It’s not every day we see a game that’s fallen through development hell for nearly a decade finally come out. And in those rare cases, the end product is almost always a strange mishmash of ideas. Dead Island 2 manages to navigate this with a surprisingly high amount of quality all things considered. Everything that made the first Dead Island special is here for the most part. But beyond that, Dead Island 2 struggles to leave a lasting mark on the zombie genre.
There’s a big problem with most zombie games that we’ve seen over the last 15 years or so. For the most part, they all feel like the same kind of experience. Dead Island 2 has all the traits that befit a zombie game as you know it. All the while desperately struggling to say or do anything remotely unique. In some ways, this is a breath of fresh air for those that may want a simpler experience. But to me, it’s a game that’s staler than the rotting corpses I’m dropkicking into swimming pools.
Somehow, Dead Island has returned
Dead Island 2 uses the same first-person zombie brawling action as the first game. You’ll be picking up spare bits of wood and tire irons to bash the undead to their second death. All the while you’ll be exploring the lush location of Los Angeles and helping survivors deal with the apocalypse while finding a way out yourself. Again, if you’ve played another game like this, you know what’s in store. That familiar mold does allow Dead Island 2 to have a little fun, though.
The Los Angeles setting is vivid and made up of cool locations. The sights and scenes of Bel-Air are contrasted brilliantly by the gory carnage on its suburban roads. And you’re even able to explore abandoned film and TV studios that closed up shop right before the outbreak occurred. Hollywood sometimes feels like an overused location in a lot of media, but here it’s used to surprisingly good effect. It provides a neat backdrop for the zombie-killing carnage you’ll take part in. But once again it all feels like it’s been done before.
The clichés of Hollywood feel right at home within Dead Island 2‘s incredibly generic narrative. If you’ve seen any other piece of zombie media, then you know exactly what you’re in for. This isn’t necessarily terrible, but anyone that’s looking for a good storyline is likely to be disappointed. Zombie stories in general are all fairly generic at this point, but Dead Island 2 is on a whole other level. To the point where it feels like the game might be making fun of itself.
Dead Island 2‘s areas aren’t laid out in an open world. Instead, Los Angeles is made up of 10 big areas that you can explore that each have their own quests and things to find. Each level has its own secrets, and places to gain extra loot. And you can always return to previous areas to further explore and finish quests you haven’t done yet. This is one of Dead Island 2‘s better choices as each area feels tight and perfectly sized. It’s proof that an open world just isn’t the best format sometimes.
Looting, shooting, and booting
Dead Island 2‘s core loop revolves around scavenging the environment for resources while fighting off plenty of zombies. You have access to all sorts of melee weapons, guns, and abilities that increase your lethality. And yes, the dropkick is very good. Your basic moves consist of a light attack and a heavy attack. Plus, you can charge up the heavy attack to deal more damage. There are a lot of bloody moves for sure, and the game’s gory detail makes these moves feel far more impactful.
Regular attacks don’t drain stamina as they did in the first Dead Island. Stamina is instead drained using moves like the dropkick. In the end, this is a good change as it keeps combat fast-paced and encourages you to be on the offensive, while carefully timing defensive abilities. Zombies also have a meter under their health that could be compared to Sekiro: Shadow Die Twice’s posture meter. Once this is depleted you can perform a short quick time event to perform a powerful attack. Combat isn’t a complex system by any means, but it is satisfying to do battle with the undead.
Dead Island 2 gives you a lot to play around with besides melee weapons. There are a bunch of guns to find, too. And mixing up the weapons you use keeps combat fresh and interesting. You also have Curveballs which are throwable items like Shurikens and Pipe Bombs that have a cooldown. Combat is generally very satisfying and Dead Island 2 delivers on the enjoyment of smacking zombies around with a golf club. And it’s able to break up that monotony with guns and abilities that are fun to use.
Plan out your arsenal
Each weapon is suited to different tasks. Big blunt hammers are good for breaking limbs, and their wide swings can knock back several zombies at once. While knives can deal lots of damage to one zombie at a time. Different weapon types also have profiles that have unique effects. Frenzy, for example, causes an effect where rapid attacks can trigger critical hits with a buff to attack speed. Then there’s Maiming which refills your stamina when you break or sever a limb and doing this also does critical damage.
