Dead Island 2 SoLA Review — Playing the Bloody Hits (Live)

8.3/10

Largely more of the same, SoLA is elevated to be the new "best part of the game" thanks to great set pieces, a pulpy plot, and an extremely fun, psychedelic new region to play around in. Dead Island should run the festival circuit more often.

When Dead Island 2 released almost exactly a year ago, I liked it more than most people (including even a bit more than my colleague, Daniel, in his review). I thought it was a fantastic zombie game that scratched that itch that has been neglected since Left For Dead and Dead Rising were at their height. I liked the feel of its combat, the design of its world, the stellar aesthetics. Hell, I even liked the writing enough to produce a video essay on the subject. And nobody went to Dead Island 2 for the writing. Suffice to say, I love Hell-A.

dead island 2 sola intro lawn

In the last year, then, Dead Island 2 has become a comfort game for me. I’ve played through it a couple of times, but most often just wander its world, killin’ zombies and collecting keys and dealing with what I came across. It is one of the few games I don’t play to complete or for any specific goal. It’s a game I can just luxuriate with, enjoy myself.

And so, I might be the dead-center target audience for the SoLA DLC. It sees your Slayer visit a zombie-infested, SoCal music festival — very obviously inspired by Coachella (and yes, this DLC is releasing during Coachella). While there, you will get new weapons, fight new enemies, and explore a brand-new area in the festival grounds as you navigate a new quest line (one which ties into the main quest of the game). That all sounds great on paper, and like a notable improvement from the lackluster Haus DLC, but how does it stack up in practice?

Well, let’s just say that there’s a reason that SoLA is Hell-A’s premier music festival. Worth the ticket price (so long as TicketMaster isn’t in charge of it).

dead island 2 zombiefight

Before I delve into why, though, let’s go over a few things that SoLA is not, to temper expectations. SoLA is not an overhaul of the base game of Dead Island 2. Its new map connects to the rest of Hell-A, and is gated through story progression just as if it had been part of the base game. Its gameplay loop is the same, just taking what worked with Dead Island 2 and giving players more of it. And its core feel is identical, even if it is at its sharpest as it is at any point in the base game.

So, while SoLA is Dead Island 2 at its best (in fact, I think the new festival is the best map in the entire game), if you didn’t like Dead Island 2, or even if you did like it but wore out on it, it won’t change your mind. If you did, however, like Dead Island 2 and need a reason to play it again, here’s your call: get SoLA and do it.

That’s not to say that SoLA doesn’t add much. In fact, though the actual story content it adds is modest in length, I was quite happy with all the additions. As an incomplete list, SoLA adds:

  • SoLA itself, a huge festival map that is almost certainly the best-designed and best-looking area in the entire game, with numerous sub-areas that all play and feel different.
  • A couple new enemy types, which are fun and challenging to fight and have enjoyable gimmicks.
  • A new quest that channels the energy of the base game, adds a great new character, and ties into the main story of the rest of the game.
  • Several new boss fights and set-pieces, most of which are difficult and super fun. With one exception.
  • A small roster of new powers, curveballs, and weapons which are… Not really the highlight, but at least stack up with the base game. Except for one, which might be a new favorite, but I’ll come back to that.
  • In total, the game adds about 5–6 hours of bespoke new story content, in addition to the ways in which that bleeds out into the rest of Hell-A.

The real highlight of all of that, as you can probably tell, is SoLA itself. Allow me to struggle to explain, for just a bit, how perfect it is as an area.

Firstly, the entire festival — structured almost like a theme park — could not do better at replicating the feeling of a SoCal festival even if the Red Hot Chili Peppers headlined it. And it does so all through the well-meaning lampooning that Dead Island 2 does so well. The whole place — from its overlarge lawn to its overpriced food stalls to its incredible themed stages to its many logistical buildings — all feel like a festival on steroids, for better and worse.

dead island 2 sola vertical food thing

There is a clear dedication to capturing both the fun ‘Cali’ vibes of a place like that, complete with moody lighting and pyrotechnic shows, while also making fun of the absurdity of it, with half the park being taken up by infrastructure to accommodate queues, surrounded by overpriced fictional brands (with some great visual gags) that are equal parts hypertrendy and hypergimmicky. As a frequent concert-goer and occasional festival attendee, SoLA nails that feel. It is colorful, fun, consumerist, satirical, and it just… vibes. Similar to how the rest of the game lampoons and appreciates LA culture while simultaneously feeling authentic in it, SoLA does the same.

