Bloody Disgusting’s Dead Island 2 review is spoiler-free.
When the first Dead Island released all the way back in 2011 (yes it’s been that long), publisher Deep Silver and original developer Techland delivered a satisfying take on the zombie genre with an open map to explore, characters to upgrade, and wild weapons to customize. Now after its initial announcement in 2014 (yes it’s been that long), we finally have the long awaited follow-up. With a brand new setting, a new developer in the form of Dambuster Studios, and all new gameplay mechanics, I’m happy to report that Dead Island 2 is not the game I expected after all these years. It’s better than I could have ever hoped, as well as an absolute love letter to horror movies, the sunny skies of California, and our insatiable appetite for destruction.
Dead Island 2 starts off with a bang showing a zombie virus ravage the city of Los Angeles in ways that would make the biggest horror fan blush. From its opening moments you pick from one of six playable characters that had the misfortune of attempting an escape from the city that’s lovingly dubbed “Hell-A,” each equipped with their own unique skills. These range from Amy, a Paralympic runner who’s able to regain stamina when she lunges a weapon at a zombie, to Jacob, the stuntman who receives a stacking damage boost when attacking multiple zombies in a row. For my playthrough I chose Dani, a foul-mouthed rockabilly queen who gains Bloodlust when she kills a zombie, allowing her to recover health for a limited period.
After the explosive opening you’re then dropped into the upscale neighborhood of Bel-Air to try and find another way out of the quarantined city before you’re completely overrun. Dead Island 2 ditches the open-map design of previous games in favor of nine distinct districts based on real life locations in Los Angeles, divided by loading screens. These districts aren’t that large but are densely packed with multiple buildings to explore for resources along with side quests to undertake. I had a smile on my face as I explored locations like the upscale neighborhood of Beverly Hills or a zombie-infested movie studio lot. One aspect of exploration that really stands out for me is the unexpected use of light immersive sim elements and problem solving. For example, I found myself locked out of an area of a content house and needed a key to get in to grab the loot inside. Rather than find the key myself, I found a way around the building and decided to smash a window in the back, allowing me to go inside and grab what I wanted. Dead Island 2 rewards players who decide to explore the environment to its fullest. If I had to compare the environments to any other game it would be BioShock, where levels feel linear at first but open up when you start to use the tools and cleverness at your disposal.
Combat in Dead Island 2 is centered around feeling like an absolute badass with a wide variety of melee weapons, firearms and abilities. Though near the start of the game I found myself frantically grabbing whatever breakable weapon I could find in an effort to barely survive, when I unlocked workbenches I was able to upgrade the weapons I found into tools of pure zombie destruction. Whether this was turning my katana into an eclectic sword or giving my sledgehammer acidic abilities, the amount of experimentation and freedom players have in their weapon building is plentiful. Players also have freedom in the way they build their characters.
In lieu of the traditional skill tree seen in the first game, players are able to equip cards to alter how their character plays. For example, I equipped a card that set off a sonic boom every time I healed myself with a med-pack, and another that allowed me to unleash a devastating ground stomp. I appreciated how these various cards were able to be swapped out and changed any time, encouraging me to try out various builds and abilities instead of locking me into one singular path on a grindy skill tree. The player will also eventually gain the powers of the undead themselves and be able to activate various gory abilities, adding more to the power fantasy that games like BioShock have given me in the past.
I can’t believe I’m saying this but Dead Island 2 reminds me so much of BioShock in the ways it allows players to have freedom with their weapons and abilities and choose how to tackle bosses and enemies in their environment. At times the game feels like more of a spiritual successor to the BioShock series instead of a direct continuation of gameplay ideas from the first game. It feels so focused. This game could have easily been a bloated open-world zombie sequel, but by pulling back the reins and focusing on the strengths of gameplay design, Dead Island 2 is able to shine.
The story in Dead Island 2 also plays out in a surprising manner featuring many unexpected turns throughout, all delivered by great voice acting. I grew particularly fond of the British movie starlet that let me use her massive Bel-Air mansion as a base of operations and found myself chuckling at the Venice bodybuilder parody character. I won’t spoil it here but the story is also VERY much a sequel to the original Dead Island. After such a long development cycle with multiple studios attached at various points, it would’ve been so easy to slam the reboot button on this universe. Thankfully, that didn’t end up being the case with Dead Island 2.
Playing on the PS5, I ran into very few issues, with the game hitting the 60 frames per second goal more often than not. Zombies are highly detailed and the gore system attached to them is very impressive. You can take a flame weapon to a zombie and a torched husk will be left of them whereas if you kill one with acid they turn into a gooey mess. For those curious: yes the game has a full dismemberment system and you can maim zombies by aiming for certain parts of them such as legs and arms which is great for getting the upper hand on the hordes. I found myself experimenting to see which ways I could dispatch the undead in the most jaw-droppingly gory ways possible. Worth noting is that the game has a great deal of settings that I personally look for in a first-person game as well, such as an FOV slider and the ability to turn off motion blur.
Dead Island 2 in many ways feels like a relic of a game, but a golden relic. It takes outdated game designs and updates and polishes them to a bright sheen. From the amount of player freedom to the loving tribute to horror movies and Los Angeles. Top to bottom, Dead Island 2 is an enjoyable experience and even more so with friends. In a gaming landscape with an overwhelming amount of open-world and live-service games, it’s a breath of fresh air to get a gem like Dead Island 2.
Review code provided by the publisher.
Dead Island 2 releases on Friday, April 21.