Dambuster Studios has not held back on the visceral detail here. Eyes can pop out and dangle outside of skulls, zombie brains are exposed as you bash heads in, and skin can be torn away from bodies to expose muscle attached to the bone. If you’re coming to a zombie game like this then this level of gore should be welcome. But it’s worth mentioning how visceral it can be at times.
Dead Island 2 also has quite a few zombie variants creeping around. Shamblers and Walkers are the most common enemy type and both act like typical zombies. They’re fairly slow-moving and don’t put up too much of a fight. Walkers are slightly faster and more aggressive than Shamblers, but they’re still not much trouble. Runners are, as the name implies, much faster zombies that can chase after you and dodge your attacks. And there are plenty more unique variants like Crushers and Screamers.
Dead Island 2 gives you the choice of six different characters at the start. Amy, Jacob, Bruno, Carla, Dani, and Ryan are all fairly unique. Each has its own Innate Skills that clue you into its sort of build. Amy is a character that favors Agility and deals extra damage to isolated zombies. Ryan is much tankier in comparison and regains health whenever he knocks down a zombie.
Your character choice won’t have a dramatic effect on the game at large. No matter who you pick, you’re still playing by the same rules. Sure, in certain situations a character’s Innate Skills may give them an edge, but it’s not something you necessarily notice during the game’s hectic moments.
The biggest difference between each character is their personality in cutscenes and gameplay. Throughout Dead Island 2, your chosen character will constantly have things to say about what’s going on, and plays a pivotal role in driving the game’s narrative. Overall this is a very positive move as playing a silent protagonist in a game like this feels a bit weird. Unfortunately these characters try their best to be funny, and it doesn’t really land. But every now and then I did enjoy the sheer cornyness of Bruno’s dialogue.
Since this is a zombie game, you can bet there’s crafting here. You can craft weapon upgrades and apply different perks to each weapon. For example, you can upgrade your trusty bat to deal shock or fire damage, and increase its swing speed, damage, or durability to make it more effective. But these choices don’t necessarily feel all that important. And the crafting system itself is about as complex as the first Dead Island. It’s extremely simple and could have done with a little more creativity.
Character progression also takes a fairly unique turn here. Just like in the first Dead Island, the sequel has you earning experience points from killing zombies and finishing quests. But unlike most games of this kind, there is no skill tree to pluck skills from. Instead, as you level up and explore Los Angeles, you’ll discover Skill Cards. These are sorted into Abilities, Survivor, Slayer, and Numen cards. And these are how you’ll build out your character. Each character also has their own unique skill cards that indicate the sort of proficiencies they have. Bruno, for example, has Backstab which increases his damage when attacking zombies from behind.
Skill cards are a neat way to mix up character progression, but I did feel frustrated whenever I found a card I didn’t like. When this happens it feels like a waste of a level up. I know that skill tree fatigue is a thing we all have felt at some point, but in a game like this I think I’d have preferred that.
Dead Island 2‘s co-operative mode is also there for a reason. There’s more fun to be had if you can join the mayhem with some friends. Annoyingly the first portion of the game requires you to go it alone. But co-op becomes available after the first hour or so. If you’ve got friends to play with, Dead Island 2 is a good game to play together. But it’s equally strong as a single-player experience, too.
A long time coming for a disappointing experience
Dead Island 2‘s biggest problem is that nothing feels particularly special. It’s a game that knows what it wants to be, that’s for sure. And if all you’re after is a very simple zombie-killing experience, then that’s what you’ll get. But in 2023, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed at how barebones this game is. There’s still a lot of fun to be had here, don’t get me wrong. In fact, dropkicking a zombie into a swimming pool never gets old. There’s just that nagging frustration in the back of my mind when I think about how dated the overall experience feels.
The bottom line is that Dead Island 2 has moments of pure fun offset by its vivid but boring contents. It’s unfortunately held back by dated design, a generic storyline, and underbaked character progression. It’s a game that you can sink your teeth into, but it leaves a bland aftertaste.