Hands On: Dead Island 2

By Graham Smith on August 19th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

The original Dead Island was buggy, often sexist, sometimes racist, and frequently a chore to play. Then its expandalone Riptide added “offensively marketed” to that list.

Dead Island 2 has a new developer – Spec Ops: The Line’s Yager – and therefore a chance at a fresh start. A chance to take all that ambition and promise and focus on what players actually liked about the original: co-op japes, a sunny open-world, and the ability to weld a battery onto a knife and use it to stabbily electrocute hundreds of undead. I played Dead Island 2 for 24 minutes at Gamescom and the whole approach seems prompted by saying, ‘Hey, let’s do the obvious things, and not do the awful things?’

This process begins with an effort to smooth out rougher edges in the style of the original game. “Sometimes the tone and what players were actually doing was very uneven,” says Jörg Friedrich, design director at Yager. “It sometimes had really dark and depressing moments, but if you looked at what people were actually doing and posting on Twitch and YouTube and everywhere, it was over-the-top. ‘Let’s gather these zombies over here and slaughter them all,’ and they had a lot of fun while they were supposed to feel bad. We felt like that’s something we should look into and fix this ‘ludonarrative dissonance,’ as Clint Hocking described it.”

Tone is a pretty good euphemism for the severe problems I mentioned in my first paragraph, but it holds true when I play the game. For starters, the four main characters this time around aren’t victims of a zombie apocalypse, but willing participants. They’ve each decided to move or stay within California – no, it’s not set on an island this time – because they like the independence, the isolation, and the opportunity to drive sledgehammers into rotting flesh. It’s a licence to enjoy yourself.

My session with the game begins in a small suburban zone near Los Angeles’ Hollywood sign. The area has been carved off specifically for the demo and represents a tiny portion (“5 to 10 percent”) of just one of the final game’s intended playable areas, which includes LA, San Francisco, and an unannounced third.

The session is for eight-player co-op, but that doesn’t mean the eight of us playing are bound to one another. We’re let loose to go exploring in and around the nearby homes, hardware stores, garages and so on, to see what weapons we can find and how many zombies we can smash. The idea is that co-op should be ambient; you join up with some friends or strangers and it’s then an omnipresent background activity you can opt into or not.

I decide to not and spend my time trundling around houses, looking for weaponry. I collect enough materials that my class’s starting machete automatically becomes electrified, meaning every enemy I strike is temporarily stunned. So far, so similar, but the difference from the original game is that each strike now feels impactful instead of sluggish. Over the course of my time with the game, first as the Speeder class and second as the Berserker, I slash and fry, hammer and crack, blast with shotguns, explode with petrol cans, and perform other horribly deforming attacks. My weapon doesn’t break once, though Yager says that if it had, I could have repaired it using materials on site instead of having to find a workbench first.

Towards the end of both my play session, an event triggered – unseen NPCs deciding to blast music for a party – which drew zombies together in the same place. This is meant as a lure for co-op players to group together to rack up points and earn extra XP rewards by killing as many undead as they can. As per the original game, the combat scales well, becoming more frenetic and exciting the more undead are thrown at you. Although we didn’t see any, there will also be PvE events during co-op; the example I’m told is of a helicopter carrying treasure – you know, a treasure copter – which will crash somewhere near groups and create a bubble where they can kill one another to claim the goods inside. It sounds like Rust.

If you decide to still ignore these events and wander off into the open-world, the game can continue to re-match you with co-op partners in whatever area you’re

This isn’t Yager’s first time making a sequel to someone else’s series. The studio’s last game, Spec Ops: The Line, revived a forgotten series of military shooters by exploring the political themes of war crimes/manipulative and unavoidable button presses. The goal that time around was different for two reasons. For one, Friedrich was setting out with the specific goal of making players feel bad. For two, “the last games before [Spec Ops] The Line weren’t really good,” says Friedrich.

Still, zombie films are traditionally used for social commentary and an isolated California full of gung-ho independents seems a ripe setting. Friedrich agrees – “I think people will figure Yager’s handwriting in the game” – but seems more excited about other things. “It was actually a relief to finally do something light-hearted and move away from this super-serious topic that we had to work on for five years.”

