It’s genuinely hard to believe I’m sitting here writing a review for Dead Island 2. The industry has seen more than its fair share of game debuts that proceed to evaporate into history. It’s far more rare to see a game or franchise that was assumed dead rise from its grave. In the case of Dead Island 2, we have exactly that.
Dead Island released in 2011 and went on to enjoy moderate success and spawned a stand-alone expansion, Riptide, in 2013. It was at E3 in 2014 when the infamous “Jogger” announcement trailer debuted for its follow up, Dead Island 2.
But with Techland leaving the IP to develop Dying Light, publisher Deep Silver would end up handing the project to multiple developers over the next few years. Spec Ops: The Line developer, Yager Interactive, first worked on the project before Deep Silver cut ties with them. It was then handed to Crackdown 3 developer, Sumo Digital, but Deep Silver ended up pulling the project from them as well.
In the end Deep Silver landed on Dambuster Studios, developers of Homefront: The Revolution, to finally bring Dead Island 2 to life. So then, Dead Island 2 is finally here, a mere 12 years after the original.
You’ve Got Red on You
Dead Island 2 opens with a major plane crash and your chosen protagonist escaping the wreckage. There are six different characters to choose from, each with their own personalities, passive skills, and competencies. While the introductory sequence is the same for each character, they are individually voiced with their own personalities and quips.
I chose Jacob, who just so happens to be the cover character in the key art. He’s British and sarcastic, so it felt like a natural fit, if I’m honest. And to that end, the protagonists are filled with personality. Regardless of whom you choose, they each have their own mannerisms, quips, and commentary throughout, and it adds a lot to the experience no matter who you choose.
Once you’ve chosen your character, you are introduced to “Hell-A” and the beginning of your zombie-slaying adventure. The synopsis for Dead Island 2 is about as straight-forward as you could imagine. There’s a zombie apocalypse, you learn that you are immune, and you attempt to use that immunity to escape and benefit the world. As you might have guessed, everything doesn’t go according to plan.
He’s Got an Arm Off!
To bring a zombie game to life, you need, well, zombies. A lot of them preferably. Given Dead Island 2’s setting being Los Angeles, the team at Dambuster Studios set out to not only creates masses of hungry biters, but to have them represent the varying personalities of the city itself. You’ll find muscle-bound crushers, workers of varying professions, and of course, joggers. Each presents a different challenge but thanks to the ingenious “F.L.E.S.H.” system, dispatching them has never been more fun.
The studio has talked extensively about the physics modeling they built for Dead Island 2. According to the team, the F.L.E.S.H. system (for those wondering, it stands for Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids) procedurally generates damage to the zombies based on location, weapon type, and status effect damage. And this damage is progressive, so it builds over time.
This allows players nearly endless creativity in how they execute the walking dead. Watching early gameplay demonstrations of the system in action had me intrigued, but I was curious to see if the final game delivered on the promise.
Boy does it ever.
Easily my favorite aspect of Dead Island 2 is finding new, creative ways to send hordes of zombies back to the grave from whence they came. With a wide range of weaponry discoverable, you’re frequently able to experiment with new methods of destruction. Use a katana to slice zombies to shreds with lightning quick efficiency? Check. Prefer a mallet to bludgeon them into a puddle? Sure. Or how about a pike to critically stab them repeatedly from a great range? Go for it. The ability to take down zombies in an endless variety of ways is the most impressive I’ve ever experienced in a zombie game, hands-down.
What’s most extraordinary, though, is how detailed it is. Damaging limbs and chopping off heads is just the beginning. As an example, while hiding behind a fence, I began to stab a zombie in the belly with a pitchfork. At first, it left a few holes and began bleeding. But as I kept poking, it eventually opened up until organs began to slip out, and then dangle, until eventually all that was left was a bloody pile of ex-zombie parts. It’s truly amazing, and I hope we see it in other games down the line.
Of course, adding to the mayhem are status effects that can be used to create further chaos. The full gamut of modifiers is here, including fire, caustic, electricity, bleed, force, etc. Each of these has its own merits against specific enemies, and, yes, the F.L.E.S.H. system responds accordingly to each as well. I’ll just say that melting the skin off of a rotting corpse is rather…horrific.
But the most fun can be found in using the environmental combos around you. Throwing an electric weapon in a pool filled with zombies or shooting a gas tank next to a horde covered in oil simply never gets old. Witnessing the resulting shower of blood and guts raining down is something straight out of an over-the-top B-horror movie. In short, it’s glorious.
What’s the Matter? Never Taken a Shortcut Before?
Coming into Dead Island 2, having played Dead Island and the Dying Light series, I assumed it was an open-world adventure across Los Angeles. Rather, Dead Island 2 features ten hubs within L.A. that each act as individual locations with their own quests, side quests, and discoverable content. Progressing through the main campaign will introduce you to each of these areas, with a fast travel system being introduced approximately halfway through the game.
As much as I praised the zombie destruction in Dead Island 2 for being an incredible advancement, the level design is the antithesis. While the ten locations represent Los Angeles to their real-life counterparts and will take you to some interesting locations, such as mock-Hollywood movie studios, Venice Beach, and Hollywood Boulevard, none of them are especially interesting. Several of them are rather limited in scope, and each suffers from “faux open-world” syndrome: the areas are presented as vast and widely explorable, but they simply aren’t.