And it doesn’t just stop at visual aesthetic; the park is full of set pieces that use the locations to make for incredible zombie-slaying action. Themed areas have appropriate tools and are populated with appropriate zombies to make the slaying fun. Tiki-bar? Expect flammable liquids and exploding tanks. A pool-party stage? You can bet that there are electrical zombies all around. The main stage? Pyrotechnics, screens, and music galore! A comically-large fan to cool off impatient attendees? Well… What do you think you do with a giant fan in a zombie game? So on and so forth; this festival is as expertly crafted for the violence as for the acoustics. Every sub-area of it is a blast to make use of.

dead island 2 pool party

This is all complimented by the other, more understated additions to the game. The two new zombie types are fun and thematic, fitting the tone and feel of the gameplay loop for this area (even if both have some attacks that did have me cursing under my breath). The new weapons help round out the roster, though only the Ripper and the Saw-blade Launcher (which is unlocked far too late to make much use out of). The new powers and curveballs are underwhelming but situationally useful, for the power-players. Everything added ranged from “fine” to “fantastic.”

This includes the story, which both picks up on an unresolved plot from the main game, adds a new quest line that is equal parts zany as it is enjoyable, and starts to answer some underlying lore questions that… well, nobody cares about the lore. But it’s nice to know that it’s there! And, like how I really enjoyed the story and characters of the base game, I really enjoy them in this DLC. Cadenza’s reappearance is electric and features some great sci-fi, B-movie moments, and the introduction of Grace — a slightly schizophrenic conspiracy theorist/event organizer — really helps sell the quest. Not to mention that the player-character Slayers (at least the 3 I played as to test the DLC) all continue to have some of the best player barks and quips around. This all placed in a wild, surprisingly psychedelic, vaguely mysterious plot that just compounds on a totally-not-drug-induced feeling that proves that SoLA is an authentic recreation of a SoCal festival (with zombies).

dead island 2 psychadelia

That isn’t to say everything about the DLC is perfect. Even accounting for some of the flaws that are inherent with Dead Island 2 — some clunkiness, a generally repetitive game loop, a gear upgrade system that never feels totally fleshed out — there are some stumbling blocks that are unique to SoLA. My main minor gripe is a lack of meaningful gear upgrades — the loot system in the game already fails to really generate the dopamine buzz of the best looter-shooters, and SoLA‘s loot is especially lackluster compared to the base game.

But my major gripe is with one area in particular: the final boss. In interest of avoiding spoilers, I will not talk too much about it, but I will say that the entire last fight is a tedious slog, made worse by repeating the worst boss-fight faux-pas: forcing you to replay the entire fight (including the very boring bits) whenever you die. Which you will, because the boss has teleportation and attacks with insane damage (but no, the attacks are not interesting or fun). It left a bad taste in my mouth right at the end of the DLC, soothed only slightly by it unlocking the coolest ranged weapon in the game.

Aside from those issues, though, the DLC is exactly what I wanted. It features an expansion of Dead Island 2’s wonderfully shark-jumping-but-somehow-heartfelt story, it adds one of my new favorite levels in any zombie games, it has immaculate style, and it gives me more of what I love. And, while it was not incredibly long — clocking in at about 6 hours for the story, with around 3-4 more to complete it 100% — it certainly packs more of a wallop than the previous Haus DLC did.

dead island 2 standoff

In short, Dead Island 2‘s SoLA gave me exactly what I wanted, with only a few stumbles. It’s like Lana Del Rey: imperfect, but fascinating. And it doesn’t even tack on a convenience/venue/digital/because-we-can fee.

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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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