This is, I think, why I find myself excited about the game as well. I went into Dead Island 2 wondering how they were going to thread a difficult needle and move on from the series’ scuzzy past. I came away realising that they were trying to make a simple game about hitting zombies with your friends – whether it ends up being any good or not, why should needles have anything to do with it?

, , , .

47 Comments »

  1. Jalan says:

    Despite Bill Hicks’ best predictions, California still hasn’t become an island.

    I was going to write that there wasn’t much plot detail but apparently such a thing seems to not matter, much to the relief of anyone at Yager, so I guess my curiosity is sated.

    • sansenoy says:

      When things sink, they don’t usually grow up into islands, unless that’s how they’re made???

  2. Premium User Badge

    Big Murray says:

    I wonder if people would even really pay attention to these games if it wasn’t for that trailer.

    • Premium User Badge

      Joshua says:

      I’m only here because Keith Davids specifically mentioned not being able to finish Dead Island as his primary reason to take revenge on the Zin in SR4.

      • Premium User Badge

        Big Murray says:

        Isn’t SR4 the ship in the next Mass Effect game?

        (Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Thread of Increasingly Obscure References to Games Which Aren’t Dead Island.)

        • Damien Stark says:

          I enjoyed this reference.

          But since the SR2 came back in ME3, I guess we’ve got to wait for ME5+ before we see the SR4…

        • Phasma Felis says:

          Eh, the revamped decking rules in SR4 were nice, but on the whole I preferred the 3rd edition, especially the magic system.

    • malkav11 says:

      I would. The trailer was amazing, but it’s got nothing to do with the game content. But that game content is a massively satisfying sprawling semi-open coop ARPG with some of the best melee combat I’ve seen in a first person game and certainly right up there with the best in the ARPG genre (i.e. Dungeon Siege III and that’s about it), tons of things to find, and plenty of upgradeable loot. People who skipped either previous Dead Island game (Epidemic is basically unrelated as far as I can tell) are really missing out. Although it is admittedly buggy, and my most frustrating moments involved thrown weapons clipping through things or vanishing altogether so as to be irretrievable. Not consistently, in which case you would just never ever play the throwing guy, but enough to make me really sad when some awesome upgraded weapon vanished.

      • Palindrome says:

        I found Dead Island to be uninteresting from a game play perspective. A lack of variety in locations and enemies just didn’t make me want to complete the game. I realise that zombie games will tend to have limited enemy types but I found that I was basically having the same fight over and over (and over) again.

        The shambling horde of fetch quests didn’t help either.

        • d32 says:

          “A lack of variety in locations” is not true at all. Guess you’ve stopped playing before first of many location changes.

  3. aliksy says:

    Oh good, they did something about the weapons breaking. That was possibly the worst part of dead island one. I could probably overlooked the absurdity of leveled knives (this one is blue so it does more damage!) but the constant repairs were just tedious.

    • Rindan says:

      The worst part about Dead Island was that like apparently all developers, with the possible exception of Left 4 Dead (sorta), they can’t get it into their fucking head that the whole point of a zombie fantasy is that any idiot can massacre a stupid zombie. Chopping away at a zombie for 20 minutes while I whittle it down from its 1000 HP start health is so fucking stupid and boring that I can feel my brain leaking out of my ears.

      Why can’t any of these games make a zombie that falls apart like a zombie? Shoot it in the head and it is dead. Blow off its legs and it crawls towards you.

      Give me one game, just one freaking game where zombies die to a head shot, crawl after you start breaking limbs, and they spent like 30 seconds trying to make an interesting damage model on the zombie. Also, no stupid special super zombies. Just boring old zombies with a little variation and an interesting damage model. When weapon hit, make it meaty, squishy, and gory.

      It is obnoxious that we have this whole zombie craze, and not a single good actual zombie game.

      • HadToLogin says:

        “Why can’t any of these games make a zombie that falls apart like a zombie?” – they weren’t allowed to chop people to get mocap right.

