Dead Island 2 preview: sparks of life from a game many thought dead

A man floats in a pool surrounded by Zombies

We recently got some extended time with Dead Island 2, having played for 5 hours. The long, long anticipated game is on the final stretch to release, and zombie and horror fans will be hoping there is enough meat on these bones despite the long-gestating period. So, how is it?

It feels like a small miracle that Dead Island 2 is playable and coming out at all. I remember being in the room at E3 when it was announced, with a very fun trailer that showed LA being torn apart by a spreading zombie disease, all with the sheen of fun and whimsy. It was about as tonally opposite as you could get from the now legendary ‘reverse’ trailer for the original outing of the franchise, which was a remarkable piece of marketing back when it landed in 2011.

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That announcement was back in 2014 and it’s been nearly 10 years since then. I even played an early version later that year – but whatever game that was is long gone now. Dead Island 2 has changed hands several times since then, and what I got to play 5 hours of is almost definitely not what was originally envisioned.

It is strange to be in a position of thinking about how much has changed in the world since a game was announced to it being in the final stretch of its release, but it’s a sentiment that’s hard to get away from when playing.

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With all that history aside though, after our time with the game, it’s great to report that so far, Dambuster Studios is delivering on the promise of that initial trailer. This is a zombie-filled romp through LA, with plenty of blood and guts-tinged mischief to get up to.

The stars of the show

Dead Island 2’s big gambit is its character system. There’s no one character you play as, and instead, you get the choice between six. They’re all distinct with a focus on both personalities as well as stats.

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There is Amy, a Paralympian who is all about speed and slicing through the undead, or Bruno, a hustler who used to rip off scammers and has a special proficiency with knives. I spent the majority of my time with Dani, a brash Irish rockabilly who loves to get up in the faces of shamblers and tear them limb from limb. 

Sam B of Who Do You Voodoo fame returns

While Dani could at times have some wince-inducing dialogue, I mostly found her a charming presence if you’re willing to give yourself over to the vibe of Dead Island 2 – which puts irreverence and fun at the forefront of this obviously horrific situation. 

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Each character you can play as comes with their own unique ‘cards’, and you continue to get more in the world to build out your deck. While that might sound confusing, this mostly equates to selecting perks and abilities. One card, for instance, gave me a ground pound to push and stun zombies away, and another allowed me to dropkick zombies which I used to the point of exploiting it. It’s a neat system and lets you build out your character into the strengths you care for most. 

A dismember to remember

Now, of course, all of this would be moot if tangling with Dead Island 2’s zombies was a bore. Thankfully, this is the area Dead Island 2 really shines. Perhaps the overriding sentiment from my time with Dead Island 2 was, “boy, it sure is fun to dismember zombies in this game.” That comes down to the genuinely impressive tech used to build them.

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The undead feels like a lot of separate components held together loosely by failing ligaments – which is exactly what you want from a zombie game. You can target certain limbs, which can be pulled off bit by bit, you can hit zombies hard enough with a hammer that their jaw begins to fall off, or you can see them shamble through acid and watch their skin begin to melt from the bone.

It’s pretty gnarly, but if you are buying a ticket to a zombie-infested Los Angeles, it’s probably the kind of thing you are looking for, and it’s an impressive bit of tech.

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Several Zombies attack the player covered in blood and red eyes.The Zombie dismember tech is really quite something

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

While Dead Island 2 is not zany to the point of being removed entirely from reality, it’s a mostly light adventure through LA, with fairly cliched but serviceable characters to interact with. Some will find the talkative, joke-cracking protagonists a bit much, but if you can go with their flow, they are fine.

On top of that, there is also a somewhat celebratory tone in the zombie apocalypse, where it’s all about indulging in the fun of a society torn apart. That being said, the sadness of that situation isn’t entirely lost in all the noise, which does give a broader sense of grounding the early portions of the game. 

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A good example of this is a mansion you stumble upon early on. It’s an impressive reconstruction of a ‘Streamer House’, called the GOAT Pen, where a handful of influencers and content creators share a house and make content. It’s a parody of the ridiculousness of this kind of lifestyle, complete with some funny nods like scriptwriting for apology videos and the like – but perhaps where Dead Island 2 finds its maturity and grounds it as something more than puerile, is that even when making these jokes, the reality of the situation is plain.

Walking through the empty mansion and discovering the stories of the once-living inhabitants allude to a genuine loss of humanity. When stripped of all the clout and fame, these are still innocent young adults underneath it all. The system, the fakery is all the butt of the joke, not the people at the center of it – which in a lot of ways makes Los Angeles the perfect setting for this story. It’s all glitz and fun at a surface level, but underneath that, there’s a sense of lost humanity and sadness if you take the time to look. If Dead Island 2 can tap into this feeling more throughout its playthrough, it will be much richer for it. 

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Lingering questions

Even after all that, I’m still left with the question, is all this enough? Dead Island 2 so far feels like a good version of what it is – an open-world first-person zombie game where you get to tear up an infested Los Angeles.

However, that hook doesn’t feel quite as compelling in 2023 as it perhaps did nearly a decade ago. We’re now in a post-Dying Light, Back 4 Blood, and State of Decay world. Hell, even the Walking Dead has come to a close.

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Zombies were starting to feel long in the tooth back in 2014. In 2023, the pop-culture relevance feels almost outdated. Is being a good open-world first-person zombie game a real hook for an audience? While it’s a genuine joy to see Dead Island 2 finally on its homestretch to release, I do worry if its premise is an enticing enough hook to get players in – but I hope I’m wrong. What’s here is great, the question is can it be compelling enough to get people ready for more zombies?

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