After a protracted development period and being handed between no less than three different teams, Dead Island 2 is finally seeing the light of day. In that time, the original series creators spun off to create their own series in Dying Light, which did many things better than the game that came before it. The question can be asked whether a game plagued by such fervent development hell can rise above its circumstances. The answer isn’t quite so clear. But make no mistakes; Dead Island 2 has no reservations about what it is. It’s more Dead Island, for better or for worse.
Dead Island 2 takes place a few months after the events of the original, but so far, not much carries on from it – making it perfect for new players to jump in. This time, instead of taking place in the fictional world of Banoi, Dead Island 2 moves the action to the United States. Specifically, California. You take the role of one of six survivors as their plane crashes while trying to escape the quarantine zone. You’re eventually bitten, discover you’re immune and begin your quest to escape the aptly named HELL-A.
The most striking thing about Dead Island 2 is that it’s clearly going for a different, tongue-in-cheek tone from the original game. Where there was some humour and levity in the original game’s side quests, Dead Island 2 is instead drenched in humour. It’s comedy that’ll be hit-and-miss with people, but the new setting affords them many opportunities to poke fun at aspects like celebrity culture.
As the plane crashes, I’m given the opportunity to pick which character I’ll control in HELL-A. Each of the characters has their own unique sets of stats – some are speedier, while some are more resilient in battle. But each has unique skills that are a little less realistic but differentiate them even further. Things like creating a shockwave after blocking a move, as an example. Each character will serve your individual playstyle with their stats, so it’s more about picking the better fit for you and augmenting them with the right skill cards.
Skill cards are the other character-centric aspect of the game’s progression. They’re doled out through the completion of story quests but also act as rewards for optional challenges. Emblazoned with artwork I can only describe as gnarly, the cards work as a substitution for the skill tree in other games. You can equip certain cards from your deck onto your character to unlock all kinds of abilities – from things as simple as an evade, a block or a dropkick to things as complex as improved damage after a perfect block. The cards system does feel a little bit gimmicky, but being able to swap out abilities on the fly to complement your character and personal playstyle is a nice touch.
From that point, I was thrown into L.A. to fend for myself, having to find a group of people holed up in an expensive property overlooking the suburb before heading out to improve our numbers. It’s at this point that Dead Island 2 make its intentions totally clear – it’s not trying to be anything but Dead Island. There’s no parkour, no deep and depressing story about man’s survival. It’s just you, lots of zombies and implements to hit them with. It’s a simple premise that will appeal to some but not everyone.
Similarly, that sentiment carries on in the quest design. Dead Island 2’s quests feel like they did in the original Dead Island over a decade ago. Head to an area, find a battery to power something up, power it up and then mow down any zombies left standing. Go to an area, examine areas to increase a meter by a certain percentage, and then move on after finishing your “investigation”. Dead Island 2’s quest design has, thus far in my preview, proven to be rather simplistic and feels like it did in the original game. Once again, not likely a deal breaker for everyone, but something that bears mentioning.
A similar design philosophy also carries across to Dead Island 2’s combat. Similar to the original game, there’s a whole wealth of melee options that you can pilfer from just about anywhere. From knives to swords to planks and golf clubs, there’s bound to be something you’d appreciate mowing down countless zombies with. Unfortunately, weapons are degradeable, but keeping them in your inventory allows you to repair them at your bench, amongst other things.
The bench is also where you’ll craft – adding elemental affinities to your weapons and other perks. It’s, once again, very similar to games like Dead Island or Dying Light, but offers up a fun way to engage with the game’s combat. Some enemies are weak to certain elements, so trying to load your inventory with various weapons for different purposes is the way to go. If you’re not one to engage with mechanics like these in games, you can still get by with pure skill, but elemental damage will always make things a touch easier.
While the combat is simplistic, the standout is easily the F.L.E.S.H. system. Standing for Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids, the system is basically a damage system that procedurally generates how you rip zombies apart. The result is something that feels truly unique. Every zombie you attack in Dead Island 2 will react differently, or realistically to whatever weapon you’re using on it and wherever you’re using it on them.
In my time with the game, I was amazed to see how this system works in real-time. I’d run out of weapons early on, so I’d resorted to using my first on a lone zombie. It was almost shocking to see that a different area of the zombie’s face would be affected with every punch. Eventually, I’d punched past skin, and their eyes were hanging out of their head, and their jaw was broken and dangling. Intrigued, I turned my attention to all the dead zombies to see how far I could take things. You can slash away at a leg, through skin and muscle and even break off the limb of a zombie. It’s a macabre system but one that separates Dead Island 2 from other zombie games.
From a presentation standpoint, though this is a preview, Dead Island 2 looks and runs great. There’s something special about running around locations like Bel Air as the sun sets while mowing down huge amounts of zombies. It’s similarly encouraging to find that despite a few bugs supposedly being present in this build, I didn’t encounter any of them. On the soundtrack front, Dead Island 2 is leaning into its tongue-in-cheek approach by selecting licensed songs that fit the mood. My highlight from this preview was fighting an angry bride zombie while Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Bad Wedding” played in the background. It’s on the nose, but so much of Dead Island 2 is.
I leave this preview amazed that Dead Island 2 is so close and almost finished. I played it a long time ago, maybe even two development teams ago, and it’s encouraging to discover what it’s evolved into today. While I’ve some reservations about how much it will do to keep me interested across its story, when so much feels so similar to the original game, but Dead Island 2 is bound to appeal to fans of the original when it releases next month.