PAX East Preview – Dead Island 2 Impressions

When Dead Island 2 releases next month on April 21st, it will join the hallowed ranks of titles such as Duke Nukem Forever, Spore, and Prey (2017) — games that took a really freakin’ long time to develop. Originally announced in 2014 and scheduled for a 2015 release, the game will clock in at 9 years in the oven upon arrival next month. If our cursory Google search is at all accurate, that puts it solidly in the modern top 10 in terms of development time. The question, of course, is was it worth the wait? From our brief chance to check out the game today, it seems like Dead Island 2 just might carve out a space for itself in the crowded zombie game niche.

The original Dead Island got mixed reviews upon release; while it was praised for its gameplay and overall atmosphere, technical issues and inconsistency in its combat and storytelling caused it to garner only average scores from most publications. Many reviewers playing via Steam also received a development build of the game, further harming the game’s reputation.

The troubles didn’t stop with Dead Island 1, however. When the sequel was announced 9 years ago, German developers Yager Development GmbH were at the helm. A year later, it was announced that “Yager and Deep Silver’s respective visions of the project fell out of alignment”, and that the German developer would no longer be working on the game. Fast forward another year to 2016, and UK team Sumo Digital announces they’d taken over development of Dead Island 2. They lasted longer than Yager, but by 2019, the title had been passed to yet another developer, this time to Dambuster Studios, an internal studio of publisher Deep Silver.

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Which makes it all the more impressive that the game is less than a month from release, and that it feels like a relatively tight, focused experience. When a game’s spent nearly a decade being crafted, you might expect to encounter tons of different systems and ideas that feel mashed together, but Dead Island 2 seems to have managed to simply iterate on the previous title, adding a few extra systems that simply give you more ways to bash in zombie skulls.

The sequel leans heavily on its predecessor in overall presentation; the UI is very similar, as is the presentation of the zombies — they even sport the same titles and health/stamina bars. Of course, this all falls under “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and should make it even easier for fans of the original to get into Dead Island 2.

You’ll be able to choose from 6 different playable characters (“Slayers”) with unique passives or abilities that encourage specific playstyles — some characters gain bonuses when in the thick of things, while others do best in isolated duels or while being sneaky. The character I played gained stamina when throwing weapons, and did more damage to lone zombies — this seemed like it might come in handy for elite enemies, but given how often I was swarmed, I found myself wishing I could play one of the characters that did better against groups.

You can further diversify your combat approach with the game’s card system, which offers a clever twist on the standard skill tree most games have. There are four card categories: Abilities, Survivor, Slayer, and Numen. Ability cards are exactly what they sound like: want to block? Slot in a block card. Believe the best defense is a good offense? Maybe you’d rather equip the Drop Kick card. The other categories serve to further augment a specific playstyle, granting your character additional damage, defense, or healing. The Numen cards are apparently rare, high impact cards, but we weren’t able to play with them in the preview build.

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What weapons you choose will also have a major effect on how your character plays. At the start of the game, you’re limited to melee weapons, but there’s still plenty of variety on offer. This isn’t just for varieties’ sake, either — since different enemy types are stronger or weaker vs things like bludgeoning or slashing weapons, it’s best to make sure you’ve got both bonking and slashing options at your disposal.

Dead Island 2 takes its zombie-killing to Los Angeles, maintaining the “paradise” vibe but with millionaire mansions instead of straw huts. 10 years after the events of Dead Island, Your character’s plane crashes while trying to get out of the city, which has been quarantined for reasons that should be pretty obvious. The choice of setting, while not a particularly unique one, is put to excellent use: many of the brain-craving denizens of LA are carefully placed in a context-appropriate way: wander into a movie set, and you’ll be attacked by zombies wielding boom mics or crew uniforms.

We only got to play a brief section of Dead Island 2, but I found myself impressed by the challenges the game presented. I expected to mindlessly bash my way through the undead hordes, but there were a variety of different zombie types that forced me to pay close attention to what I was doing. Some enemies explode when they get too close, forcing you to run away and use ranged weapons. Others electrify the area around them; there are also XXL zombies that can take a ton of punishment before going down. When these unique foes are mixed in with a swarm of regular zombies, it takes careful aiming and positioning to avoid succumbing to death’s embrace.

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The ability cards feel very impactful: choosing between Blocking and Dodging is a fundamental shift in playstyle, and both appear to have clear strengths and weaknesses. The bonuses the non-ability cards give are significant as well, which should make them welcome loot alongside the wide variety of melee and ranged weapons the game offers. Speaking of weapons, the character in the preview started with a well-stocked armory; I got to try out a rifle, a revolver, and a number of different melee weapons from a katana to a wrench. The weapons all felt weighty and impactful, and well-aimed slices sends limbs flying in a satisfying manner. You’ll be able to DIY-style customize weapons you find, though again this wasn’t something we were able to do in our brief time with the game.

The only real question now is whether or not the gameplay loop will remain interesting over the twenty some-odd hours that the main story is set to run. If DI2 is like the first game, you won’t be able to switch characters mid-game, so you’ll need to replay the story if you want to try out a different Slayer — depending on the ultimate level of enemy variety, the card system and the weapon crafting might have to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of keeping gameplay fresh. Still, there’s a lot to like in Dead Island 2, and if the section we saw today is indicative of the game as a whole, it just might be worth the wait.

Dead Island 2 releases April 21, 2023, for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.

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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.

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