There’s clear pathing in many areas of the map with very little in the way offered for player agency. While you can clamber to some ledges here and there, and break the glass of some storefronts, that’s the extent of it. The ability to simply explore and discover is oddly limited, and it detracts heavily from the overall experience. As the original Dead Island excelled in this regard nearly a decade ago (as does Dying Light for what it’s worth), I found it very disappointing.
Compounding the issues are side quests and locations that offer very little variety. After you’ve used a fuse twenty times to unlock a door to get a weapon, or revisited a location to simply kill more zombies than you did initially, you grow numb to the initial excitement of it.
These limitations are especially disappointing as the game world itself is otherwise presented beautifully. Dambuster’s representation of Los Angeles covers all the bases, including hilltop mansions, beautiful sunsets, nighttime carnivals, and palm-tree lined streets. Each of them is highly detailed, and, as I’ve both worked in and traveled to L.A. many times, it felt instantly familiar, which is a compliment in itself.
Of course, Dead Island 2 also stays true to the initial reveal by poking fun at cultural elements of Los Angeles as well. If the “Hell-A” moniker wasn’t obvious enough for you, you’ll come across a number of snarky references and jokes referencing failed actresses, arrogant influencers, washed-up performers, and much more. Taken on the whole, it’s all in good fun and provides some laughs along the way.
I Did Not Call Her a Failed Actress!
During your trek, you’ll meet a random assortment of survivors, each with their own story to tell and problems to solve. Running with the B-movie theme and general humor of Dead Island, they range from goofy loners to minor stars of the movie industry. While the story itself isn’t exactly memorable, there’s some solid voice-acting, and it has more depth than I expected to find. In fact, if offered the choice of a zombie-game that attempts to take itself too seriously and falls flat or Dead Island 2, I’ll take the humorous, pun-filled antics of Dead Island 2 any day.
Dead Island 2 doesn’t feature traditional RPG, character-building aspects. Instead of a skill point system or continual power gains, it utilizes a card system to enhance your abilities over time. As you progress, you’ll unlock new cards that not only unlock new abilities entirely, but also enhance existing ones. Cards are unlocked with story and level-progression, but you can also find additional cards throughout the world.
By the end, I ended up appreciating the system more than I did initially. This is primarily because you don’t unlock the full scope of abilities until near the end of the game, which is a shame. While I understand the need for power escalation, and you’ll certainly need it during some of the late game missions, the combat is notably more fun once you have all the card slots unlocked. I feel Dead Island 2 could have benefited by moving the curve forward to provide players more variety earlier-on.
Regardless, once you have the full range open, you begin to feel like a super-hero. The ability to weave a path of destruction through a horde of zeds with unfettered fury is fantastic and it will have you searching out new opportunities to do just that.
How’s That for a Slice of Fried Gold?
One of the defining features of Dead Island was crafting unique, deadly weapons with the scraps you found around the city. This tradition continues in the sequel, and, because of the F.L.E.S.H. system, it’s even more fun than you remember.
You’ll have everything from swords, axes, staffs, clubs, claws, hammers, and much more at your disposal. They can then be modified at workbenches into truly diabolical tools of destruction. One of my personal favorites was a caustic pitchfork that I modified to be extremely durable. This allowed me to keep a safe distance while I stabbed and melted zombies repeatedly. Even after 20+ hours, I never tired of experimenting with the countless combinations at my disposal.
While melee weapons do have durability stats and wear down over time, you can fully repair them at workbenches and even level them up to match your ever-increasing player level. So, should you build a zombie-slayer that you can’t live without, you won’t have to, which is a welcome design feature.
Guns are available as well and can be extremely useful in tight situations. However, they are rarer than melee weapons and, sadly, have a low cap on the number of rounds you can carry for each type. In this vein, the game limits how often you can rely on them. While I understand the decision to a degree given the absurdity of the game at-large, I wish they would have found a different way to simply incentivize melee combat rather than artificially limiting ranged combat.
Have a Cold Pint and Wait for all this to Blow Over
I spent about 25 hours spent in Hell-A and still had a good amount of side content available. After finishing the main story, you can continue completing missions and explore the city for new tools of destruction. Dead Island 2 doesn’t feature any “end game” content, and, as I said, the side content isn’t necessarily interesting. But if you simply want to continue causing destruction, you’re free to do so.
My time in Hell-A was spent on PC where I had zero performance issues, and speaking with some peers on PlayStation 5, they stated the same. Dead Island 2 is well-polished and very smooth to play. For awareness, there aren’t any accessibility options outside of turning U.I. elements on and off, so be aware of that going in. It does, however, feature “Alexa Game Control” if you’d like to play around with that for some reason.
Co-op is available, but with a lot of caveats. You can find the full details on co-op via Dead Island 2’s main site here, but in short, the three-player co-op must be played with others on the same platform (no crossplay), and there are limitations between generations. I recommend reading the linked article if you are planning to clean up Hell-A with some buddies.
We’ll Have a Bloody Mary, First Thing
In the end, I enjoyed my time with Dead Island 2, but it sadly left me wondering what could have been. Given the setting, it’s almost ironic that the surface is glitz and glamor, but it’s contrasted by a rotting underbelly. And that’s a shame because what has been built here is genuinely impressive in areas.
The F.L.E.S.H. system is incredible, and I sincerely hope we see it again in a future title. The world-building and tongue-in-cheek extent to which L.A. was recreated is both humorous and impressive. But the inability to explore it freely, and lacking any reason to do so in the first-place, is truly disheartening and detracts from the overall experience.
Regardless, Dead Island 2 is still a good time. If you simply want to relax while simultaneously obliterating hordes of undead in hilarious ways, you have your new outlet.