I considered Spec Ops: The Line a mini-triumph due to its Heart Of Darkness-infused story and brilliant choice of a mid-apocalyptic Dubai setting. If you share my opinion on Yager's flawed-but-interesting military flop, then your reaction to the news that developer Yager is working on the first proper sequel to Dead Island was likely mixed. Here was me expecting them to turn Conrad's Lord Jim into a naval FTL, or, more realistically, follow an Irrational-esque journey into credible narrative-driven games. Dead Island doesn't seem like an immediate match, especially a so-called 'proper' sequel that's doubling its maximum co-op players from four to an ambitious eight. The story behind Yager's involvement is pretty simple—they just liked the original Dead Island a lot.
“It's probably not a straight connection after our last game, which is what most people have been saying,” producer Michael Kempson told me. “We were doing Spec Ops: The Line and the first game launched, and yeah, [Dead Island] was just the game that was always on in the office, we really loved it. Even though it wasn't released in Germany, people, by any means possible, were getting that game back to the office.” An office culture built around the original Dead Island's co-op. “As it happened, we heard a little bit later on that Deep Silver were looking for a partner for Dead Island 2, and we said, 'well, we're finishing up this game—we could put together a pitch for this.' So we weren't thinking we'd definitely get it, but you don't get what you don't ask for.”
What I was shown of the game encompassed a lot of that pitch. I saw the player being driven around in a hippy-style van around a middle class neighbourhood by a slightly creepy guy called Max, who also has a mo-capped cat called Rick Fury (they made a fairly big deal about that during the reveal). Dead Island is set in hubs across California, including San Francisco and Santa Monica. After a pretty but basic on-foot combat demonstration, in which we're shown how weapons can instantly be combined on the spot now a la Dead Rising 3. The emphasis seems to be on sillier possibilities than those seen in Techland's Dead Island titles. Eight-player co-op is the ambitious endgame of what will be possible in Dead Island 2, hence the larger scale of setting—but it's too early for Yager to show right now.
Honestly, the demo was a little too elementary to make much of a call on either way, being pre-alpha and barely a shell of a game. But the choice of developer, sensible decision to adopt a cheekier tone and promise of eight-player co-op does make it seem like a superior proposition to the barely-there add-on Riptide. I'm just not sure what's original about it. Dead Island 2 is starting to sound like Capcom's Dead Rising as an MMO. One of the things I wanted to know was how many of the Spec Ops team are working on Dead Island 2. “A really large percentage,” Kempson explained. “The majority of the team that worked on Spec Ops are on Dead Island 2.” Again, that seems so odd when I think about how concerned The Line was with narrative, to the detriment of combat.
But getting that stuff right is really important to Yager—learning how to do first-person combat was a primary concern for the team. “We hadn't done first-person melee before and it was something we were quite paranoid about, because Techland did a fantastic job of that in Dead Island 1,” said Kempson. “RPG yes, open-world yes, but we need to nail down the melee combat. So we started with that as a base and we continued just raising on it, then we got to a point with this demo that we showed where we've got this big guy and a huge sledgehammer, and you can use that to uppercut a zombie on the chin and knock him sixty feet in the air, which to us felt very visceral and like Dead Island and really funny. It seemed obvious to us that this was pitch perfect—that's the action Dead Island should represent and that's how funny it should be.”
More exciting to me than zombie lolz is the choice of setting—vague tropical islands don't have California's broad range of iconography. Expect snapshots of the Sunshine State, but not a sprawl. “It's going to be regionalised,” Kempson said. “The approach we took with California as a game space is, there's so many different geographies and landscapes within California, all equally as beautiful as the next but all actually very different. So the artists had a really great time of finding all those beautiful locations." Kempson likened it to buying postcards at Santa Monica pier and rearranging them in a logical order for the purposes of the game—and the areas will be a lot bigger than in the original Dead Island. Kempson said this is necessary for the eight-player co-op and “MMO-like” feel to playing within that space. This sounds kind of cool, but without any evidence of it in this first reveal, it's hard to figure out how Dead Island 2 will convincingly accommodate so many players.
Hopefully a proper reveal of the co-op will illustrate how Yager is trying to outdo the likes of Borderlands in the scale of this zombie shooter RPG. At the very least, this looks like a strong follow-up to the original Dead Island versus the languishing '90's-style franchise extension Riptide or the Early Access MOBA Epidemic that is witheringly described as a ZOMBA—but my first impression of this all-too-brief pre-alpha demo is that, as impressive as zombie-infested California looks in Unreal 4, I don't quite get what's supposed to be new about Dead Island 2 even though I think it already looks like it'll be better-produced than the ones Techland made. Maybe it was a little early to show this to the press without such an important tenet of what will be in the final game. Finally, here's something I forgot to ask Yager: in what way is California an island?