Dead Island 2

Dead Island 2

Back from beyond the grave.

dead island 2

It’s with a bit of surprise that I’m writing this review because for many years we’ve all just assumed that Dead Island 2 was actually living up to its name.  With development shifting between multiple studios over a decade since its announcement, and going radio silent for a long time, we thought it was long buried.  Then, like the many zombies you’ll be slaughtering in the game, it’s risen from the grave and is shambling its way on to PC and consoles this week.  Given the amount of time it’s spent festering underground you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s going to stink, and maybe you’ll be right… but then again it could surprise you too.  A lot has been learnt in the land of the videogame during the development cycle, fads have come and gone, franchises have been born and passed, and there have been 14(!) Call of Duty games in the intervening years; has anything been taken onboard to avoid the risk of being nearly as big a disappointment as Duke Nukem Forever?  I think the answer is going to depend on whether you enjoyed the first game back in 2011 or not.

Set, coincidentally, 10 years after the original Dead Island game, you take on the part of one of six potential protagonists who survives a plane crash whilst trying to escape from Los Angeles on the last flight out.  In the catastrophic aftermath you end up fighting for your life and running from the swarming undead, though tragically get bitten.  It’s not that bad though as it turns out that you’re immune, and this means that not only can you help research a cure, you can also be the gopher for whichever survivor group you come across.  They do ask nicely and promise lovely rewards so it only seems fair to help them out, and maybe you’ll do some good in this world that’s gone to hell before everyone succumbs.  Being an altruistic sort (or at least in Jacob’s case as I picked him), you head out into the ravaged and infested city to offer yourself up to science, making sure you wreak as much zombie destruction as you can on the way.  Dead Island 2’s journey will take you from the heights of Bel Air to the depths of the sewers, throwing in some nice plot twists and turns on the way, and paying an awful lot of homage to not just the zombie media genre, but to gaming in general.  Story-wise it feels familiar for those reasons if you’ve played or watched a lot of undead horror, though it doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

Interestingly, each of the six selectable characters are unique in a playthrough – you cannot swap mid-game, it requires a full restart to try someone else, though handily there is a way to transfer weapons and items across games with the use of storage lockers.  Each character has a fixed set of attributes, there are no RPG stats to increase, just a levelling system that ups your health and power.  Instead, Dead Island 2 employs skill cards to add abilities then layer improvements on top.  Specific story beats or levelling can add skill cards, and in a really well thought out touch, you can earn additional ones by completing the challenges the game has lined up in the background.  These are typically things you’ll naturally be doing like scavenging and crafting items, beating zombies to a pulp, and helping out the locals; so there’s not a lot of going out of your way to do them, but it does add focus and a bit of motivation to keep on swinging those weapons.  This streamlining of the character actually pays off to allow you to focus more on the action and be less concerned with the stat management, without removing the personalisation options that define your own gameplay style.  Boosting abilities is left on the crafting table where it’s best used to improve the plethora of weapons at your fingertips on the trek through L.A.

When it comes to surviving the end of the world and not being nommed by rotting corpses, anything can be a weapon.  Burnt pieces of timber, scaffolding poles, lumps of rebar… they’re all good to use to smash against walkers, runners and shamblers.  All are effective as blunt instruments of devastation, though the more discerning amongst us will likely be drawn to anything sharp and shiny.  Blades are very good, maybe not as powerful, yet perfect for lopping off limbs and slowing the blighters down.  Their surgical precision means you can get tactical and creative with tackling multiple foes.  Of course, firearms are a must have for those longer range encounters, and unlike some zombie FPS games, they’re not held in short supply.  Dead Island 2 wants you to blast away, just be prepared to have to wait until the second act to really get to grips with pistols, shotguns and rifles.  With the way the game’s combat is structured, none of the core weapon types are dominant – each has a use, effective range, and ability to tackle different types of enemies quickly; so being aware of what’s in your arsenal and who to use them against is a key mechanic to learn.  Of course you’ll have favourites, and likely because they do gruesome yet impressive things to the undead bodies attacking you.

Dambuster Studios has created FLESH (Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids) which anatomically reproduces layers of skin, fat, muscle and bone which procedurally reacts to whatever you’re abusing the zombie models with.  Slice one across the chest and you’ll see the line appear cutting clothing and surface tissue; bludgeon a head and the skull can cave, the jaw dislocate and even eyes pop out; shotgun a limb and it’ll vapourise it… it’s truly disgusting and impressive in equal measures.  Even when you’re inflicting relatively light damage you can see clothing ripping away and skin being grazed to leave bloody pulpy zombies still trying to get at you.  It’s actually hard to convey in the screenshots here, with moving images doing a much better job of showing just how detailed things get, so I’ve left a link at the bottom to check out the devs talking about the system.  On its own this is enough to keep you experimenting with inflicting damage with as many weapons as possible for hours, but layer on top elemental effects and it becomes a whole new playground.  Electricity, fire and acid are ever present in L.A. and can be used to great effect in environmental attacks or by crafting weapon upgrades that add status damage over time.  Looking out for opportunities to create hot spots where multiple zombies can be tackled at once isn’t exactly hard, the place is littered with pools of water, broken power cables, fuel cans and drums of acid.  It becomes more about not getting overwhelmed with the choices and just decide on what will be the most effective.

