It’s been a long time coming, with delays and dev changes interfering with the long-awaited return of the Dead Island games, but our first taste of the gruesome, anatomically correct FLESH system was eight-ish hours of blood-soaked, skull-cracking, skin-shredding fun, and now we’re counting down the days to the Dead Island 2 release date.
I lead with the gore because, as you may have seen from the trailers, this is the biggest selling point of the zombie game. Dambuster’s FLESH system – Fully Locational Evisceration Simulator for Humanoids, obviously – offers procedural destruction of the undead, with each layer of skin, muscle, and bone able to be ripped apart in colourful, animated realism. Depending on your weapon and attack of choice, you’ll see limbs sliced off, skin melted with acid, bones cracked, and almost any gruesome death you can think up. As gross as it might sound, it is incredibly satisfying whittling down zombies layer by layer.
There’s more to Dead Island 2 than just its gore system, though, so let’s get back to basics. With six Dead Island 2 slayers to choose from, I went through my first playthrough as Carla, a feisty Latina stuntwoman who’s as afraid of zombies as she is soaring through rings of fire – that’s to say not at all. You can’t change Dead Island 2 characters once you’ve started, due to their unique stats, skill cards, and innate abilities, and I’ll choose another slayer on my full playthrough – but only because I don’t think Carla fits how I want to play the game. It’s easy to choose a slayer you like the look of, but with Amy’s incredible agility and Ryan’s muscle, for example, you can see how each one suits a specific playstyle.
What I could see from my few hours with Carla though – and my few minutes with each of the others – is how much emphasis there is on humour, relatability, and personality with each of the slayers. Each character’s quirks tell you a little bit more about them the further through the story you get, be it Carla’s overly-familiar nicknames for NPCs or Dani’s potty Irish mouth.
As for the general feel of the gameplay, if you’ve played the 2011 original, then you’re going to be in familiar territory across the Dead Island 2 map. Not literally, as you’re now fending off hordes of undead in the City of Angels – also known as HELL-A – but it retains plenty of features the first introduced. The in-game UI is very similar, NPC side quests feature heavily once again, and lootable suitcases are plentiful. This is in equal parts a good and bad thing, because despite the new coat of bloody paint, at times I felt like traipsing through the streets fending off walkers wasn’t really offering me anything the original didn’t. While this could just be due to the limitations of the preview build – the main game has plenty more to come in the form of more enemy types, weapons, and unlockables – it does mean first impressions aren’t as strong as they could have been.
The first few hours of the game aren’t quite as empty as I may have made them sound, because two gruesome bosses show their faces before long, implying there are plenty more to come, too. Even better than early-game bosses, though, are early-game bosses that hit hard, and these certainly provide a challenge. In fact, the whole game so far seems to have considerably increased in difficulty since the original. The first boss – a bride who got infected on her wedding day – acts as a tutorial of sorts, with fewer environmental tools than the rest of the game, instead teaching you to be aware of your surroundings and learn the boss’ movements. The second introduces more of these interactable set pieces – and more out-of-the-box ways to come out victorious – and you can really put what you learnt from the first to practise, demonstrating that everything in Dead Island 2 is intentional, clever, and well thought out.
Dead Island 2 being intentional and clever brings us back around to how impressive the combat is. With the FLESH system in place, it doesn’t matter to me whether the story is a little lacklustre, or the voice lines somewhat cheesy, they’re not really what I’m here for. I’m here to slice and dice, burn flesh, and crack zombie skulls. Every type of weapon has its own impact on a zombie’s flesh, each heavy attack, each killing animation, all are intricately thought out and crafted around how that weapon would actually affect a fleshy, undead human – and trying these out is where I had the most fun. It’s easy enough to avoid the majority of walkers and shamblers, but rather than opting for stealth, take the opportunity to try different weapons, melt them with caustic acid, electrocute them with water and a nearby exposed wire, shoot that fuel tank next to them. Then go take a look at the damage you’ve done. Sound gross? Well, yes, it is. But that’s exactly what’s great about Dead Island 2.
I have no doubt there’s a lot more to be uncovered when we get our hands on the full game, like more Dead Island 2 blueprints for example. So far, I haven’t tested enough weapon variants to discuss the workbench fully or some of the other mechanics that open themselves up as you progress further, but what I have seen is enough to leave me wanting more, and desperate to get back to the blood-drenched streets of HELL-A.