Ahead of this Dead Island 2 review, I struggled to form an opinion having experienced a mix of delight and disappointment and found that others experienced the same – so that is exactly the hook we’re going with. Dead Island 2 is a slow starter, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get infected.
We begin our story after the last evac plane out of Los Angeles crashes, leaving you, and the limited other survivors, stranded during a zombie apocalypse. You get bitten, you’re immune, and someone tells you you’re the key to a vaccine. Sure, we’ve heard it all before. But unlike The Last of Us, we’re not really here for the story.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about the Dead Island 2 characters or story, who are mostly self-interested actors, drunks, and bodybuilders in a deliberately stereotypical take on LA. Some get a little development, while others never become more than a glint in your rear-view mirror. The writing is inconsistent. It can be downright irritating at times, at others it’s simply lackluster. It’s better at being funny though, with quirky quest names, callbacks to the first game (“Who do you Voodoo, bitch?”), and of course some low-brow humor (“Be Randy for all of us”). Occasionally, though, this does stray into Duke Nukem-esque digs at low-hanging fruit despite the laudable representation on show in its main cast.
Dead Island 2’s commitment to fun is more successful in its gameplay. If you’re thinking about picking the zombie game up for the story alone, you’ll probably be disappointed, but that isn’t the criticism it might sound. The story improves as you play, and even manages a couple of twists, but the game’s combat, and more specifically Dambuster’s F.L.E.S.H. system (Fully Locational Evisceration Simulator for Humanoids), delivers hours of customizable and evolving gameplay. It almost feels like the story is there to support the gore rather than the other way around.
Each model consists of layers of skin, muscle, and bone, all anatomically correct to the human body. As you deal more damage – and more types of damage – you’ll be able to see how your weapons affect your poor undead enemies. Hit them with caustic acid and their skin will literally melt. Throw a shuriken just right, and you’ll chop their limbs or even their head clean off. Burn them with fire, and even the largest zombie variants will stumble toward you in their final moments as cremated skeletons. Testing these methods out, and which work best on which zombies, is part of the learning curve, and part of the fun.
Like a zombie inflicted with fire damage, though, there’s a slow burn to Dead Island 2, and it isn’t always smooth. Indeed the early stages can get a little tiresome, especially if you pick the wrong slayer. You’ll notice yourself using the same mechanics, the same moves, and the same finishers as you learn to fend off zombies from every angle. Some of the early skills can be hard to master – for instance, I found Amy’s starting ‘Block’ skill trickier to use effectively than Carla’s ‘Dodge’. Across two playthroughs I found these early stages equal parts overwhelming and boring, but as you unlock more weapon upgrades and skill cards, the game really opens up.
The workbench has always been a vital part of the Dead Island experience, and finding various blueprints scattered around the Dead Island 2 map enables you to create some of the wildest and most gruesome weapons I’ve ever had the joy of using in a game. Customisation is at the heart of Dead Island 2, and the more you unlock, the more you can lean in to how you want to play. Do you prefer melting zombies with acid or setting their flesh on fire? Build your weapons around that desire and change them as you change your mind. Of course skill has to be taken into consideration here as well, as does your overall toolkit – some zombies are immune to certain effects, so it’s best to have at least one of each in your arsenal – but you really are given the freedom to slaughter the undead how you want. And that’s when the real fun begins.
While you’re upgrading your weapons, you’ll also be picking up skill cards and filling out a deck of abilities, survivor skills, slayer-specific skills, and more. This adds to the customisation element of the game significantly, as you can play around with these skills, building a deck with those you like best. The skill deck also gives Dead Island 2 considerable replayability, picking different slayers and different cards for a new experience.
This escalation in your skills and arsenal is perfectly matched by the difficulty curve. There are an array of Dead Island 2 zombies, with each variant – particularly in the later game – displaying their own terrifying abilities. When you get to use weapons of ‘superior’ rarity, you’ll find yourself taking out shamblers, walkers, and even runners with a single counter attack, making it easier to thin the crowd. However, crushers, screamers, and the truly horrifying butchers will appear more regularly to keep you on your toes, and that’s before you engage with their fire-breathing or acid-spitting counterparts. The same goes for the Dead Island 2 bosses, which keep pace nicely with your own growing lethality and introduce you to new zombie variants before they later become regular foes.
You’ll still die. A lot. Dead Island 2 is a fair challenge even on normal difficulty, with big set-piece battles playing out as combat puzzles: to solve them, you’ll need to learn the layout of an arena, which zombies spawn at which times and when to drop your abilities accordingly, and other such rhythms that’ll take multiple runs to internalise. Make note of things in the environment around you, and don’t get preoccupied with big bosses, as they’ll usually surprise you by bringing in the cavalry when you least expect it.
Another point in favour of Dead Island 2, then, is its respawn mechanic. No matter how much you die, you’ll never lose too much progress, but if you die several times to the same boss or quest, it will send you even further back than the first respawn. This might sound infuriating, but it’s actually forgiving; it lets you take a broader look at your surroundings, pick up a few extra medkits, or upgrade some of your weapons at a workbench. You’ll even keep any weapons you might have picked up in your previous attempt, and some of the zombies you killed will stay dead. It’s a breath of fresh air, especially considering we’ve just had a zombie game that keeps respawning you at the same point before a fight with no means of improving your situation before your next attempt – I’m looking at you, Resident Evil 4 Remake.
There is no denying that Dead Island 2 is beautiful. You have enough freedom to roam that you could call it a semi-open-world game, and even when surrounded by blood-thirsty zombies, you’re invited to just take a stroll along Venice Beach under the sunset, view Beverly Hills from one of several stunning vantage points, and generally smell the roses – that invitation is in the blueprints and collectibles you’ll find while you explore. The Dead Island 2 environment isn’t just about long walks on the beach though, but how you can interact with it. And this, if I may go back to combat, is where the game peaks. Some of the most fun I’ve had in HELL-A so far is making use of the well-placed fuel canisters, caustic-x tanks, and even some zombie variants themselves that will blow up hordes of nearby undead when shot just right.
Dead Island 2 is an uneven experience; its ups and downs might make you feel like you’re on a rollercoaster on the end of the Santa Monica pier. But the highs are worth sticking out the lows. Stick through the slow-burn opening, take the time to enjoy and explore the world, upgrade your toolkit, and experiment with it, and the fun you’ll have dominating the zombie hordes will carry you through the moments of forced writing and forgettable characters. Who needs them, anyway? You’re the one slaying.
If you enjoyed this review and want to start playing, you can get Dead Island 2 right now right here:
Dead Island 2 review
There’s a lot of fun to be had slaying zombies on the streets and beaches of HELL-A, but if that first bite doesn’t infect you, you might find – like the protagonist – that your experience gets stronger as you play.