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Game On: Dead Island 2 looks less bleak and more fun

By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Details have finally been trickling in for Dead Island 2 after a very long wait. The series debuted in 2011, with standalone expansion “Dead Island: Riptide” being released in 2013 and mediocre spin-off “Escape Dead Island” launching in 2014. Dead Island 2 was originally slated for 2015, but faced numerous delays and was eventually handed off to a different developer entirely to be reworked from the ground up.

I have mixed feelings about the series. At the height of its fame, some looked to Dead Island to be the “Left 4 Dead killer” with its much larger scope – it touted a large open world, a cohesive plot, greater realism and deeper melee combat. I found the comparisons to be rather pointless – while both series are first-person shooters with four survivors facing hordes of zombies, the similarities end there.

Left 4 Dead never tried to be anything more than an arcade-style shooter. In Japan, you can even find genuine, Valve-approved Left 4 Dead arcade cabinets. Campaigns clock in at around 30 minutes, levels are essentially a series of sprawling corridors and everything resets after your session is done – there’s no progression system whatsoever.

Dead Island exists on the opposite end of the spectrum – you’re exploring massive open areas, fulfilling quests, upgrading items, leveling up your characters and so on. If anything, Dead Island is more like a zombified, modern-era Elder Scrolls. And you know what? It’s not exactly my cup of tea, but I’m here for it.

Publisher Deep Silver finally released a trailer at Gamescom on Aug. 23, and they had the confidence to show nothing but in-game footage – it looks gorgeous, intense, brutal and very fun. AAA games especially are being delayed left and right these days, but I’m willing to believe this one might actually launch on time given the level of polish already on display.

While the events of the debut title took place on the fictional island of Banoi, Dead Island 2 is set in modern-day Los Angeles – or as Dambuster Studios has coined it, “HELL-A,” given the city is overrun by bloodthirsty zombies. Players can expect to explore beachside piers, upscale suburbs and impoverished neighborhoods, among other locales. That said, Dead Island 2’s “HELL-A” doesn’t really look any worse for wear than current-day L.A. Zing!

Despite the series’ long hiatus, it’s clear Dambuster Studios is shooting for the stars. Creative director James Worrall stated that “we’re doing a lot of laying the ground in Dead Island 2 for future releases.”

Interestingly, he referred to it as a sort of “origin story for a kind of superhero,” explaining “there’s lots of zombie games and movie properties out there that are about surviving. The zombies kind of become this background wallpaper against which the interhuman dramas play out – we didn’t want to do that,” Worrall said. “We wanted to get players running into the fray headlong.”

This is a pretty stark contrast to the original Dead Island, which was decidedly more bleak and did feature human vs. human standoffs. And honestly, I think the changes are a good call – sandbox games are supposed to be fun first and foremost, and I felt the oppressive atmosphere of the original got in the way of that sometimes. The studio notes Dead Island 2 is about “thriving, not surviving.”

This is sure to be a controversial change in terms of atmosphere and gameplay alike. I found Dead Island’s attempts at being edgy almost comical when the gameplay loop frequently consisted of knocking zombies down and beating them to a pulp on the ground. Brutal, yes, but also ridiculous. Dead Island 2’s combat looks to be less formulaic and much more fast-paced.

The original also struggled to maintain its intended sense of urgency – while fulfilling the main storyline, the apocalypse felt very pressing, but exploring off the beaten path and fulfilling side quests often derailed that pressure. It was tonally at odds with itself, and I’m hopeful Dead Island 2 will amend that issue.

Dead Island 2 is slated to launch on February 3 for Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S.

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