      • Reapy says:

        I’m right there with you! I think dead rising came the closest to having proper zombies in it, though the missions and time limits really got in the way of the fun of mowing down a ton of them. I didn’t play the latest one. Also, project zomboid seems to have the idea right as well for their zombies, but I haven’t played that yet either.

        Still the idea is really that zombies are an engineering problem about consistency and constant vigilance, not many games seem to get that right, which is the primary appeal of them as a bad guy/apocalypse theme.

  4. Premium User Badge

    neofit says:

    Dead Island 1 was the first zombie game that I enjoyed. It wasn’t about overwhelming you with horde after horde, apart from a few scripted moments (but there are trainers to deal with this crap). And using a tiny bit of brain, you could use the environment against the zeds, some, well, let’s say “tactics” like kicking them, making them lose balance, etc. Also there was a kind of story, asinine as in all games, but still a goal. This preview was rather short, by what I gathered from it and the pictures is that the hordes are back, emphasis is on coop which I don’t care about, and that’s all? As a “willing participant” in the zombie apocalypse you are just roaming the open world while kicking ass and chewing bubble gum? Or the willing participant thingy is just the premise, then something happens and woah, a goal?

    • Jalan says:

      Why would they have bothered overwhelming you with a horde of enemies to kill when they were too busy loading you up with fetch quests?

  5. waltC says:

    You probably aren’t going to believe this…but most of the guys in the above screenshots live right down the hall from me! (I mean, if “living” is what you want to call it.)

  6. domogrue says:

    If we’re talking about the problem being Tone, then I definitely think Yager is the team to give this franchise to. Spec Ops: The Line, while being weak gameplay-wise for me, definitely was a game with strong set pieces and a unified theme running under the game with a tight focus on setting out to accomplish its goal.

    Wish this studio the best of luck in pulling this off.

  7. Premium User Badge

    melnificent says:

    But is it coming to Linux?

    The original Dead Island has just appeared on my Linux Steam library. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come with Dead Island 2

  8. nrvsNRG says:

    To me Dead Island was no chore, it looked great, sounded great (those echoing zombie roars still scare me), had great atmosphere, was exiting and above all very fun to play. One of my all time fave zombie games and a great action RPG in its own right.

  9. Bassem says:

    I greatly enjoyed Dead Island, both in single player and co-op. I was willing to overlook or plow through its terrible flaws (UI, inventory management, visual effects) because the gameplay was just so damn fun. The first person melee was amazing to me.

  10. BLACKOUT-MK2 says:

    I hope weapons don’t degrade too quickly. One of my main gripes with Dead Island was that you could get an awesome weapon, but it wore down so fast it was like the game wanted to discourage you from having fun.

  11. Kefren says:

    “focus on what players actually liked about the original: co-op japes, a sunny open-world, and the ability to weld a battery onto a knife and use it to stabbily electrocute hundreds of undead.”

    I hated the silly weapons, they really pulled me out of the game. Even though it was massively flawed, the atmosphere in Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green was brilliant in a number of the levels (the first, your home; the cornfields; the highrise at the end). I want to feel like a survivor, a scavenger, as in the best bits of Fallout 3; the silliness of Dead Island meant I was never immersed.

    • malkav11 says:

      It was never about being a serious zombie survival sim. So if that’s what you’re craving, well, Dead Island isn’t and never has been your franchise.

      • Jalan says:

        It was all about the seriousness though. Until it wasn’t. Not being able to settle on the tone it wanted for itself is one of the things that irritated me a bit.

        • malkav11 says:

          It’s not tonal inconsistency, per se. It’s ludonarrative dissonance. The game itself is not serious in the least at any point, but the plot consistently tries to be. Just ignore the plot (you’re missing nothing whatsoever) and enjoy the game for what it actually is.

  12. Gog Magog says:

    The very last zombie game I enjoyed was Planescape: Torment.
    (pretentiousness intensifies or whatever)

    I don’t like conscience-free violence. It implies to me that I should just cut free and enjoy a bloodbath for the sheer kinetic and colorful pleasure of it. A bit like dancing, apparently. Well fuck that. It’s quite alright to be confronted by nagging morality and walk it off with a gorespattered grin. But when the need for that cheerfully sadistic (remember, this is about *funhaving*) defiance is deliberately taken away it sorta feels like walking into some isolation chamber for bouncing mad honesty.
    (pretentiousness nearing criticality incident)

    • dethtoll says:

      Liking Planescape Torment isn’t pretentious at all. It’s the norm in geek circles, which just goes to show that geeks have no taste whatsoever.

