Dead Island 2’s road to a gaming platform of your choice has been filled with unexpected detours, just as our hero’s journeys from the first Dead Island games were to salvation. With multiple delays and three studios brought in to develop the game, it looked as though Dead Island 2 was going to be stuck in development hell and become a zombie itself.
But now, Dead Island 2 has breached the waves and waded ashore. The question is has the wait been worth it, or does the game require some extra re-animation time?
Dead Island 2, despite retaining the name, does away with the island setting and transplants its action to another larger, sunny location – California.
The game starts off with yet another outbreak that has rendered Los Angeles inhospitable to the living. The dead roam the streets, eating whoever they can get their hands on, while the military has evacuated whatever survivors they could. As one of the protagonists, you’re on one of the last flights out of L.A. before an infected survivor makes short work of that plan.
When the plane crashes, you’re left to dust yourself off, grab whatever weapons you can, and make haste to the closest safe house – a safe house that just happens to be the abode of horror star “Emma Jaunt”. Naturally, getting there involves helping anyone you can along the way, so it’s going to be another long day in paradise…
Dead Island 2 lets you choose from one of six zombie-slaying protagonists, each with their own backstory, attributes, and skills. While I didn’t have time to check out all of the Slayers, it seems that the path through the game will be the same for all of them, though there’s plenty of unique dialogue for each Slayer that reflects their personalities.
Combat is still primarily a melee-based affair and most systems feel designed around it, so what you really want to pay attention to are their skills and attributes. These make a big difference in determining your play style, be that hit-and-run tactics or trying to tank your way through the hordes (generally not recommended). Each time you level up, certain base attributes like health and attack power increase, but the real draw is the numerous skills you unlock.
Skills are represented through a card system and you need to put some thought into your loadout. There’s a limited amount you can equip but there’s a lot to choose from, including subset skills that buff the primary one. Some new skills cards are found scattered across the world and many are the same for each survivor, but survivors also have powerful skills specific to them.
There are plenty of skills to allow for a variety of builds and the game lets you create multiple Slayer profiles. If you don’t like the way Amy plays, you can start a new slot with a different Slayer, and bounce back and forward between them until you find the one you like. It’s just a shame you can’t swap them out and pick up your campaign progress from the same spot.
Although I appreciated the flexibility, the new skill system can make or break the combat. Your skill load-out becomes a major factor in determining if you survive the dead(ly) streets of L.A. and have fun while doing so.
Chances are high though that you’ll find what you like early on and stick with it. The “Dropkick”, which I gained early in my run with Carla, became my primary method of clearing out space. I’d manoeuvre zombies into a line, drop them down like dominos, follow that up with maiming shots to the legs, and finish them off with quick one-hit-kill head stomps. Hours later, this early move was still saving my behind.
Of course, combat has been beefed up considerably since the first Dead Island games. Zombies can be more aggressive both in attack patterns, how long they’ll pursue you, and the deal out significant damage. Of note, climbing onto cars to save yourself is no longer a guaranteed strategy as zombies can climb up after you now.
Zombies now sport that recent fad of having a stagger bar, which determines how long they’ll stay on their feet before your pummelling staggers them. If you can drop that bar quickly, they’re open to either one-hit-kills that splash disintegrating grey matter around like a popped piñata or, in the case of bosses and mini-bosses, are stunned for a couple of seconds to let you wail on them.
Sticking to the template that made the original stand out, weapons can be modded using blueprints scattered around the world or dropped from the bosses. Some are simple and increase physical damage, while others apply more situational elemental attacks.
Some perks come with caveats though, such as higher damage at the expense of durability, but sadly, all weapons break after a while. To offset this, unused or broken weapons can be scrapped and the parts used to repair others.
Unfortunately, Dead Island 2 is slow to open up its toybox for you and you’re going to have to grind away in combat for a few hours before better weapons and skills become available. Guns eventually show up too and they can be modded like anything else, but ammo seems incredibly scarce.
The problem I found is that the powerful zombie skill cards were what I always fell back on when my number was almost up – something that happens a lot because Dead Island 2 is pretty tough. You see, there’s an auto-levelling system that keeps zombies either at your level or one level higher than you.
The game sports a variety of zombies, from the common weak “Shamblers”, to deadly electrified or exploding zombies, and the all too familiar specials. Once you encounter them, they start becoming a common feature amongst the hordes, making each encounter a fraught affair that requires you prioritise who to take out and when.
