Dead Island 2 Explained: Gameplay & Combat Mechanics

Dambuster Studios' Adam Duckett, Tim Donks, and Matt Abbott explained their approach to setting up Dead Island 2's gameplay mechanics, talked about damage types and character speed, and discussed enemy AI and user interface.

Dambuster's Gameplay Team

Adam Duckett, Design Director: Our gameplay team is made up of multiple disciplines. We are lucky to have a very talented team spread across Design, Engineering, Art, Animation, Audio, Production, Narrative, and QA, and by all departments pulling together towards a common goal, we achieve our best work.

For smaller features that we have experience crafting, we use a waterfall approach through existing pipelines. However, for our core features, that prop up our games' core pillars, we run multi-discipline strike teams using agile methodology to achieve results. Brutal Melee Combat, one of our core pillars encapsulated two of our biggest and longest-running strike teams. The Gore Tech team, responsible for the fantastic Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids (F.L.E.S.H.), with Dan Evans as product owner. The Core Combat team, focused on both the player and enemy mechanics, with Anna Marsh doing a fantastic job as Product Owner. Often through development, we saw the best results when these two teams aligned with a shared vision on what ultimately became our core second-to-second experience.

Quality Over Quantity

Adam Duckett: It was important for us to create a Dead Island game that fans of the franchise would appreciate, whilst, at the same time, ensuring that new players wouldn't need to have played the first game to have fun. There are core aspects that are non-negotiable when making a Dead Island game. Zombies, melee combat, multiple aspirational characters, pulpy satirical humor, and it's within these non-negotiable elements that we look to build on the foundations of the IP but aim to polish up and raise the quality bar.

Our mantra at Dambusters is quality over quantity, and so we ensure that any new feature work can be executed up to quality in a realistic time frame, rather than cramming in additional features that we would not have time to deliver on. Once we have time allocated for these top-tier features, we can look to innovate and agree on other features we'd like to introduce or re-work and cherry-pick the ones that will add significant value to players. For Dead Island 2, these included the skill card system. We wanted to provide players with more meaningful choices, so we allow our slayers to swap cards freely, with the majority available to all characters. It also included pushing environmental hazards as part of the combat sandbox, adding more interaction into the game world, and giving slayers further combat options.

Approach to Combat Mechanics

Adam Duckett: We aimed to keep the combat as fluid and responsive as possible and not punish players for experimenting or changing their minds mid-action. Keeping the zombies at bay requires quick reflexes, and the best slayers are able to react quickly to any combat encounter, therefore animations are snappy, we allow players to interrupt their actions, and our core combat is physics driven. Many hours were spent by the team tweaking chaining points on the moves to ensure maximum fluidity. Mechanics like stamina and weapon durability are generous to keep the combat symphony going, and slayers will never find themselves without a combat option. 

Our approach to developing content at Dambuster is to focus on one aspect that proves the feature has the legs to make it into the game. Regarding weapons, it all started with the Machete. The team spent months developing the core experience of the machete vs. a single walker. It provided a solid baseline and a lot of learnings on what worked and what didn’t. Once we had something we were happy with, we chose another weapon category, for example, Short One-Handed; a Dagger, Weighty Two-Handed; a Sledgehammer, and so on.

Eventually, we had a weapon from each weapon category to a point where we were happy with the weight and feel, which ultimately governed the experience in the hands of the slayers. After that, it’s about finding small points of difference between weapons in the same category. As well as data tweaks for speed, damage, durability, etc., we can assign a weapon profile to give it a suggested use in the game. Weapon profiles come with perks and govern how a weapon performs critical hits. Through the combination of these levers, our goal is to ensure that each weapon feels special and complements specific playstyles.

Setting Up Damage Types

Adam Duckett: Our approach was to create a combat sandbox, where we give slayers a variety of damage types to take down zombies in interesting and innovative ways. Outside of physical damage, there are an additional six different damage types in Dead Island 2. Shock, Fire, Caustic, Bleed, Tear, and Impact. It was important to have multiple ways to trigger these damage types, these were split into four categories – weapon mods, curveballs, environmental, and zombies. These elements were then applied liberally to each of the categories.

