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Dead Island 2’s developer wants to make zombies fun again

‘It’s hard to marry a straight-laced story with combat that lets you pull out a spine’

A first-person view of a huge zombie unleashing a punch, while the hero readies a hammer, on a Venice Beach street Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

After years in the development wilderness, Dead Island 2 is back — and its developer also wants to go back to the basics of zombie fiction. At a preview event in London earlier this month, U.K. studio Dambuster Studios told the assembled journalists that one of the game’s four pillars — alongside “paradise gone to hell,” “visceral combat,” and “pulp tone” — was “zombie core.”

It seems like stating the obvious. Dead Island 2, like its 2011 predecessor, is a game about surviving a zombie apocalypse and combating the shambling undead. Of course zombies are central to it; why would Dambuster need to restate this? But the developers have a finer point to make here.

“A lot of the zombie… not just games, but franchises, especially in the last five to 10 years, a lot of times the message is that the real enemy is humans. The real bad guy is other people, hell is other people,” lead narrative designer Ayesha Khan (who goes by Khan, professionally) told Polygon. She could easily be talking about The Walking Dead or The Last of Us. “Zombies can become almost a backdrop, almost just a setting choice. This could be on the moon, but instead it’s with zombies. But really, it’s about the people and the relationships. And, you know, sometimes that makes beautiful, gorgeous games and movies and TV. We’re not dissing that in any way.

“But we wanted to keep zombies as the enemy, as the visuals, as the focus, as the gameplay. Always at the core, at the forefront,” Khan said. “That’s the focus of the game.”

A zombie wearing a crash helmet and knee pads on Santa Monica beach, with the sun setting in the background Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

Dead Island 2, then, is not a game about warring factions of survivors, or the human cost of living in an inhumane world. It’s a game about mashing horrible undead monsters in the head with heavy implements. Its zombies are not a sociopolitical metaphor, or a dramatic catalyst. They are scary and gross and funny.

In this, Dambuster wants to go even further than original Dead Island, by Polish developer Techland, which was an unlikely smash hit in 2011 on the strength of its colorful, brutal melee gameplay, if not its storytelling. “We were looking at the sheer madness of the combat in the original Dead Island, but the tone of the story and the narrative sometimes didn’t quite match, it tended to be a bit more serious, a bit more focused. That’s the sort of thing that other games have doubled down on,” said Khan, perhaps referring to the two Dying Light games Techland has made since Dead Island’s release.

“So we were looking a little bit at what is not being done as much right now [...] And one of the things that we really wanted to do was just make zombies fun again. Just have some fun with it, have the characters be having fun with it, you know, have everything be wonderful, ridiculous, larger than life, over the top. Just really double down on that, because that’s the combat, you know? It’s hard to marry a very strait-laced story with combat that lets you pull out a [zombie’s] spine and show it to them, right?”

A first-person view of a zombie in sunglasses being throttled by the player, while the player readies an attack with an electrified machete Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

“We’ve got a core [melee combat] system that we think is pretty amazing,” added technical art director Dan Evans. “But it’s horribly violent. If we didn’t have just, like, a little bit of a lighter tone to it, I think it could just be a really grim murder simulator.” Evans cites the film directors Paul Verhoeven and Quentin Tarantino as inspirations, for their ability to push gory violence into the realm of the absurd, even funny.

“This kind of a game is a love letter to Hollywood B-movie horror movies, right?” said Khan. “We’re almost talking, like, a modern person watching a [George] Romero, a Day of the Dead. That’s the feeling, you know? Back then it was more shocking, it was more unusual. But a modern person is just like, ‘Oh, they really doubled down on the zombies!’”

Evans chipped in with a shoutout for The Return of the Living Dead, while Khan pays homage to the master of zombie comic horror, Sam Raimi. “I mean, [our game] is not as slapstick in storyline as Evil Dead, but it’s on that spectrum of like, ridiculous and gory, but everybody’s having fun here, though. You know, we’re all here to have a ridiculous, fun time.”

If nothing else, that seems like a noble goal for the developer of a zombie game to have in 2022. Dead Island 2 will be released on Feb. 3, 2023, for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. Check out our hands-on impressions of the game for more.

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