Dead Island 2 Review
Like ice cream and jelly beans, zombies come in many flavors. You’ve got your slow shamblers, your runners and your poison-spewing retchers. Sometimes they hunt alone, sometimes in gore-smeared packs inviting you to a dinner where you’re the main course. Like the zombies themselves, there is a staggering array of games and other media with a zombie theme. They usually sort themselves into one of two approaches. One genre of game focuses on avoiding the zombies in their infinite, deadly variety. The other type, which definitely includes Dead Island 2, is built on killing zombies as creatively as possible. The question is: can you survive, not just the zombie plague, but another zombie-themed game?
I Love Hell-A
It has been a long minute, so let’s recap. 2011’s Dead Island was an open world, first person action game set on the fictional tropical island of Banoi. You play as one of four characters and you are, naturally, immune to whatever plague has birthed the zombie infestation. Using melee weapons, and later in the game, guns, you dispatch as many zombies as possible in your quest to escape the island paradise. Though beset by some tech issues, the game was one of the best looking Xbox 360 titles. It definitely fulfilled its mission statement of gleeful and creative zombie killing, in part hampered by an annoying stamina system.
Development Hell Comes to an End
Fast forward a decade of stop-and-start development, and Dead Island returns with a sequel that retains and refines all the fun of the original, adds some new ideas, and ditches a lot of what didn’t work the first time. The bones are very familiar. Almost exactly the same, actually. This time the number of playable characters has been increased to six. They’re all immune to the zombie plague and they each have two RPG-like starting perks. Once, again, your goal is to escape, but not a tropical island. Instead, the game takes place in an infested Los Angeles and its surrounding communities. The setting couldn’t be more perfect.
When they decided to invade a suburban shopping mall in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, zombies became metaphors. They’ve been used to comment on mindless consumer culture, a societal lack of humanity and the dangers of science running amok. In Dead Island 2, the humor and satire focuses on the cult of personality, vapid entertainers, ravenous social media and people who are famous for no apparent reason. A lot of the jokes are unsubtle and obvious, but at least for me, the story and humor worked pretty well to keep things light and moving along. Dead Island 2 has the feel of an old school shooter. Don’t expect narrative nuance or emotional range.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Whichever slayer you pick, the story arc is fundamentally the same. As LA is collapsing from the zombie plague, you catch a ride on a plane bound for anywhere else. But there’s zombies aboard, and the plane crashes. You save the life of a popular actress named Emma and she invites you to her home in Bel Air, a ritzy sanctuary for rich and famous refugees. From there, you follow a narrative bread crumb trail that takes you to various iconic locations like Beverly Hills, Venice Beach, Hollywood Boulevard and the Santa Monica Pier. For all its extreme gore and dismemberment, jump scares and horror, Dead Island 2’s tone is largely satiric, more “Deadstyles of the Rich and Famous” than The Last of US, Resident Evil, or even Dying Light. It’s amusing enough and some of the NPCs are engaging riffs on celebrity culture.
Unlike the first game’s open world, Dead Island 2 is an almost obsessively linear experience, although there are a ton of optional side missions and nooks and crannies to explore for loot. Most of the side missions involve — you guessed — surviving more zombie attacks. However, the game is none the worse for its linear form. I’d personally rather have a well-paced, directed narrative for a change than an open world and another bout with decision paralysis. Additionally, while the broad strokes of the story progression are scripted, there’s a great deal of variety in how the player can approach combat. All that aside, there were places where I would have traded another zombie encounter for greater variation in mission design.
Combat in the FLESH
While the narrative and environments give Dead Island 2 momentum and a sense of place, killing zombies is the formerly-beating heart of the game. It’s simply the most literally visceral, detailed and gore-infused zombie killing ever seen in the genre. In large part, this comes from the FLESH system. The FLESH system models bodies in such a way that they tear, break and squirt apart very realistically. Weapons cut through skin, fat and organs, and bones break in articulated places. Different zombie types and bosses come apart in unique ways, but underneath, the FLESH system allows for some gloriously gory takedowns. It has a practical gameplay purpose aside from stomach-churning gore. Cutting the legs off a fast moving zombie renders them nearly harmless, for example.
As Dead Island 2 progresses, areas add new type of enemies, and the effect becomes cumulative. Bosses and mini-bosses come back as enemies out in the wild as well. There are garden variety brain-eaters, but lots of special ability zombies, like those with electrical charges, fire damage, swarms of bees or explosives taped to their rotting torsos. If you’ve played even a few action RPGs, you can probably guess that there are weapons or consumables that are weak or strong against different enemies. Dead Island 2 gets plenty challenging when multiple types of zombie surround you at once, in part due to the first person camera.
Because zombies rarely attack alone, part of combat is crowd control and using special “curveballs” to distract or otherwise dismember the undead. For example, one of my favorites was luring a crowd of zombies with rotten meat, then blowing them apart with a pipe bomb. Great fun. Dead Island 2 has no difficulty settings, and it does have some spikes where the challenge jumps unexpectedly.
Play Your Cards, Right?
Like the first Dead Island, the game has a very large number of melee weapons like clubs, pipes, tire irons, crowbars and bladed weapons like machetes, upgraded at workbenches and fitted with effects like electricity, fire or extra bleed damage. Later in the game there are guns, too. Aside from weapon upgrades, players use a skill card system to add special abilities and upgrade their character. These can be mixed and matched at any time, and the system is full of choices and tradeoffs. I appreciated that Dead Island 2 did not clutter its old-school shooter design with too many systems. There’s a lot of stuff to pick up or scavenge from corpses. Here too, the game doesn’t waste time with useless items. If you find it, you can use it for something. Or, if not, you can break it down for parts.
Art and level design varies from good to excellent, and the game’s various Hell-A inspired areas are interesting to explore. The game has sharp textures but here and there, some spaces feel a bit stark. One of my favorite levels was a vast film studio, with various sets, special effects and lots of ways to use the environment to kill the zombies. There isn’t a day and night cycle per se, but missions start at different times of day.
NPCs look good, but you won’t mistake them for state of the art, performance captured masterpieces. The zombies come in enough varieties to be interesting over the 20+ hour game, but you’ll see a lot of the same animations reused. On the other hand, the voice acting is uniformly effective, even if the writing is uneven. There is a huge amount of voiced dialogue — maybe too much — and endless quips and jokes. Slayers spend a lot of time narrating their experience. Thankfully, players can limit their slayer’s chatter. Dead Island 2’s sound design is excellent. Its music combines licensed tracks and understated, mostly ambient music. It’s the source of some audio jump scares and to remind you that zombies are afoot, but it isn’t terribly memorable.
Killing zombies alone is fun, but the glorious gory goodness promises to be even better with friends in co-op. At least on PS5, graphics options are pretty bare bones, but aside from that, there’s lots of ways to customize the controls and UI. I had a few minor issues with bugs, but nothing game-breaking, and the developers have a long list of fixes in the pipeline.
Back from the Dead?
Is Dead Island 2 a huge evolution from the first game? No, but it is a significant improvement.
Dead Island 2 is gory and gruesome, with action that is often ridiculously entertaining. It has just enough narrative and social satire to push the game along, and enough depth, systems and mechanics to make killing thousands of zombies engaging for its substantial run time. Dead Island 2 might not be the deepest swimming pool in Bel Air, but playing it was the most creative, scary fun I’ve had with a shooter in quite some time.
***PS5 code provided by the publisher for review***
- Old school mechanics
- Fun combat
- Cool dismemberment system
- Creative zombie killing
- Amusing story and acting
- Maybe too long
- Not a huge evolution
- Can be repetitious