Dead Island 2 is a sideways move for Yager. This is the studio best known for Spec Ops: The Line, the harrowing, satirical war shooter from 2012. That game challenged expectations. It held a mirror up to the player. It asked searching questions about videogame narrative. It questioned the entertainment industry's lazy attitude towards violence.
Dead Island 2 on the other hand is a game where you can strap a flamethrower to your handgun so that zombies' heads catch on fire when you shoot them. It's like when Francis Ford Coppola directed Jack.
Although, not exactly, because unlike Jack, Dead Island 2 is actually pretty good. The demo at EGX 2014 was of a very early build, but already this seems smarter, funnier, and more technically polished than its predecessors. And it's a brave decision by Yager. In an era when studios often choose a franchise, or at least a genre, and then stick to it, the Spec Ops team is pushing itself to try something different.
"Developers like to flex their creative muscles in different ways," says Dead Island 2's senior gameplay programmer Isaac Ashdown. "It also helps when you're making a sequel to something you're a fan of. Zombies are an interesting monster – you can do a lot with them.
"And Dead Island has always been a beautiful game, an opportunity to get away from designing gritty, urban environments. That's why it's fun to have a challenge. You get to discover new ways of doing things."
As well as swapping soldiers for zombies, and the war torn streets of Dubai for California, Yager is focusing on melee rather than gun combat in Dead Island 2. In first-person games, this is notoriously difficult to get right. Condemned, ZombiU, even the mighty Skyrim have struggled with the concept.
Ashdown says it's all about feedback: "You have to have to make sure that what people expect to happen, happens at the right time: a zombie flails the right way when it's been hit, weapons don't just bounce off or feel like they go through your target. There are a lot of systems that have to interact together."
In Dead Island 2, zombies' clothing and skin is damaged in real-time – if you slash a machete across an enemy's chest, his shirt will tear before your eyes. It's one of the many systems Yager is implementing to make the melee combat more satisfying.
"You need to have this kind of visual feedback," Ashdown continues. "It's iterative, so you have to keep building and building, but the way clothing behaves is one of the main things we've put in. It makes it more visceral."
This being Yager, Dead Island 2 has some narrative chops as well. It won't be Ibsen, but the writers have come up with a smart conceit that will marry the story with the way people play.
"Our backstory is that California has been abandoned by the government," says Ashdown. "But some people have stayed behind because they see it as a way to get a new lease of life, to do things the way they've always wanted to. And that matches the way we expect players to approach the game. It's not going to be laugh a minute – it won't be full of wisecracks – but there is humour there."
It's a refreshing take on the free-roaming zombie genre. Dead Rising always struggled narratively. In cutscenes and on paper the characters were scared, frightened, and under duress, but when the player got the controls, he could run around in his underpants pelting zombies with tennis balls.
Giving the characters in Dead Island 2 the same motivation as the player – they're here to enjoy themselves – is an elegant workaround of that awkward relationship between developer and audience. It won't be as on-the-nose as Spec Ops: The Line, but Dead Island 2 could end up with a very neat story.
And of course there's co-op. Upping the player limit from four to eight, Yager wants to make the world of Dead Island 2 feel populated and alive, even though it won't be forcing people to play together.
"We don't put any barriers to people playing together," says Ashdown. "If you're at a different point of the story, we don't want to say 'you can't play with these other people because their world is too different to yours.' Everyone can be doing their own thing. Different events happen in the world and you can choose to help out with them or not. Your decisions might have an affect. Ignoring something might mean that an area that used to be safe becomes overrun with zombies."
The structure so far seems similar to Destiny, wherein you aren't explicitly required to join in with others, but they're around, wandering, if you want to hook up. It's a loose kind of co-op – even if you're not physically in the same group, it makes the game world a lot more interesting when there are other humans around.
That said, it might be a good idea to find some friends. Yager wants the zombies in Dead Island 2 to be much more of a threat than they have been in the past.
"We definitely want it to be a survival experience," says Ashdown. "It's going to be life or death situations, moment to moment. In bunches of one or two, the zombies will be fine, but in a big pack they're going to be trouble. They're not to be trifled with."
Dead Island 2 won't launch until spring, 2015, but already it's shaping up as the franchise's strongest entry. The technical issues that plagued the other games seem to have been nixed – even this pre-alpha build was running smoother than Dead Island: Riptide – and with Yager on board, it's bound to have some interesting, or at least consistent, narrative work as well. This is one to watch.
Dead Island 2
- Developer – Yager
- Publisher – Deep Silver
- Platforms – PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC
- Release date – Spring 2015
- Price – TBA