It’ no secret that video games these days take longer and longer to make, as technology advances it allows for more and more features to become standard across the industry and typically results in better quality games but also more resources and time to create them. It’s also no secret that Dead Island 2 has had quite the troubled development timeline. After initially being revealed in 2014, the game often went silent for years and behind the scenes was handed off to 3 different studios before getting to a point where the game was ready to ship. But now in 2023, almost 10 years on from being announced, Dead Island 2 is here and it provides a really fun zombie sandbox to satisfyingly take down foes and brings back the nostalgic feeling from the PS3/X360 era that many games don’t carry any more.
Dead Island 2 is a first person, action RPG much like it’s predecessors but does focus a little more on the customisation and roleplay elements more than I remember the previous entries doing. The setting has moved on from being on an actual Island to now taking place in LA. I did miss the tropical setting initially as it was something that I’d personally tied this series to but was pretty quickly onboard with the locale change once I saw the wide range of locations and environments that are playable in the more suburban setting of LA.
Dead Island 2 isn’t a fully seamless open world game, but is instead made up of multiple large open zones that are able to be explored and adventured through. I think the game is better off for this decision as it made each of it’s locations feel detailed as well as diverse and unique from the area that came before it, rather than trying to stitch together a whole open world where there are areas that contain noticeably more time and effort developing.
Each of the game’s areas aren’t typically linear either. They’ll have noticeable blocked off areas or barricades that funnel you towards the overarching goal or objective of a particular setpiece but within those areas there could be exploitable tunnels, homes or shops for example that reveal secret paths, items and weapons that you’ll be greatful you went looking for. Dead Island 2 often rewards you for straying from the main path and seeing what the world has on offer and I really loved that. It makes the world feel more grounded and real when you can move away from the game’s golden path and still find interesting things, and the reward that’s often gained for doing so provides further incentive for me to keep doing it.
Outside of the main quest line of the narrative, Dead Island 2 also has quite a lot of side content to dig your teeth into, providing further reason to stray off the main path or to come back to once finishing all of the game’s main story quests. The game actually requires some of this backtracking to be able to access areas that may have been locked off or inaccessible upon first visiting the area they reside in, providing a sort of Metroidvania element to the game when you return to an area with new skills or the ability to open a previously locked area with a newly acquired key.
Where Dead Island 2 takes things to the next level is with it’s combat and it’s customisation elements. The first person combat is so fun, satisfying and varied that it had me loving taking down zombies every single time I had to dispatch one, and you’ll be doing it a hell of a lot. LA is plagued with hordes and hordes of the undead, each of which can be varied themselves depending on which class of zombie they derive from.
And you’ll have to ability to find what works for your style and enhance the kinds of weapons and abilities you utilise the most to become the best zombie takedown machine you can be. There are so many weapons to find, customise and upgrade with mods and perks, and the game even allows you to level match existing weapons to bring the weapon’s level up to match yours as you progress through the game allowing you the choice to stick with what works best for you, a feature I’m really appreciative for in games these days when it is available. And if you do find yourself no longer wanting a particular item, you can scrap it at the workbench and utilise the collected parts for other weapon upgrades. Each of the game’s weapons have their own look and feel to use and each have a satisfying sense of weight behind them, especially the varied types of melee items you can you to smash your opponents apart. I did find quite a lot of the firearms to be a bit underwhelming and underpowered once they’re unlocked to use so did find myself sticking primarily with melee tools as they seemed more efficient at taking down enemies and provides the most satisfying crunch when pulverising or slicing through zombies.
The combat being great is directly tied to Dead Island 2’s incredible FLESH system. It’s as grotesque as it is technically impressive and has the zombie models react accordingly to the damage you’re dealing out. Enemies don’t just rag doll to the floor when you eliminate all their hit points which makes the moment to moment task of taking down zombies so satisfying to witness. Hit a zombie in the head with a club and it’s jaw has the ability to be left hanging in place, or it’s eye removed, head visibly crushed it etc. Slicing and enemy across the torso with a sword or metallic claws shows the visible slash marks and can lead to organs visibly spilling from the wound. Detachable limbs in games is nothing new, and recently got an overhaul with the recent Dead Space remake, but this is next level. Each zombie has visible layers of flash, fat, muscle, organs and bone that are able to be destroyed and torn apart as you smash them to bits. This system working as intended is probably the most technically impressive thing that Dead Island 2 offers for me personally and I can’t wait to see the kinds of games that could come in future from other developers trying to mimic this idea.
The customisation in Dead Island 2 doesn’t just stop with the weapons and gear either. Right from the beginning of the game you’ll have one of 6 Slayers to pick from, each with their own individual strengths, weaknesses and innate skills which you can view in their stats breakdown before committing to your choice so that you can pick the type of character you want to roleplay is in this twisted take on LA. I began my first playthrough as Ryan, a character that would fit in the typical brute archetype. When it comes to stats he’s incredibly tough but not very agile, but each Slayer is capable of taking down the hordes you’re going to be facing, so pick the character that suits your playstyle and jump in. Much like the weapons, your character also enhances as you progress through the story and level up and their skills and abilities are further tweaked with the skill cards system, allowing you to customise their abilities and skills by changing up the cards that make up your skill deck. A change that can be tweaked at any time to make sure you’re ready for what’s around the corner or to better align what might be needed after failing an encounter or mission.
I came to appreciate the feature as the game was surprisingly difficult at times and when dealing with hordes upon hordes of foes, things can get overwhelming pretty quickly and often lead to deaths, sometimes frustratingly so. It’s crucial that you keep an eye on the enemies on screen to try to identify what type they are (Walker, Runner, Crusher, Screamer etc) and the best strategy or order of elimination you should take. The zombies occasionally come with additional abilities that offer effects to their attacks and also resistances, such as zombies on fire being immune to additional fire damage, and electric Screamers which are immune to lightning effects. Mixing up the zombie formula adds a further layer of strategy and fear in each encounter. Some of the encounters seem like they were designed to be more tailored to co-op play as there are some sudden and difficult spikes that occur throughout the game that while I was eventually able to overcome, were unbalanced compared to the direct areas before it.
While I loved the game’s combat systems and customisation elements I was a little let down by the game’s story. The writing overall is nothing special, it touches on some moments of greatness but quickly stumbles back to something extremely campy. Quickly reminding you that you’re actually playing a video game focussed on bashing skulls rather than trying to make the story be as fun and fleshed out as it’s combat systems and roleplay elements. While I had fun with the game and liked customising my Slayer and skills, I didn’t find myself really caring for any of it’s characters by the end.
It’s incredible that Dead Island 2 made it through it’s development issues and is a game we can finally play in 2023. It offers a really fun sandbox to explore and tear zombies limb from limb but don’t expect a groundbreaking story or dialogue. If you’re looking for a fun first person zombie slaying experience then Dead Island 2 is going to be right up your alley. Let’s just hope it’s not another 10 years before we get to see more from this series, as I can’t wait to see how it’s awesome FLESH system evolves going forward.
A PS5 review code was provided for the purpose of this review.
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