It’s midnight, and the light of a full moon glints on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. You can see the ebbing of the shoreline, how the light scatters differently on the surface of the waves versus the sand. Alongside the wash of the sea, you can hear subdued, guttural groaning, the shuffling of Crocs through sand. There’s an undead woman – flesh hanging off her cheek in a clump – limping towards you. No urgency, no pressure. She could be drunk, in another time and place, and just off for a walk down Venice beach.
But this isn’t LA. It’s HELL-A, per an enthusiastic Dambuster rep, who is basically our tour guide for this unlikely excursion to a doomed west coast vacation. She told me to soak in the ambiance – the sights, the sounds, and *deep breath* yes, even the sweet rotting smells – of this doomed Los Angeles as we sat down to get about an hour’s worth of time with Dead Island 2. And her guidance was appreciated, because what a stunning game it is.
“We really want this to be a sort of personal journey, right?” says art director Adam Olson as I recount studying this undead woman – watching the way the skin moved independently of her flesh, watching how she twitched, and shuffled, and wobbled as she struggled against the sand. “We want you to get really up close and visceral in our game. So many games, developers just fill them out. We didn’t want to do just that – we wanted to really populate our spaces; there’s things to see everywhere, there are details in everything. It should feel like a rich world. I think when people get their hands on our game, they’ll see that everything has these fun little details and interesting things to see. It’s been meticulously hand-crafted.”
I can tell you now that this isn’t some well-rehearsed PR drivel. Well, it might be, but it’s fair to say because damn this game looks good. Whether it’s the subdued neon lighting in a powered-down arcade softly illuminating the blade of the katana you’re holding close to your body, or the fire licking out of an axe and crisping up the skin of a zombie whose head you’ve just had a pop at, Dead Island 2 is a ravishing feast for the eyes.
A lot of this comes down to the way that the undead respond to you and your breakable weapons: putting your fist through their eyes, skewering them with a spear, slicing off one of their limbs… everything unfolds in front of you like you imagine it should. It’s not ‘realistic’ per se (though the level of detail and the way light and physics work is pretty damn close), but more grindhouse: pulpy, ultra-violent, over-the-top. Like Tarantino got into the ‘sugar’ and was left unsupervised with a fully paid-up Unreal Engine account.
The gore and the gratuitous body horror comes largely from what Dambuster is calling the FLESH system. That’s an acronym that stands for “fully locational evisceration system for humanoids”, apparently. It basically means that whatever you want to do to a zombie, it responds as it should – the game’s sandbox has fire, electricity, caustic materials and other such ‘elements’ in it. Zap a shambler and the skin will appropriately – you can almost smell it cooking from the inside out. Burn one, and the skin will blister and deviate as it would in real life. Pour acid on it and… well, you get the picture.
“Zombies are at the core of this game – we’re a zombie game for zombie lovers, and an homage to anyone that enjoys the genre,” explains design director, Adam Duckett. “We just wanted to make sure we could the very best zombies that we could. So to that end, we put an unhealthy amount of time – a ridiculously unhealthy amount of time – into crafting that [FLESH system].
“We want players to feel like they can see everything they do to these zombies; every scrape, every punch, every kick… it all has this immediate feedback that is just so satisfying. To make all that work, FLESH was a big part of the game from very early on.”
You can tell that – tasteful or not – this mutilation engine is at the core of Dead Island 2; whether you’re popping headshots at 50 meters or sinking your electrified bear claws into the neck of a nearby mega-zombie, you can see the precise and practical damage you’re causing at every beat.“[This level of detail] fits with the zombie slayer feeling, right?” continues Olson. “You can take a blunt weapon and knock a zombie’s eyeballs out. You can punch your fist through one of their heads. Being able to cut off a zombie head, or slice off a torso with a sword… it’s just fun! It’s simple and joyous.”
You might be thinking ‘hm, this is a bit much’ – that this level of gore, dismemberment, and ultraviolence rendered this gorgeously will get in your head. Dambuster is aware of that, and has tried to make the whole game so cartoonishly gruesome that there’s a clear differentiation between its own brand of butchery and that you’d see in, God forbid, the real world.
“Yes, there’s gore,” says Ducket. “But we want the gore to be pulpy. That’s the tone we’re going for, here. We want to make sure that the tone of the game is complementary to the gore – and it’s all done with a wink to the camera, really. We’re trying not to take ourselves too seriously, and I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance between the tech and the tone.”
The Dambuster team likes to sell this game as a fantasy in which you are a “thriver, not a survivor”. That’s why your avatar – no matter which of the multiple player characters you choose to embody – takes such joy in charging through the teeming streets of LA, armed to the teeth and ready to dance in undead blood. The game is a celebration of zombie games, and wants you to jump into its ludicrous world feet-first and experience this theme park of chaos and pulp gore with no strings attached.
Whether the whole experience will stand up to scrutiny remains to be seen, but for now one thing is for certain: it’s going to look damn good, no matter how it all comes together.
Dead Island 2 is coming to the Epic Games Store, PS4, PS5, Stadia, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S in February 2023.