The history of how to get got here is long, winded, winding, and full of ups and downs. And that’s specifically about the release of Dead Island 2 in 2023. The human race messing with AI like it’s not on the cusp of figuring out the wonders of liquid metal is another long, winding, roller-coaster tale.
Dead Island 2 was announced over a decade ago. Without going into all the details, the version we see today - developed by Dambuster Studios (Homefront: The Revolution) - is a relatively new post-2018 effort. Still, you can’t help but shake the sense that it’s the result of a long and troubled development cycle when firing it up for the first time. Even though that’s not the case.
One of the most impressive things about Dead Island 2 - at least initially - is just how polished it is in terms of visual fidelity, performance, and responsiveness. Not only compared to most titles we’ve seen so far this year but also compared to the original Dead Island from 2011. Reviewed primarily on Xbox Series X, the experience of playing through Dead Island 2’s campaign in co-op was as smooth as a sharpened meat cleaver cutting through the juicy red and hard white stuff of a zombie’s limb.
And that’s initially because where Dead Island 2 excels and makes its mark as a fun blood-soaked action spectacle set in the post-apocalyptic streets and beaches of Los Angeles is with its combat. Although simple to the point where it feels more like classic arcade games Final Fight or Gauntlet Legends than Dark Souls, the interplay between strategic (or blind) melee swings and the physical damage, physics, and gore is as impressive as it is over-the-top.
One of the most impressive things about Dead Island 2 - at least initially - is just how polished it is in terms of visual fidelity, performance, and responsiveness.
Regarding its structure and overall setup, Dead Island 2 is a traditional video game sequel. More of the same when it comes to linear levels, looting suitcases, and turning sharp blades into lethal dispensers of electro “therapy.” There’s an underlying B-Movie story about finding a cure or some such, and the playable characters are all voiced and arrive with different stats. There are also skills and abilities to unlock, find, and equip in the form of cards, but it’s all stuff we’ve seen before presented differently.
For a sequel a decade and change in the making, this is not a bad thing, and you could say that Dead Island 2’s simplicity and focus on pure carnage as a progression driver is refreshing. Combat is pretty much everything here, and the focus (at least initially) is on melee encounters with blades and blunt instruments which adds a level of intimacy in the form of having to get up close and personal with all the different zombies.
A less creepy-zombie-fetish way to describe the combat would be to say you can feel each hit's impact. Timing a heavy attack with a two-handed sledgehammer and hitting a Walker’s (one of the game’s zombie types) head is as neck crunchy and satisfying as you’d hope.
Thanks to the bright and vibrant LA where you get to stroll through the streets of Bell Air, the backlot of a fictional movie studio, and the beefcake sands of Venice Beach - the different zombies, although broken up into various types and classes, all sport regional attire. Be it a fashion-based, uniform, or gym-bro outfit worn while pumping iron.
Even though zombies level up alongside you, their destruction is tied to when their health-bar drops below a certain threshold. At this point, they can melt, fall apart, and be cut into multiple pieces with guts and other anatomically squishy parts oozing and sloshing around.
Dead Island 2 is gory, gloriously so. It’s so over-the-top that it often straddles the line between gross and Looney Tunes-style cartoon excess.
Dead Island 2 is gory, gloriously so. It’s so over-the-top that it often straddles the line between gross and Looney Tunes-style cartoon excess. It’s often funny and strikes the right tone to match the arcade-style (see: simple and effectively engaging) combat. Part of the fun is seeing the effect of weapon hits, explosive environmental destruction, slices, thwacks, hacks, and stomps. Seeing limbs and jaws fly and zombie skin melt to reveal bone, flesh, and organs is excessive. But also fun.
Dead Island 2 is gory, but it isn’t scary. There are a few tense moments, including one involving a creepy zombie clown, but for the most part, it’s fun in the sun.
Even though there are action-RPG elements in the form of weapons with different stats, mods you can craft, and new abilities based on the fact a zombie bit you, overall progression - or at least your perception of it - is defined by Dead Island 2’s combat and not its numbers. The first bladed weapon you discover, the first elemental mod, the first rifle, the first big two-hander that can crush lower-tier zombies like Shamblers in a single swing. The ultimate ability that puts you into rage mode. Even boss battles introduce new zombie types, another threat to deal with while reaching the next objective.
These are the significant milestones. Everything else, including crafting and skill trees, might be interconnected, but it’s all secondary. Even the narrative and side mission setup with NPCs dispensing optional side quests take a backseat thanks to mostly threadbare characters or archetypes in search of depth. It’s a shame because the character detail across the undead and not-dead-yet is excellent.
A few standout examples, like the aging rocker in panties and a surfer dude that meets a hilarious melon-crushing-end point to a setting and world that - like the gore - should have gone all in on the comic insanity. Exploration doesn’t fare much better, with the game employing a weird “everything needs a random key” system to the point where dozens of rooms and off-the-beaten path stops will feature a safe or locker that needs a key.
Dead Island 2 is more of an arcade-style beat-em-up than an RPG, action-adventure, or game where customisation and developing your own style stands tall.
It’s not the worst idea in the world, but there’s no way to track them, and the map gives each locked box in a long list of locked boxes a generic tag. This means if you find a key, you’ll probably not remember what it opens. Puzzles are simple “find the lever” or “turn this thing back on” affairs, adding more weight to the idea that Dead Island 2 is more of an arcade-style beat-em-up than an RPG, action-adventure, or game where customisation and developing your own style stands tall.
The problem Dead Island 2 has is that everything outside of the combat doesn’t live up to the combat. The weapons and mods, although varied, come in the same four or five flavours, and that’s it. “Legendary,” or named weaponry, does little to justify its existence when. Skills, passives, and weapon mods are all fine, but there’s not enough to get creative outside of a few of the late-game zombie-powered mods and perks. Nothing is outright bad; it’s just that it all feels serviceable or fine.
Dead Island 2 does leave you wanting more, in a good way. The simple combat is endlessly engaging and gory, thanks to the physics, the weight of each hit, and the next-level destruction that lets you shoot holes through zombies or leave a wound right where your blade struck. In co-op, it’s a blast and funny in ways that watching classic b-movies with friends that feature over-the-top violence. In the end, there’s enough here to make us want Dead Island 3. Here’s hoping we don’t need to wait ten years for the next one.