Nine years after it was officially announced, Dead Island 2 is finally here. This is a game that has been through development hell, passing from one developer to another until eventually settling in the hands of Dambuster Studios. Early previews showed promise with great melee combat, appealing visuals, and a gore system that is far too impressive for its own good.
Dead Island had a lot of glaring flaws in both its narrative and technical aspects and yet they somehow gained dedicated fans that were attracted to the zombie-infested sandboxes. They were far from perfect and arguably, the only thing that it had going for it was the satisfying melee combat. Everything else fell into the “it’s so bad, it’s good” territory especially when it came to the writing. By the time Dead Island Riptide was released, all the developers did was double down on the jankiness of the first game.
After spending about 25 hours with the final release, I can safely say that Dead Island 2 is an improvement over the original in nearly every aspect, but it still feels outdated given the current gaming landscape. For every step forward, Dead Island 2 would either stumble in trying to do so or resort to taking two steps back. This is a game that’s a product of its time where it chases trends that have been left behind already by other studios. But despite all of that, it’s still a bloody good time.
Probably the biggest change Dead Island 2 has is the fact that it doesn’t feature an open-world sandbox like the first two games in the franchise had. Instead, it opts to feature different districts that are slightly distinct from one another.
The game features its own take on a blood-soaked Los Angeles as you make your way through the streets of places like Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. This is a welcome change of scenery given that the first two games took place in a resort (for a brief moment) until eventually moving into urban areas and jungle settings which became far too generic and visually mundane.
Each district is big enough to allow exploration but often has sectioned-off areas whether it be with blocked paths, locked doors, or artificially overpowered enemies to prevent you from going to areas that the game intends to use at a later part of the campaign. There’s also a bit of a Metroid-vania system wherein you’ll be able to come back to certain places with new items required to open up rooms with special loot or shortcuts.
An issue I have with Dead Island 2’s district system is how disconnected it can make the entire experience feel. Given that it’s not an open world, there are no seamless transitions from one area to another. You’ll have to go through a loading screen, which is very fast, to be fair. Normally, this would be fine for me but there are instances in the story where switching areas (which is basically equivalent to passing through a gate or something similar) can mean a sudden time jump. It can be sunny in area 1 and by the time I load into area 2, it’s already nighttime. It felt cheap and way too distracting to the point that I was completely pulled out of the immersion.
The smaller scale of the areas also means that traversal takes a massive step back. Vehicles do not make a return which is a bit of a bummer but it also meant that playspaces are more tightly designed rather than being left wide open for the sake of drivable areas. This is what led me to think that Dead Island 2 in general feels like a breath of fresh air amidst a time in gaming where every developer believes that every game should have an open-world system. With the slightly linear nature of Dead Island 2, it removes a lot of the bloat that is often associated with open-world fatigue.
Packing one Hell-A punch
Despite the disjointed world being a bummer every time you are reminded of it, Dead Island 2’s presentation is actually quite fantastic. The game features detailed graphics that combines a photo-realistic look with a vibrant art style that really injects life into the environment. From the bloody streets of Hollywood to the abandoned mess of the interiors, exploring the different locations becomes more enjoyable given how pretty it all looks.
The zombie designs look great in particular especially when combined with the excellent gore system that allows you to chip away flesh with every hit. Whether it be blunt items, sharp weapons, firearms, or even your own fists and feet, every hit has satisfying visual feedback that is just a sight to behold when in motion.
And of course, the star of the show is the melee combat system. It’s punchy, visceral, and oh-so-bloody satisfying especially when you finally get a hold of modded weapons. One of my main gripes in the original Dead Island is how weak I felt for such a long time in that game. It wasn’t until I reached the latter half that I got to really pop off with special weapons and skills. In Dead Island 2, progression feels much faster and more focused on providing the most enjoyable combat experience as early as possible.
Zombies no longer feel like a melee sponge early on meaning that even the random planks you pick up from the ground can do some work if used properly. Weapon durability is still a thing. Once a weapon has reached its limit, it won’t be completely broken. Instead, it’ll stay in your inventory waiting to be repaired, discarded, or scraped for extra materials.
