This whole zombie craze is something of a zombie itself—it refuses to die, despite plenty of efforts. Every year another zombie game (or five) is unveiled and people groan about how played out zombies are and then they buy more zombie games anyway.
This year there were two big zombie games at E3. Even stranger: They’re brothers. Sort of.
See, way back in the dismal year of 2011, Techland released a game known as Dead Island. It was a wacky, sometimes-obnoxious zombie game that completely flew in the face of this infamously depressing trailer. Despite some story issues, the game stood out for its incredible first-person combat. Players who enabled analog combat could dismember zombies with ease. Techland made one expansion, Dead Island: Riptide, and then moved on to its current project—Dying Light.
But, as you no doubt saw in the headline, there’s another Dead Island in the works from a different studio, Yager.
Dead Island 2 and Dying Light are basically cousins or step-brothers or some other family analogy. They’re the result of two different studios looking at Dead Island for inspiration and saying “How could we tweak this game?”
Dying Light welds a traversal system onto the Dead Island foundation. That’s the easiest way to explain it. In addition to your suite of zombie-dismembering tools, you’re also a parkour genius. You can mantle over ledges, climb buildings, jump off roofs into piles of trash bags. You’re nimble.
You’ll need to be. Dying Light also introduces a day/night cycle to proceedings. During the day it’s easy to feel over-confident. Zombies are slow, meandering idiots that pose no real danger unless you get surrounded. If you die, it’s because you handled things poorly.
At night, the city transforms. Quick, smart zombies come out of hiding. They’re just as skilled as you at parkour, so running is but a temporary respite. You’ll have to keep a low profile to stay alive—Dying Light cribs from stealth games and adds vision cones to the map, allowing you to skirt by zombies. If you’re caught (and you inevitably will be) it’s time to sprint-sprint-sprint to the nearest hideout, leaping over every object in your way and probably crying from sheer stress.
You start the game with most traversal options already unlocked, but Techland has built the game so you’ll feel a bit clumsy, a bit slow. Over the course of the game, you’ll start to climb those ledges a bit faster or mantle ledges with more ease. In my hands-on demo I played through some early content and then was flashed to a point later in the game, and the difference was remarkable. I felt more confident in the latter section, and willing to take bigger risks because I knew I could still escape.
The only problem is that the game is in first-person, and thus it’s all a bit awkward. Techland has done a good job giving your character a proper sense of weight, but even so it’s occasionally hard to figure out what you’re able to climb, how far you can jump, et cetera. These are problems as old as first-person platforming itself, of course, and they’re not going away.
Dead Island 2
Dead Island 2 looks, unsurprisingly, like more Dead Island. I didn’t really see a standout feature during our guided demo of the game, which is still early in development. I’m most excited for the game because it takes place in California, and I always enjoy seeing developers put spins on real places.
Dead Island 2 takes you to the Hollywood Hills, to Los Angeles beaches and the San Francisco suburbs. It’s a few months after the original game, and California is infected. The U.S. government quarantined the whole area, and that’s great for you—you’re immune!
If Dying Light is about giving you the tools to run away, Dead Island 2 seems to be focused on giving you tools for murder. The trailer for Dead Island 2 is altogether sillier than the original’s, and more in line with what Yager seems to be going for here—for the survivors, this new zombie-filled world is a playground. Like, a consequence-free murder playground. A playground for murder.
It’s fun killing zombies, okay?
Dying Light looks like Techland maybe regretted the silly tone of the first game and might be heading towards something more serious. Dead Island 2 looks like it embraces the silly tone and is leaning into it. Though I really enjoy Dying Light’s parkour mechanics, neither game looks particularly “better” at this stage. They both look like interesting spins on Dead Island’s foundation—provided you aren’t sick of zombies yet.