Dead Island 2 review: Once dead, now very much alive
Many didn’t think Dead Island 2 would ever come out after so long in production hell. However, the game is finally here, and you might be wondering – has Dambuster Studios managed to revive this undead project?
The fact that Dead Island 2 is here at all feels like a minor miracle. The game was initially announced back at E3 2014 at the Sony press conference, and between now and then, three different studios in the form of Yager, Sumo Digital, and, finally, Dambuster Studios have worked on it. Supposedly the franchise’s original studio, Techland, who moved on to make the Dying Light series, would have had early ideation for the sequel too. The point is, a lot of developers have touched Dead Island 2.
With a production life like that, especially one that lasted this long, there was reason to believe that Dead Island 2 would not only fail to be good but potentially fail to even come out.
That’s why, against all odds, it’s a pleasure to say that Dead Island 2 isn’t only here, but it rules. Dambuster Studios have worked some necromancy magic to return this long-thought-dead project back to life, and it packs one hell of a bite.
Dead Island 2 key details
- Developer: Dambuster Studios
- Price: £59.99 / $69.99
- Release Date: April 21 2023
- Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PC
If you’re worried you need to have played the original all the way back in 2011 to keep up here, don’t be. While those who did, and have exceptional memories, will have a few nods to the previous games to cling to, this is mostly a new venture.
Indeed, the ‘Island’ part of the title has now given way to one of the world’s most recognizable cities in the form of Los Angeles. While it betrays the central conceit of the franchise’s namesake, Dambusters has done an exceptional job of capturing the tone and feel of the city – only with a minor increase of blood, guts, and the shambling undead.
The city makes for a wonderful canvas for you to paint your masterpiece of destruction. The core of Dead Island 2 – fighting zombies – is a ton of fun. One of the most impressive features Dambusters has pulled off here is just how destructible the undead are. Each feels like a collection of limbs and innards barely held together by rotting sinew. These are the most zombie-like enemies I’ve ever interacted with in a game – and I’ve interacted with a lot in my time.
While this might sound like a gimmick, it influences every time you interact with what’s in front of you. Their modular destruction is something to behold and you can use it strategically. You can cut off limbs to immobilize and maim as you see fit, or you can merely tear extremity from extremity, covering yourself in all sorts of viscera.
It does at points feel like Dambusters has actually done too good a job. More than once I winced at my gruesome handwork, burning off the face of a once-alive human with acid-laced wolverine claws, pulling their jaw half off their skull in the process. It’s impressive tech – sometimes to stomach-turning degrees.
Striking the right tone
Perhaps the most surprising thing about my time in “Hell-A” was how much I enjoyed the feel of the world. Dead Island 2 so nearly falls into the trap many goofy, fun video games fall into nowadays. In a post-Marvel world, irreverent humor has infested so much popular media and Dead Island 2 flirts with this line often. It wants you to have a good time and the characters are certainly silly, shouting goofy – and at times cringe-worthy – one-liners.
However, Dead Island 2 makes this work. Rather than underselling the situation of a city of millions ravaged by a deadly virus, the characters feel like they are coping and finding the fun where they can. It never feels like the game is undercutting the legitimacy of its setting, but also doesn’t fall into overly dramatic realities like other well-established franchises in the genre like The Last of Us or The Walking Dead.
If you ever stop for too long, the reality and sadness of the situation will begin to seep into the periphery. A great example of this is a streamer house you find early on. There are fun jokes about the frivolity of content creators, complete with insincere apology scripts and advertising of awful energy drinks. They’re funny jokes, but if you stop for a moment, you’ll see a home wrecked by a sweeping disease. Several young people lost their lives. This is a tightrope walk of tone, and despite a few wobbles, Dambusters mostly nails it. There’s a deeper texture here that sells the reality of this world, without becoming overbearing to your fun.
The stars of Hollywood
Dead Island 2 has an interesting gambit when it comes to the playable characters. Early on you’ll find yourself faced with a choice of six ‘Slayers’. Each has certain abilities only available to them, but also, is a fleshed-out character with their own attitude.
This might make you think that these are incidental characters who keep to themselves. Having now played through the game’s 25-ish hour campaign, it’s quite the contrary. These are vibrant, talkative characters, and it’s impressive that Dambusters committed to having six different protagonists you can choose from be so distinct. Who you chose won’t change the story, but they inject enough character as to make a deep impression on your time in LA – or at least, who I played as did.
