this isn’t scripted, it’s from the heart” and delivers such notable lines as “sorry to all my fans that I’ve disappointed but most importantly my sponsors”, and the vaguely anti-vax “please take the evacuation seriously, it was a mistake, I shouldn’t have joked about it”.
Later in our playthrough, we actually encountered one of these influencers, a (deliberately) annoying loudmouth called Amanda Sykes, who’s stuck around to film the apocalypse in the hope it’ll increase her views and subscribers. In one mission, the influencer stands on the roof filming you while you kill waves of zombies for her in a variety of ways, but not before she reminds you not to swear for the first 10 seconds because “I already have two strikes on my account”.
“In one mission, the influencer stands on the roof filming you while you kill waves of zombies for her in a variety of ways, but not before she reminds you not to swear for the first 10 seconds because ‘I already have two strikes on my account’.”
There are other things dotted around in the form of audio and text logs that shows Dambuster is trying to walk the tightrope between laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation (and some of the idiotic behaviour that ensues as a result of it) and throwing up occasional moments that make the player realise this is still serious business.
One particularly poignant transcript of a message conversation between two partners stopped us in our tracks and caught us off-guard for a moment. Without wishing to give too much away though, we were instantly reminded of another Deep Silver game, the recent Saints Row reboot, which was shot down before it was even released with over-reactionary accusations of being “woke”.
We wondered if Dambuster was prepared for the possibility that some on social media – and in particular some of the influencers who have their egos lampooned in the game – will fail to see the funny side and attempt to sway public opinion against it.
“We wanted all the characters to be these larger than life personalities,” narrative designer Lydia Cockerham answered. “They’re not meant to be real people that you would actually come across, they’re these huge bombastic personalities.
“Especially everyone that remains behind in LA – we wanted there to be a reason they were there. They’re all sort of strange in the sense that they all have reasons they’ve stayed behind, something has kept them there. The normal people have left, it’s just the weirdos and oddballs remaining.
“So with that said, hopefully the influencers won’t read into it and see themselves – if they do, that maybe says more about them than it does us.”
Perhaps they’ll be too busy going with the narrative that Dead Island 2 has been ‘in development’ for more than a decade at this point.
Everyone loves a ‘development hell’ story, and this seems ripe for that angle, even though in reality (as previously mentioned), this particular Dambuster-led iteration of the game has seemingly enjoyed a straightforward development cycle and been delivered within a typical time-frame, even with a global pandemic right in the middle of the process.
We asked Evans-Lawes how he felt about working on a game that has a stigma of being in development for ‘11 years’, through no fault of Dambuster’s.
Rather than seeing it as a weight on the team’s shoulders, though, he’s embraced what it could mean if, as we suspect from what we’ve played so far, the general reaction will be positive upon release.
“It definitely concerned us at the start,” he explains. “I remember when we took the project on, I was thinking ‘is this a poisoned chalice’, you know what I mean?
“I think, though, that once we announced the game, people were interested, because they knew it had been in ‘development hell’ for however long, and I think people were expecting it to be terrible, and so were pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t.
“And I kind of feel like it’s actually given us quite a lot of goodwill in the end. But that’s obviously reliant on people liking the game. But as long as they do, which I think they will, then I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all.”