    • Distec says:

      It’s a game about slaughtering the undead.

      I mean, just a reminder.

  13. Tom Walker says:

    ALERT RPS STAFF TYPES!

    The Gamescom link in the banner at the top of the front page takes me to a 404. It’s been like this ever since it was put there.

    This is just not acceptable. I demand to speak with Horace.

  14. Scelous says:

    Okay, I’ll bite: How was the first Dead Island sexist?

    • HadToLogin says:

      There was some code in game that named one skill in some sexist way (I totally don’t remember it’s name, sorry) – it was named totally different in-game through..

      • The First Door says:

        Also let us not forget the special edition for the Riptide expansion with the statue which was… well, just one of the most stupid ideas for a special edition anyone has ever had. “Yes, I’d love to put a dismembered, under-dressed female torso on my shelf. No, I’m not an utter psychopath, why?”

  15. socrate says:

    its kind of sad that i don’t see much improvement…i will try this game before i buy it…or just wait for the full edition this time around…the first one sucked bad because of stupid fed-ex quest…i didn’t mind the silly weapon i did like how they did handle the “proc” and elemental in this game although it was always about stun status effect mostly and DoTs…but visually they were the most beautiful status effect ive seen in a game i think and they didint just add a stupid dmg of a certain type,the fun fact that playing solo made it a more horror game and playing with 2 people turned it into a silly rampage.

    But Dead island 1 was far FARRRR from perfect…the horrible loot system….and the silly repair system….the horrible gun that worked pretty much with only a specific build…so much silly decision…the buggy and flawed weapon throwing system…the really boring jungle level and prison level.

    And from this article all they added is common thing now in survival PC game that tend to be overused or shown as if they invented the damn thing like that H1Z1 trailer /facepalm…i dunno maybe console will bite more it wouldn’t surprise me…but the whole thing about making Dead island that BIG ASS game is just silly imo…it was fun for a bit….but this wasn’t a smash it game…the game still has tons of bug that still aren’t fixed as of today…im not hyped for dying light also…to me they are almost the same just with a different “feel” to them artistically and was never a fan of parkour in game or out i think its one of the most silly thing ever and never work well in the first place you always end up bugging out or clipping or some other thing like that happen

  16. Spacewalk says:

    Another zombie massacring game? How droll.

  17. frogulox says:

    Perhaps, given the californian independents theme, the subtle message will be all ‘no man is an island’-esque

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      So the title does still refer to an island! I knew Yager wouldn’t disappoint and would put symbolism all up ons this shit.

  18. Lethys says:

    this is the most grotesque looking undead person I’ve ever seen. I won’t play this because of it even if it’s a great game. it’s deeply unpleasant to look at.

  19. Jerykk says:

    I don’t remember any racism or sexism in the original Dead Island.

  20. Neurotic says:

    Well I liked DI. Good game, and the videos and trailers were fine too. *crosses arms huffily*

  21. Maou says:

    How about the plot?
    Forget I asked.

  22. NarcoSleepy says:

    Despite some rage inducing bugs in the first couple releases, I will probably get this, but will definitely not be a day 1 purchase. I am only slightly irritated that it takes place in California (which is NOT AN ISLAND!!!) At least move it to Catalina or something….
    I don’t care so much about plot. I just want to hack and slash some zombies, and hopefully not have any rage-inducing bugs this time.

  23. Isaak J Case says:

    I also had the opportunity to play DI2 on gamescom, and I have to say: I have hope. I fully agree with what you said, but want to add that the combat was really fluent. Maybe due to the absence of a stamina bar, I was able to gracefully dance around Zombies in a succesion of dodgeing, kicking and attacking. The mood was great, especially when my character started humming some “epic” music while killing zombies. I think and hope that the adjective describing the game best will be: FUN.