I can only attest to one of the Slayers you can play as here. I chose Irish punk Dani, and frankly, she was a delight. She’s silly, but tough, and has some really fun writing supported by an excellent performance by Michelle Fox. I can’t imagine what my playtime would be like with another one of the Slayers. However, it certainly makes me curious to run through portions of the game again to see. If others have even half as much flavor and likability, there are going to be a ton of reasons to replay the campaign.
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While I’d love to be able to say, no matter who you choose you’ll have a great time, I can’t. But, I can say definitively I wholeheartedly recommend playing as Dani, who is a really likable protagonist.
There’s more than one way to skin a zombie
I’ve already touched on how fun it is to dismember zombies, but what about those tools of destruction? Dead Island 2 throws weapons at you, and it throws them at you fast. There are tons of different types you’ll get your hands on throughout your journey, and you’ll find some you become quite attached to. From swords to blade claws, bats, clubs, guns, axes, and all sorts of other instruments of pain, there’s going to be something for you to love here.
What’s great about this though is that you can also build your weapon out in fascinating ways. As you progress through, you’ll find a menagerie of modifications you can apply to your weapons. That axe you find on the floor may be barren now, but once you’re done with it, it might shoot acid, cause immense critical damage and spread its effects to nearby enemies. You can take what you find and love in the game and continually improve it through your journey. It gives Dead Island 2 this wonderful sense of progression, as you build a relationship with your favorite weapons.
I grew very attached to a pair of bladed claws that increased my attack speed on kills and continually weakened enemies the more I hit them, creating a wild, frenzied playstyle.
Supporting this is an in-depth card system that allows you to build out your character. You will unlock all sorts of abilities, including some surprising late-game wrinkles to your style, that allow you to get in and create dense builds. It’s a deep system and you can do a lot to make a build that is uniquely your own, without it succumbing to a web of complexities.
Now, it’s not all sunshine on the West Coast. Dead Island 2 has some undeniable issues. This was conceived in 2013 and at times, it feels like it. If you’ve played an open-world (or in this case, a semi-open-world) game before, there isn’t going to be a lot here that surprises you. Most quests boil down to, ‘go to a place, kill zombies until it says to stop, and then maybe there’s a boss’. The setting and context change, but the experience could have done with more showcase missions that mix up the formula. While I found charm in its distinctly early 2010s construction, it’s hard to say it doesn’t feel a little archaic at points.
It’s also susceptible to some pretty harsh difficulty spikes. Sometimes a mission will jump up a couple of levels past what you are prepared for. There were times I was deep into a mission before I had to leave halfway through and go level up some more. This happened more than a handful of times, making the pacing of the journey feel a little strange.
This is exacerbated by the pace at which the game rolls out all of its systems. You’ll be a significant portion in before you realize what your ‘frenzy’ is, what Numen cards do, and learn about the autophage balance system. As these systems keep coming at you towards the end, you can’t help but feel these would have been nice to have earlier on in your journey.
This is all put onto shaky ground too by how technically rough the game can feel. There were times when enemies got stuck in scenery or my kill animations forgot to bring a zombie with me, as well as fluctuations in performance in certain scenes on my PC. It isn’t a total mess, but you’re certainly going to feel the rougher edges of its construction.
Dead Island 2 has problems. It has some archaic design choices, wild difficulty spikes, a slow first couple of hours, and janky execution. That’s why you’ll see a whole point taken off this review. Some people won’t like this game, and a lot of it might be due to a combination of these reasons. They’re things I see, and considerations I have to point out. I have to note these issues when bowing to a review with a numbered score. I need to let people know what they might not enjoy about it.
None of that was my sentiment when the credits rolled, though. Dead Island 2 is a love letter to zombies and horror. It nails the balancing act of being ‘almost irreverent’ – fun and lighthearted, but underscored by a sadness that falls into focus the second you slow down. It gives the title a great texture where it’s never too bogged down in the overplayed dramatic tropes of a lot of modern zombie media, while also not succumbing to the trap of irreverence as to disrespect the setting or the player’s emotional investment. It’s also supported by fantastic combat, weapon, and build systems that allow you to form excellent creations of pure undead destruction.
The Verdict – 4/5
Dead Island 2 groans can be loud as its technical and execution faults are hard to ignore, however, it feels crafted with so much love, that if you give yourself over to its shambling grasp, you might be surprised to hear a beating heart inside its exposed ribcage.
Reviewed on PC