Progression through Dead Island 2 is measured by your own level which is reflected in the zombie’s difficulty level at any given time.  You’ll never really encounter anything below your level, and there is always the possibility that you’ll stumble across higher level foes when you’re not ready (run is my advice), but for the most part you’re using your wits and inventory to stay alive.  Addition skills come later in the game that give you an edge, and the reasonable selection of upgrades allows a level of customisation to make weapons feel unique to you, as well as doing the job you want.  Certain enemy types will be immune to the variety of elemental effects, so you need to swap up weapons more often as you go to counteract this.  Your hand is forced into frequently changing armaments with the way melee items wear out and the game continually drops newer, higher level gear to be attracted to.  If you’ve something you’ve grown particularly fond of there’s always the option to repair it and bring it up to your current level, though it tends to be very pricey to do that.  Whatever you decide you’re never stuck for something to fight with, especially as your secondary throwables (known as Curveballs) are on cooldown timers.  Supporting the decision to not distract with RPG elements, the need to collect consumables and find ammo has been pared back, so you don’t have to do quite as much scavenging, but it can help even if it’s flogging unwanted junk to vendors.

A big test for Dead Island 2 is how it plays when compared to a game that came out two generations of hardware ago.  It’s not fair, I know it, but those that played originally in 2011 will remember it wasn’t the most stable of framerates or free from bugs, and Dambuster’s history has had a sketchy release with Homefront: The Revolution (though their last game, Chorus, was an absolute belter).  Without doubt this is smooth and extremely playable.  Even with plenty going on and zombie parts flying everywhere it’s stable with no hint of screentear or shuddering along.  It looks amazing throughout too with an exceptional level of detail in the environments to bring the sense of place and situation to your living room.  The decision to work like the first game and not be open world means more resources can be used in the area you’re currently in, and the set dressing conveys multiple stories whilst not actually having to say anything at all.  With audiologs and text files to fill in some of the tragedy of the ruined city you can delve deeper into the despair and heartbreak of the residents, or skip them entirely and just take in the sights in their HDR glory.  Sound is pretty bob on too, with visceral meat smacking noises the main aural accompaniment, and (weirdly) squeaky trainers on tile floors.  I’ve also enjoyed the voice acting, finding it straddling that fine line between cocky, cheesy and tongue-in-cheek which means it doesn’t grate or become repetitive.

We reach the point where there’s something negative to pull out that compounds the instincts that Dead Island 2 has been too long in development limbo/rushed/creatively starved – delete as you see fit – yet I’m struggling to think of anything.  I can’t deny that it does feel like it’s more of the same, but after 10 years of waiting for a sequel which are by nature exactly that, it’s not a problem.  In fact, I’ve found it as refreshing as much as it’s nostalgic.  There’s a brutal simplicity to the game that only really has you do two things: head to a location and batter the zombies to a bloody mess; and this is enough to compel you forward.  A story can only do so much, the true motivator is seeing what else is going to be offered up as a way to create more chaos, and this is where things are well paced and spread out so that you don’t ever become too powerful and ultimately bored.  I’ve not even ventured into the 3 player co-op yet, that’s something that’s pencilled in for release when the rest of the Codec Moments team pick up their copies and we see what kind of carnage that brings.  In the gaming world it seems like this is an anomaly; the rare situation where it’s been worth all the development strife and delays because here is a wonderfully gory, gruesomely fun, wickedly humourous adventure.  Let’s hope that if they decide to take this series any further we’re not waiting around until the actual zombie apocalypse hits.

A PS5 review copy of Dead Island 2 was provided by Dambuster Studios’ PR team, and the game is available on PlayStation, Xbox and PC from the 21st April for around £50 (depending on platform).  For more info on the FLESH system, click this link.

The Verdict


The Good: Visceral action | Good length and paced story | Smooth & fun to play

The Bad: Get used to fighting off Z’s in all the same places | Similar template to the first game

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Co-founder & Editor at Codec Moments

Gamer, F1 fanatic, one half of the Muddyfunkrs DJ duo (find us over on Hive Radio UK), MGS obsessed, tech geek.

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