Luckily, the game gives you plenty of environmental tools to do just that in addition to your arsenal and skillset. Water can be electrified, exploding barrels abound, and zombies can hurt other zombies with their special abilities or exploding attacks. Play your cards right and you can use the environment to thin the herd before getting stuck in.
Now if you were expecting a fully open-world affair, you’re going to be disappointed. Dead Island 2, even though the game itself is large and features many iconic locations, sports a semi-open world design. Each area in the game functions as its own zone that you have to travel between.
Each area is more than large enough to make exploration a tense and danger-filled affair but, unless you’re really unlucky in how you traverse the streets, you won’t be amassing too many zombie followers in your wake. Combat-wise, more than six at a time here is enough to give you cause for concern. You won’t be seeing thousands of zombies roaming the wilds but there’s enough to make life really difficult for you.
Unfortunately, the developers are really fond of the “locked in a room” or “hold a point” structure that just spawns waves of zombies at you. The same applies to boss fights and they take the lazy approach to increase the difficulty by throwing in adds as well. Neither of these elements is fun in the long run, and both wore out their welcome pretty quickly.
Another design that irked me is the incessant spawning system. You’ll rarely have time to breathe when traversing the world as zombies seem to come out of nowhere just when you think you’ve cleared a section. It makes exploration or just trying to backtrack somewhere quickly frustrating and a chore. Thankfully, most zombies finally amble on back to their designated patrol area when you’ve gotten enough distance from them.
Perhaps the reason it annoyed me so much was that you’ll really want to explore. The world is full of blueprints, skills, higher-tier weapons, and backstory in the form of notes or audio recordings to find. There are also a ton of all-important side missions that you can stumble into or get notified about, which might see you assist an old action star take care of the zombies on his lawn, or help an influencer upload the sickest zombie kills. They’re fun to do and, be warned, you can miss out on several if you leave a zone before completing them.
As a final note on the gameplay, assuming the lengthy campaign and six slayers aren’t enough for you, there are numerous lists of challenges to tackle and you can explore L.A. together online – though sadly I was unable to test during the pre-launch review period.
The last element to touch is the presentation and Dead Island 2 is a gorgeous game. The smaller zones help keep the level of detail and visual fidelity high, with gorgeous materials and wonderful 3D models for the cast – living and dead alike.
If you’ve watched any of the trailers, one of the big talking points about the game is the gore. And Dead Island 2 is an incredibly gory and grim game. Blood and viscera are splattered across the environments and the damage system for the zombies is both brutally gory and technically impressive. Each hit or burn takes chunks out of the zombies, revealing the muscle beneath, internal organs dripping out, and finally bone – which shatters wonderfully when hit hard enough. Zombies can be cut in half, decapitated, dismembered, and it’s not uncommon to watch teeth fly and a jaw dislocated with each swing of a sledgehammer. Dead Island 2 goes out of its way to earn its mature rating.
How does it perform though? Right out of the gate, Dead Island 2 is a far more stable game than the first two ever were. That jankiness of the original game is nowhere to be found and there’s a significant amount of polish on display here. Even better, this is one cross-platform game that will make owners of last or current gen hardware happy. I split my playtime between an Xbox Series X and an Xbox One X and I can say that the game is fantastic on both machines. Of course, you’re looking at faster load times and higher resolution and frame rates on the Xbox Series machines, but the One X is no slouch. Outside of some reductions to material quality a few stutters here and there, I’d say the Xbox One X visual quality is a close match for the Xbox Series X version.
They’re coming to get you Barbara!
Wrapping up, I’m happy to report Dead Island 2’s eight-year development cycle has actually been put to good use. The long-awaited sequel is not set on an island yet still manages to recapture all the fun and terror of an overrun and isolated setting. You may have a larger world to explore, but it doesn’t feel any less claustrophobic or tense. The sequel sports better great voice acting, beautiful and even gorier visuals, a lengthy campaign, and, above all, is just as fun to play. Zombies may be wearing themselves out – again – in the entertainment genre, but Dead Island 2 is a rare example of a sequel that warrants unboxing that particular brand of monster-bashing formula again. Oh, and if you can, try it out with some friends.
A review code for Dead Island 2 was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Dead Island 2 is also available on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One consoles, and PC.
Dead Island 2 (Xbox Series and Xbox One) ReviewDead Island 2 (Xbox Series and Xbox One) Review
- Lengthy campaign
- Fantastic zombie model destruction system
- Runs great on both new and old hardware
- Endless spawning can annoy when you want to just explore or get somewhere quickly
- Too many “stay alive” moments
- Might be too tough for some