Take Fire as an example, Cremator mods, Molotov Cocktails, fuel/explosive objects, Burning Runners/Walkers, Inferno Crushers, and Firestorm Slobbers. Once we had the damage types agreed it was fairly straightforward to design the content in line with each. The overall direction is to give slayers as many ways to trigger these damage types and ensure that everything behaved as our players would expect it to. Need to start a fire, but have no Cremator weapons, dropkick a burning walker into a puddle of fuel.

In terms of challenges, there were two that the team faced. The first being to differentiate the damage types and ensure it wasn't a case of one weapon fits all scenarios, to resolve this the team ensured there are key points of difference. For example, fire takes a pure damage approach, shock will stun zombies in place, and caustic is more about damage over time. The second is to ensure that there were specific counter setups to any given weapon type, in Dead Island 2, using elemental damage against an enemy of the same damage type will result in no damage being taken, switching to a different strategy would be needed to progress. There are also certain enemies, like the Firefighter, that are immune to multiple damage types, in this case, Cremator, Shock, and Caustic. 

Speed & Traversal

Adam Duckett: Our slayers are infected by the Autophage and that unlocks potential for us to play around with what is possible in the real world! They can run faster, hit harder, take more punishment, but they are not a superhero, and this is fantastic for a game designer! It opens up lots of potential to be fun-driven! To find the fun when it comes to movement speed there were three things to consider. How in control a player feels of their chosen slayer, can they move around fluidly, and quickly, but also have enough poise and control to execute their moves in a variety of combat encounters.

Second, zombie movement speed and ensuring that players can engage with zombies, use movement to evade, but not to escape whilst always maintaining a feeling of threat and apprehension. If we set the movement speed too high, the zombie threat diminished, or the walk cycle sped up so much that it looked comical! Too slow and our playtests highlighted frustration or a feeling of sluggishness.  

Finally, the game world itself plays a huge role in understanding the right movement speed. It was a key decision for us early on to focus on up close and personal melee combat, so no drivable vehicles, this early call fed into some fantastic early collaboration between the game designers, level designers, and world builders to lock down the metrics and craft the early versions of the postcard L.A. locations.   

Tweaking Zombie AI

Tim Donks, Senior Game Designer: One of the biggest challenges that we faced was actually making the AI feel like zombies. While this sounds very simple as zombies aren't the smartest enemies found in video games it did mean we had to carefully design them. We had to carefully balance how often zombies attack as we don't want to make them feel too relentless. How many zombies can actually hit the players at the same time? What are the zombies doing when they aren't attacking the player?

Once we had a good foundation it was trying to incorporate all the things that the player could do to the zombies. To make the combat feel satisfying the hits need to feel like they pack a punch. This does mean the player is able to interrupt zombie attacks. Zombies that get interrupted all of the time aren't a threat to the player. So a lot of it came down to finding something that felt good to the player but also provided a challenge for the player. This also meant making sure that the player is able to tell what attacks zombies were about to do so they can react appropriately.

User Interface

Matt Abbott, Lead Game Designer: With the game interface, the goal was to present the player with the most relevant information in an easily digestible and visually appealing manner. We know that for different types of players what is most relevant to them can be different, so we designed the HUD with customization in mind so that players who prefer the immersive horror experience can really strip things back while others, who want to min-max their slayer builds, can see those juicy damage numbers and status notifications.

Similarly, within the menus, we continue that approach of at-a-glance high-level information with sub-menus allowing deeper dives into things like weapon details and zompedia entries. The 'skill deck' interface is a big example of this approach, whereby we wanted players to be able to have a visually interesting overview of their slayer skill build, be able to dive into what each 'skill card' offered them to their experience, and easily experiment to swap out these aspects on-the-fly without getting overwhelmed.

Adam Duckett, Design Director at Dambuster Studios

Tim Donks, Senior Game Designer at Dambuster Studios

Matt Abbott, Lead Game Designer at Dambuster Studios

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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