After almost a decade, Dead Island returns with a sequel that feels surprisingly unscathed by its long stay in development hell.
Few games have changed development hands like Dead Island 2. The sequel to 2011’s role-playing zombie slasher, from the creators of Dying Light, was supposed to be released eight years ago and be developed by Yager, only for them to be dropped and replaced by Sumo Digital in 2016. After years of nothing, Dambuster Studios took over in 2019, at a point when all momentum for a sequel had dropped to a deadening pulse.
Given the success of Dying Light and its sequel, Dead Island, while still having some fans, felt like a franchise that had missed its moment – a game destined only to be remembered for failing to live up to the promise of its cinematic debut trailer. If the original buckled under the expectations placed on it, Dead Island 2 has the benefit of crawling up from the bottom – and the sequel manages to rise from the grave in surprisingly robust and polished shape.
For those familiar with the original, Dead Island 2 doesn’t do anything particularly inventive or surprising, but it smartly leans into its extreme absurdity. Taking place in locations across Los Angeles, including recreations of Beverly Hills and Venice Beach, you choose one of six ‘slayers’ to play as, each with different base stats and perks to take on the zombie outbreak – ranging from Hollywood stuntman Jacob to firefighter stripper Ryan and Paralympian Amy.
Whoever you choose, the campaign is the same aside from their unique character dialogue, which does make interactions with non-player characters feel disjointed at times, in order to accommodate all six personalities. Regardless, the heightened B-movie goofiness helps make any awkward writing blend into the overall tone, where sequences hop between drop kicking zombies into acidic swimming pools and performing specific kills for viral-obsessed social media stars.
At its core, the sequel is still a repetitive sprint of slaying zombies with customisable weapons and watching the role-playing stats go up, but combat has been improved with more options and an extra emphasis on bloody, gory splatter. Thanks to the developer’s patented FLESH system (Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids) your attacks cause more visible, gruesome impact damage, that’s reflective of the weapon and area you strike.
It is largely artificial window dressing, but when the experience is built upon slashing, burning, electrifying, and squashing zombies into mush, the added visual nastiness and tactile response makes enemy encounters much more engaging. In a twisted sense, it makes trying out all the different weapons (and attachable mods) more interesting, just to see the visible damage they can cause – whether through standard attacks or the spectacularly violent counters.
There’s flexibility too, in the new card-based skill system. Instead of a skill tree, you now unlock cards as you complete quests, which activate special buffs or powers if assigned. These range from ground pound moves to extra damage on drop kicks or regaining health when you execute certain attacks. While some of the buffs are perhaps too subtle, and barely noticeable, it’s a smart way to encourage repeat runs and experimentation. You’re also able to switch around your assigned cards on the fly, so you can adapt to your ever-changing weapon set and preferences.
Dead Island 2 also benefits from a tighter, streamlined focus than the original. Vehicle sections have been abandoned, while there’s no longer an open world but instead various smaller districts you travel between through loading screens. It sounds disappointing on paper, but the benefits outweigh the cohesion with a greater spread of landmark locations and densely detailed environments, loaded with opportunities to get creative with the zombie slaughter.
The environmental storytelling within Hell-A’s ruined paradise is the game’s secret ace in the hole. Early on, we took a detour through an overrun YouTuber mansion, where a white board is scribbled with the script for an apology video. Bloodstain trails often either lead to jump scares or paint the picture of a past attack, with collectable diary entries filling in the blanks. There’s a surprising amount to uncover too, through secret pathways unlocked by acquiring fuses or locked safes which hide powerful weapons or blueprints for modifications.
The roughly 20-hour story campaign gallops through these locations at a breezy pace, where you’re always exploring somewhere interesting. A standout sequence sees you navigate a film studio lot at night, where you trigger special effect rigs to lay out traps for the zombie masses. The core loop of killing and upgrading doesn’t change, but you’re presented with just enough variables, whether in the environments, enemies, or new weapons and abilities, to keep the constant maiming and limb-hacking from growing stale.
To amplify the guilty pleasures of Dead Island 2, there’s also support for up to three players through online co-op. While the servers and matchmaking won’t truly be tested until launch, it’s another appealing boon for a game which wants you to mess around with its roster of slayers, ability cards, and modded weapon combinations.
Dead Island may have a buggy history, but the sequel is surprisingly devoid of hiccups, with only occasional pop-in and respawning zombies breaking the immersion during our playthrough. There are weaknesses though, most prominently the tepid gunplay and very forgiving checkpoints, which undercut the tension of being killed, but in a game designed to maximise cheap thrills the choice is somewhat understandable.
Ultimately, Dead Island 2 succeeds because it knows exactly what it is. There’s nothing daring or innovative about it, and some might find the slicker parkour movement in Dying Light 2 more appealing, but this is a well executed refinement of gaming’s biggest indulgence. If you’re after unabashed blood and numbers, this B-movie splatter fest is an enjoyably unpretentious feast.
Dead Island 2 review
In Short: A surprisingly lean and mean sequel which amplifies the bloody thrills of the original through its impressive presentation and flexible mechanics.
Pros: Californian setting is richly detailed and fun to explore. Melee combat is robust and satisfying thanks to the gory ‘FLESH’ system. Characters and tone are silly and actually funny in spots. Three-player online co-op.
Cons: Gunplay is weak compared to melee combat. Very familiar and derivative experience. Not a lot of gameplay variation between the playable characters.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Dambuster Studios
Release Date: 21st March 2023
Age Rating: 12
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