It’s finally here. Almost a decade after its announcement and changing developers no less than three times, Dead Island 2 beats all odds. Having spent so long in development, I’d wondered if it could best the original game. It does in many ways, but it still feels like it came out of the same era of games, for better or for worse.
Dead Island 2 occurs a few months after the original game’s events. An infection has found its way to the sunny state of California, infecting everyone there and turning them into grotesque zombies and monsters. You play as one of six survivors whose plane crashes while trying to escape the quarantine zone. You’re eventually bitten, discover that you’re immune, and begin your journey, meeting up with survivors to plot your escape. It’s a done-to-death story but simple enough that it carries the action well.
As I mentioned in my preview last month, Dead Island 2 is most certainly going for a more tongue-in-cheek approach with its storytelling, for the most part. The game is loaded with humour and comedy that will land differently with different people, poking fun at the most vacuous of celebrity culture. The plot is serviceable at the most basic level but introduces a few mysteries about halfway through that aren’t entirely resolved when the credits roll. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new thread of stories for a sequel to deal with or even some hooks for DLC. Regardless, it’s incredibly simplistic.
Similarly, Dead Island 2 plays like almost no time has passed since the original was released over a decade ago. Like nearly anything that’s come before it, you’ll be thrown into California to complete optional side quests, quests that advance the plot or find weapons hidden by people throughout the map. It’s a typical open-world experience that anyone who’s played a Dead Island, Borderlands or Dying Light game will be familiar with. It’s a tried and true formula, but it’s not breaking much new ground.
One point of difference that Dead Island 2 is determined to make is that you can choose a playable character from a roster of six. Each of these characters has different strengths and weaknesses to suit your playstyle. But it ultimately doesn’t mean much. One, for example, boosts damage to enemies that aren’t surrounded by other enemies. This situation rarely happens in Dead Island 2. Another can create an explosive effect when hitting an enemy with a type of attack. The same effect can be stacked on weapons as you progress through the story. These innate skills are only meaningful in the opening moments of the game.
Every character has their own dialogue and personality too, but your character’s lines are chopped and changed around the dialogue of NPCs so that it rarely sounds like two people are in a room having a conversation. It removes so much from the story’s presentation, which was already lacking that I can’t help but feel like pulling them all together would’ve helped serve the story better.
But it’s not all bad. The FLESH system helps to make the combat much more satisfying than it has any right to be. It stands for Fully Location Evisceration System for Humanoids, and it’s a system that offers greater realism in how you rip, burn or tear your zombies apart. Every zombie you attack in Dead Island 2 will react differently and realistically to whatever weapon you’re using.
It’s a system that, in real time, is pretty impressive. Constantly hitting a zombie with a blunt weapon will see bones dent, crack and break. Slashing with a bladed weapon will separate the skin from muscle until you’re hitting bone. Attacking joints in a zombie’s leg will drop them to the floor. It’s a macabre system separating Dead Island 2 from those that came before it, even if its addition to the game is mainly cosmetic.
Another aspect unique to Dead Island 2 is the reliance on a card system rather than a traditional skill tree. These cards are decorated with some pretty gnarly artwork. They are given as rewards for completing certain challenges or through story progression. You can equip any combination to best create your perfect build – like giving your character an evade or a block. Others heal you when hitting a zombie with a heavy attack or boosting your damage after a successful block. There are over fifty cards to mix and match to suit your playstyle, a degree of flexibility that I appreciate more than a skill tree with respec.
A crafting system allows you to add certain elemental traits to your weapons too. Certain enemies are weaker to certain elements, but it adds a very satisfying tinge to the already satisfying combat. Hitting enemies with a spray of acidic bullets and watching their skin melt away down to bone is a fun, if not slightly disturbing sight. Similarly, hitting a zombie with an electrically charged weapon will fry them but also arc out electricity to enemies around them. In a body of water? The effect is amplified. It’s a fun little system that was a joy to engage with in a genre that usually has me rolling my eyes at crafting.
Depending on how much you engage with optional content, most players will get around fifteen to twenty hours out of Dead Island 2. Whether you’ll want to is another matter entirely, though co-op certainly helps make things a lot more fun, though the lack of any crossplay options in today’s climate feels like a miss. Despite there being multiple characters, too, there’s no reason to play through the game more than once as the plot progresses in the same way. While I’m not quite at the point of finishing the entirety of the game’s side quests, I’d estimate most players would get at least thirty hours out of finishing everything.
But I will warn you – Dead Island 2 is repetitive. So many objectives will have you heading to an item to activate, realising the item needs power to work, and then fighting off hordes of zombies while you wait for the power to be restored. You’ll reattach a valve to a pipe multiple times and turn it to access a new area. It’s, once again, bound to be an experience only saved by the funny interactions you have with zombies as you complete these objectives, but they’re still repetitive as ever.
In terms of presentation, Dead Island 2 hands in a decent performance. California as a setting is beautiful and almost genius or a game of this ilk. From the sweeping hillside neighbourhoods of Bel-Air to the sunny sands of Venice Beach, Dead Island 2 successfully captures a sense of paradise like Banoi in Dead Island before it, just a different type of paradise. It’s an immaculately realised setting I can’t find much fault with. Some visual glitches led to limbs dancing long after the zombie they were attached to had perished, but this only added to the comedy. Intentional or not.
Despite its shortcomings, I still had fun with Dead Island 2. It should grow old quickly on paper, but even playing by myself, I never tired of destroying countless hordes of zombies in exciting and varied ways. It’s by no means a perfect sequel, but it does a great job of channelling the spirit of the original, regardless.
Dead Island 2 stands firmly besides its predecessor as only a marginal improvement. While there something to be recognised in the flexible skill system and satisfying dismemberment effects, Dead Island 2's lack of objective variety and uninteresting playable characters fall short of its potential. There's still some fun to be had for zombie fans, just don't expect a reinvention by any means.