Dead Island 2 – Interview with Technical Art Director Dan Evans-Lawes

Recently we were able to go hands-on with an extended preview of Dead Island 2 and you can read more about that here. We were also able to chat with Dambnuster Studios about the creation of Dead Island 2 and everything that’s gone into finally making this game a reality.

Set in sunny LA (of HELL-A as per the game’s marketing), Dead Island 2 puts players into the bloody boots of one of six slayers trying to stay alive amidst the unfolding zombie apocalypse. The juxtaposition of blood, gore and death with the gorgeous neighbourhood of Bel-Air is striking and although LA may not technically be an island, Dambuster Studios have worked hard to deliver a game that’s been a long time coming.

Thanks to Dambuster Studios and Deep Silver, we had a chat with Technical Art Director Dan Evans-Lawes about Dead Island 2.

Dead Island 2

Technical Art Director Dan Evans-Lawes

PowerUp!: It’s been over 10 years since Dead Island. What have you done to make Dead Island 2 eel both modern and like a proper sequel?

Dan Evans-Lawes: Oh, that’s a good question. I think that we’ve tried to take the core kind of feeling of Dead Island and modernise it. Obviously, the core feeling of Dead Island is running around smacking zombies about just generally having a blast basically.

We’ve obviously improved graphics. We’ve improved the way the player interacts. I think that’s a big thing. The way that the player interacts with the environment and interacts with the zombies. We really wanted to make that the core feature of the game; you hit things and you get results basically.

Focusing on the melee combat allowed us to really push that to be the kind of best in class kind of visceral melee zombie combat that you’ll find anywhere. And so I think that was our main focus for the game. It’s sort of where we started and I think actually having that very clear focus has meant that it does provide an incredibly polished and modern feeling combat experience.

PowerUp!: While playing, it’s very easy to sprint past mobs and beeline towards objectives. How are players incentivised to slow down kill zombies and head off the beaten track aside from XP?

Dan Evans-Lawes: When you’re in the more open-world sections of the game, that’s sort of intentional that you don’t have to engage with every single zombie. Obviously, there are more as you pick up missions and you go and do certain things to progress the story or to gain items or whatever it is, then we tend to throw zombies at you that you’re not gonna be able to dodge.

It was a pacing thing really to try and make it so that there are areas of the game where you feel relatively safe and if you want to, you can go and attack the zombies, blow them up and gain XP, but also you can just work around them and get onto the next objective and things like that just to sort of give a bit of variety in the gameplay.

We don’t always want the player to be completely overwhelmed with zombies but I think there are definitely areas of the game where you are. So in terms of what we’ve done to encourage the player to slow down, I mean, I think there’s lots of interest in the world. We’ve put a lot of effort into making the environments interesting and bespoke and there’s lots of little storytelling going on all over the world. There’s always something interesting to look at, interesting to find.

It’s not one of these open-world games where the game is absolutely vast, but there’s, you know, there’s nothing in it. It’s a very dense world and there are lots of interesting things to find. That’s how we want the player to interact with the world. To go “oh I see something over there, I’ll go and investigate.” We might spawn a jump zombie on you and force you to fight it, or you might just see a crowd of zombies milling around and think, “oh, this is a way that I can go and gain myself some experience because I can see an opportunity there to blow them all up.”

We’ve tried to mix up the level of challenge so that it’s sometimes very challenging and other times the player feels more empowered, and more able to explore, which I think is an important part of the game too.

PowerUp!: If you do play by avoiding zombies, will you reach a point where you are too underlevelled to proceed?

Dan Evans-Lawes: I think if you literally tried to avoid every single zombie encounter that you could, then probably yes but you also don’t have to engage with every single zombie encounter in order to progress. There are plenty of encounters in the game that you can’t avoid because they’re necessary to progress the story and to open up new areas, unlock new quests and so on.

By doing those you will gain a reasonable amount of experience and a reasonable number of weapons, but we’d hope that players wanted to explore further, investigate further, get different weapons and find out more stuff about the world as well. We’ve tried to balance it. As I say, you don’t need to fight every single zombie, but also we’d hope that you’d want to

PowerUp!: Was there ever any temptation to add or borrow mechanics from Dying Light or other zombie games which have been released since 2011?

Dan Evans-Lawes: Our main source of inspiration was really Dead Island and Riptide obviously. I think you can’t avoid in gaming a little bit of stuff taken from all over the place. In actual fact when we looked at Dying Light 1 and 2, obviously Dying Light 2 wasn’t out when we started, we noticed that they’d gone in a very different direction than the direction we wanted to go in. They’d really doubled down on the parkour aspect and actually made it so that running away from the zombies was kind of more what it was about than killing the zombies. We thought, “no, we want our game to be about the up close and personal combat, not about running around on rooftops.”

That’s just a different game. It’s not what we were doing. I’m not saying it’s bad. I think that was actually a conscious decision to not copy those mechanics from Dying Light in a way because we wanted to focus our efforts on the first-person melee combat.

PowerUp!: There doesn’t seem to be any punishment for dying, is there, or are there any negative outcomes for your character dying? Or do you simply respawn and keep playing?

Dambuster Studios: Death in Dead Island 2 is not the end! Player death is more an inconvenience (or an embarrassment, or an act of heroic foolery in co-op!). During important quest combat challenges, including boss fights, death will result in that challenge resetting. At all other times, death simply results in respawn and a bruised ego.

PowerUp!: How difficult is it to create a game with this much history and such an extended development cycle? And did you feel the pressure of that?

Dan Evans-Lawes: Yeah, to an extent. Obviously, when we started the game in 2018, we started from scratch. So the Dead Island 2 that you play now has had like a fairly standard development cycle for a big game. So it didn’t really affect how we made the game exactly. We sort of did it as you’d normally do it in approximately the right amount of time that you’d normally take to make a big game like this. But I think, yeah, obviously there’s a lot of expectation out there.

People have been waiting a long time so you really want to make sure that you deliver on the promise of the game and that you not only appeal to the fans and the people who’ve been patiently waiting but you also make it look interesting to other people as well. It was definitely always there in the back of our minds, you know? What’s been nice with the reveals and previews that we’ve done so far is that by and large people, I think people had some negative expectations around the whole long development history. And I think people are like, “Wow, this actually looks pretty good generally.” Hopefully, we’ve managed to do that and give people something that’s worthy of the franchise.

PowerUp!: Finally, LA? Famously not an island…

Dan Evans-Lawes: We know it’s not an island, but metaphorically it is an island because it’s been quarantined from the rest of the United States. If we had to set every single game in the franchise on an island forever for the rest of eternity, then it would, it would limit what we could do.

Thanks to Dan Evans-Lawes for his time.

Dead Island 2 will launch for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S on 21 April 2023.

Leo Stevenson
Leo Stevenson
I've been playing games for the past 27 years and have been writing for almost as long. Combining two passions in the way I'm able is a true privilege. PowerUp! is a labour of love and one I am so excited to share.

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