Dead Island 2
Released: April 21, 2023
Developer: Dambuster Studios
Publisher: Deep Silver
Systems: PC, PS4/5 (reviewed), Xbox One/XS
I’ll say one thing for the Dead Island series - it sure has done well off the back of some mildly misleading advertising . The original Dead Island notoriously caught public attention with one of the most memorable trailers of all time, a veritable short film contrasting sentimental music against the heartrending visual of a young family being ravaged by zombies. Its disturbingly heartfelt nature suggested Techland was bringing something more thoughtful, hopefully more remarkable, than the average zombie game.
Yeah… it was an average zombie game.
The sequel, rather amusingly, has done the same thing from the opposite end of the promise spectrum. Dead Island 2’s announcement trailer emphasized dark humor, with a comedic level of undead violence set to Pigeon John’s “The Bomb.” After last time, I doubt many of us expected Dead Island 2 to be a laugh riot, but underscoring the series’ ludicrous gore with explicit comedy would be a great move, and an eminently doable one at that.
Yeah… it’s an average zombie game.
Dead Island 2 does boast a lighter mood than the original, but it possesses not a shred of tonal commitment. Occasionally serious, occasionally silly, but never going strongly in either direction, Dambuster's sequel mostly contents itself with a plot-by-numbers drenched in relentless quips from the player’s chosen character. Its meandering tone comes off like a compromise but I can’t for the life of me work out who or what it’s compromising with. Why is a game about tearing zombies to comical shreds with wackily modified weapons playing it so safe? Who is it trying not to offend?
Few things offend my critical sensibilities more than a game that has so little faith in its own identity it does everything possible to suppress any evidence of having one.
So yes, the story and quests are frustratingly forgettable, but that’s hardly the death knell of a game focused primarily on acquiring progressively stronger weapons with which to eviscerate thousands of zombies. In this regard, Dead Island 2 is… fine. It’s absolutely fine, offering relatively entertaining and brutally satisfying combat via a range of weapons that really feel like they’re connecting to bloody effect.
The most impressive thing this game does is grant the player a tangible sense of having well and truly fucked a zombie up. Like its predecessor, there’s a pleasing difference in the way melee weapons feel when they land a hit, as knives rip into flesh and hammers crunch bones. The way in which enemies physically react to offense is wonderful, and it’s never not enjoyable to swing a sledgehammer and watch the broken bodies fly.
Gore effects work overtime to emphasize just how devastated the undead are when a player is done with them. Skin blackens and crisps when set aflame, acid melt bodies from the point of impact, and it goes without saying that limbs are always flying everywhere. This attention to vicious detail is most apparent in zombies’ faces and their procedural ruination, capable as they are of falling apart in ways so reflective of the player’s offense as to at least appear personalized.
Sick as it feels to praise such things as jawbones hanging off single hinges and eyeballs dangling in holes where pieces of a head used to be, credit is due where it’s due, and the amount of exquisitely traumatized flesh on offer is a credit to the creators.
Melee weapons come in a variety of shapes and sizes, loosely classifiable as things that cut, things that bash, and things that poke. Attacking is a generally messy affair both in terms of bloodiness and controls, as the player swings wildly at enemies’ body parts to wreck them with very little nuance. Pleasantly, the player’s obligatory stamina meter only governs heavy attacks and jumping kicks, meaning that dodging and sprinting is freely accessible. Less pleasantly, weapon degradation is a frequent concern, and it won’t surprise you to learn that a durability system has once again done absolutely nothing to enhance the experience.
Guns have an increased presence this time around and the various rifles, handguns, and shotguns feel real nice to use. Modding a revolver so it sends zombies flying backwards with enough hits is a favorite of mine.
Speaking of mods, Dead Island 2’s armaments can, like last time, be enhanced with a selection of craftable upgrades and perks. Mods generally inflict status effects via different damage types, while perks grant basic stat boosts or - once you start harvesting zombie organs - unique benefits like leeching attacks or explosive critical hits. Weapons are dished out like free candy with multiple rarity levels, and there are of course unique or legendary ones hiding out in the world.
While all these weapons and modifications offer a good selection of variety at first, they grow unavoidably stale due to just how little else is going on during the long, largely pedestrian, story campaign.
Sad fact is, Dead Island 2’s maintenance of a single note is just as apparent in its gameplay as its creative presentation. Slaughtering dead stuff with crowbars and claws is certainly fun, but the violent routine doesn’t ever change and it goes on for hours upon hours with neither highs nor lows. The weapons get stronger, their modifications get more effective, and special zombies arrive with their acid vomit or scream attacks, but the groove never changes. It doesn’t get worse, it doesn’t get better, you just keep bashing everything until it’s dead, and you do it forever.
This repetition would not be so apparent if it wasn’t beset by additional tedium that does nothing but pad things out. There’s only so many times one can engage in the exact same environmental puzzle involving electrical cables and puddles before the mundanity turns excruciating. There are a few such obstacles - sometimes it’ll be a fire that needs extinguishing, or caustic liquid that needs washing away - and they’re recycled constantly while offering no new ways of engaging with them. It's just a slew of endlessly regurgitated interactions with Dead Island 2’s only four elements of electricity, water, fire, and causticity.
Then there’s the sheer volume of locked doors - exploring the setting of “Hell A” is an exasperatingly gatekept affair, barrier after barrier requiring hidden keys that could be readily nearby or might prove inaccessible for hours. There are so many locked buildings and boxes, so many doors that can’t be opened from one side, that it starts to feel oppressive after only a short time playing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a good old fashioned key fetching quest, but Dead Island 2 runs the concept into the damn ground.
"Hell A" itself feels neither very large nor particularly dense, unfolding over a series of middlingly sized maps with only a few points of worthwhile interest apiece. That doesn’t stop quests from getting tons of mileage out of every map though, sending players back to old places for a multitude of unremarkable side missions. Hopefully players love the movie studio area, because the developers sure did!
Online co-op is available in a classic drop-in format, and its completely bog standard, but it does the job of getting four players together for a gore fest and it needn’t be fancier than that. There’s also a range of challenges that are always being updated as you play, offering bonus rewards for the usual objectives including killing certain enemy types or using specific weapons. None of this is standout, but as an extra thing, it’s fine.
And that’s Dead Island 2 all over. It’s not standout, but it’s not shit.
As a mindless distraction played while mentally checked out, Dead Island 2 has merit. It is enjoyable for good periods of time, and it’s done a solid job of refining the messy hack n’ slash of the original game while improving ranged combat alongside it. As fun as all the zombie slaying can be, however, an intense lack of variety coupled with dreary exploration is outright exhausting at times, and I wouldn’t blame any player for moving on long before finishing the story. It’s not a game that’s entertaining while it lasts - it’s entertaining while you last.