Workbenches make a return where you can repair, upgrade, and mod items to create the ultimate tools of destruction. All you have to do is collect materials and money scattered around the world which are pretty easy to find and you’ll be swimming in special items from just the first few hours. Some may say this takes away the challenge that was present in the first game, but I always felt like that was just more of an annoying artificial way to pad out game time. Dead Island games are at their best when they let the player loose on a power trip against the zombies and Dead Island 2 understood that assignment.
Firearms are also present in the game but they act more as side tools rather than main forms of engagement. Ammo is scarce and a lot if not all of the character abilities are focused on melee combat. Getting up close and personal with the enemies is what Dead Island 2 is all about. Guns lack the weight and satisfaction a good whack to the head or a sliced limb will have.
Another massive change is the revamped stamina system. Running, dodging, and attacking no longer consume stamina. It’s only reserved for special abilities and heavy attacks. That means you can just zip and whack your way through without much consequence. It may sound too overpowering at first, but once the game throws multiple zombies at you, you’ll soon discover that picking them out one by one is better than banging your head against the horde.
There are moments where I feel like Dead Island 2 could’ve used more when it came to the enemy density, especially in the first few hours of the game. Everyone talks about how there are millions of zombies out there and once you set foot outside, you can only see maybe six on the streets and even less so indoors. This a minor nitpick but it’s one that will soon be fixed when special variations of zombies are introduced in the story.
In terms of the RPG elements, Dead Island 2 allows you to pick between six “Slayers” who each have their own specific strengths and weaknesses. This also adds to the replayability of the campaign given that each one has their own voice lines and personalities. Instead of skill points, Dead Island 2 features a card system. Every time you level up, you gain a new ability card. This can either give you passive buffs and enhancements to your abilities or give you a completely new skill to play around with. Switching between cards is allowed at any moment which really encourages a lot of experimenting and figuring out which cards complement each other the best.
The entire combat system of Dead Island 2 is just Dambuster Studios screaming at the player: “GO HAVE SOME FUN!” It definitely works and it’s exactly what I wanted out of a new entry into this undead-whacking franchise.
Probably the biggest flaw Dead Island 2 has is its story. While it is very much an improvement over the first game’s approach to taking itself way too seriously but lacked the proper writing and characterization to support such an ambition, Dead Island 2 would sometimes remind me of the time I played through Borderlands 3’s story for the first time—which is not good at all.
Given the context of its setting, Dead Island 2 features a lot of satire about the Hollywood system, online influencers, celebrities, and all the bells and whistles that come with them. While that sort of story can work well (just look at what GTA V did), it falls so hilariously flat here.
Characters lack the proper setup, development, and personality for me to care enough about them. Yes, they’re entertaining to listen to see interact with each other even but nothing goes beyond more than a surface-level understanding of who they are. Even the main Slayer you’ll be choosing will say random one-liners every now and then that just had me rolling my eyes. The world is falling apart and here goes my character acting like it’s nothing more than a funny inconvenience. I’m all for having a fun tone and enjoying the moment but sometimes, it wouldn’t hurt to have at least some form or realistic humanity in the writing.
Side missions offer a great variation of scenarios where you will also be meeting a lot of the survivors you’ll be saving and bringing back to your base of operations. Thankfully, they’re more than just the cardboard cutout survivors like the ones from Deadrising. They actually have a story to tell more often than not, it was great to hear. However, watch out for one particular side mission involving an online live streamer on a rooftop. Big Callisto Twins vibe coming from that and it was not a fun one to play through.
Final Verdict – 7/10
Despite Dead Island 2 being a fun game to play owing mostly to the excellent combat system, it still feels like an outdated title that should’ve been released in the previous console generation. The flawed writing really did a lot to date the whole experience back a decade or more. Much like how it was with the first game, if you’re willing to look past everything else and focus only on the gameplay mechanics and environments, then Dead Island 2 is worth the playthrough.
This review was made via a PS5 game code provided by the publisher.