Date: April 18, 2023
Most of the time, I have a very clear idea of how I feel about a game, and the score I’m going to give it, by the time I start writing a review. Yet here I am, ready to write, and Dead Island 2 continues to baffle me. Perhaps it’s because the game often feels like it came out in 2015 (which is when it was originally set to release). Maybe it’s that Dead Island 2 doesn’t do anything new, but manages to do everything pretty well. In any case, I still don’t know exactly what I think about Dead Island 2 — so join me as I try to figure it out.
The first Dead Island came out way back in 2011, and apparently, left reviewers back then as conflicted as I am now. Reviews ranged wildly, with scores from 3/10 to 8/10. (Admittedly, bugs were a large part of why it earned some lower scores.) The sequel may be much less buggy — I only had to save and quit due to bugs one time — but I get the feeling that Dead Island 2 will also end up with mixed reviews.
Dead Island 2 takes place in Los Angeles, or as the residents of the zombie-infested city call it, Hell-A, 10 years after the events of the first game. The city’s been quarantined due to zombie outbreak, but naturally your attempt at evacuation quickly goes south, and you find yourself in need of a plan B for escape. Right before the plane goes down, you’ll pick from one of six playable characters, all possessing different stats and special abilities. Sound familiar? Well, if you played the first game, much of Dead Island 2 will immediately be recognizable– a lot of the gameplay and UI has remained the same (although there’s a fancy new Alexa voice control option with a two second delay that renders it mostly a gimmick).
So has the pacing: once again, you’ll be limited to melee weapons for the first few hours of the game, and they serve as the foundation of gameplay. There’s a decent variety of melee weapon, although the main thing that truly differentiates them is their damage, attack speed and whatever elemental effects you slap on them at one of the many crafting tables scattered across Hell-A. They all deal damage to zombies, but some are better at dismembering, or knocking enemies down. There are other considerations, such as how faster weapons are better at applying status effects
One notable change, however, is that in Dead Island 2 the only thing that costs stamina is your heavy attack. Not only does running, jumping, and using your normal melee strikes not drain your stamina, but you can actually regenerate stamina while sprinting or blocking. This naturally allows you to do a lot of running around and dodging, which in turn makes combat feel less measured and more hectic. Given the overall vibe the game seems to be going for — B-horror movie action — this makes sense, and combat on the whole is perfectly competent.
But after a few hours, I was left asking “Is this it?”. While it feels satisfying the first few times you stomp a downed zombie’s skull, you’ll do the same animation a thousand times before the game is over. Ultimately, there ends up not much variety in the zombie slaying, especially before you get guns. It’s not from lack of trying, though — it’s just that most of the zombies are the same.
The same two basic enemy types are dressed up a dozen different ways, and the climactic boss fight reuses an enemy type you’ve already seen multiple times. Additionally, the special “Apex” variants aren’t particularly interesting to fight. The big bruiser types are hard-countered by holding block and walking backwards, the screamer is more annoying than dangerous — only the enemy that spits gunk on the ground really forces you to play around it.
The devs did put some solid effort into making combat feel like a desperate struggle where you need to use all the options at your disposal: there are three types of liquid that can be found in barrels or poured from jerry cans (which can also be thrown) — oil can be set alight, water can be electrified, and acid just melts stuff. You can throw any melee weapon for decent damage, and there are a large number of “curveballs”, throwable items like zombie bait, molotov cocktails, and electrified shiruken.
The problem is, in 99% of encounters, you don’t actually need to use any of that stuff . Zombies rarely attack you in groups larger than half a dozen, and given how little stamina matters, you can easily run away if you’re in danger. As long as you aren’t doing a quest that’s higher level than your character, it’s very difficult to die; except near the end when I was underleveled and rushing through the story, I never needed to utilize the myriad options on offer — leaving me once again feeling conflicted.
That said, they’re certainly there, and while it isn’t really necessary, you can mix it up in combat if you so choose. In addition to the dozens of mods you can slap on both melee and ranged weapons, there are four categories of skill cards you can equip: Abilities, Survivor, Slayer, and a story-related card we’ll avoid discussing for the sake of spoilers. Abilities alter your basic abilities — you can choose between a block and a dodge, two types of jump kick, and three special attacks. Survivor and Slayer give defensive and offensive passive buffs, respectively, and most of them make a noticeable impact.
While I found the equipment and mod menu a bit clunky (having to hold down a button to scrap items or install mods should be left in the realm of consoles, thank you), overall the character and weapon customization options for Dead Island 2 are excellent; just enough variety to keep things fresh, but without ever overwhelming you with options. The same is true with the pace at which you collect new weapons, although it would have been nice if the cost to level up your tried-and-true favorites wasn’t so prohibitive as to make it essentially a non-option. As it stands currently, you’re basically obligated to trade out your old weapons for new finds every so often, unless you don’t mind having to hit a zombie twenty times to down it.
And honestly, you might not mind — while the dismemberment is a bit fiddly, the way zombies take damage is incredibly satisfying, and changes with the weapon you’re using. Swords leave clear slash marks in zombie flesh, while blunt weapons dent and mangle; elemental effects are equally well done, with acid quickly dissolving the flesh off of your foes and fire leaving them charred as an unattended barbecue chicken breast. Weapons all have special animations when you do a lot of damage with a heavy attack too. It’s really a shame there’s only one finishing move on downed zombies — a system more akin to Doom 2016, where you could see a variety of stylish finishers, would have been right at home in Dead Island 2.
Speaking of style, one aspect of the game that surprised me with its efficacy was the dialogue, and especially the player character’s banter. Cringing at one-liners is basically part of the cheesy action game experience, but Dead Island 2 has unexpectedly competent writing. I only got a chance to play one of the characters — Dani, an Irish roller girl — but her taunts, jeers, and jests usually landed. I also found myself watching all the cutscenes through to completion, as they were also fairly well written, and never overstayed their welcome.
The game walks the campy humor line effectively, and although some might criticize how wildly it oscillates between serious and slapstick, I thought it generally managed to earn both the feels and the laughs. All told, the game’s story works hand in hand with the action, and I found most of the characters compelling, or at least entertaining. This also makes doing the numerous side missions rewarding, as you get a chance to meet more of the weird and wacky characters trying to stay alive in Hell-A.
The game is a pseudo-open world, with discrete sections of LA connected in a generally linear faction; midway through the game you’ll be able to access fast travel maps that let you instantly travel to regions you already unlocked. While the side missions were varied and high quality, the actual regions weren’t particularly interesting, and the levels all had a very squared-off, video-gamey feel that didn’t make me want to explore them more than I had to.
So time and time again, I found myself conflicted: I was enjoying the pacing and the story, and the zombie killing wasn’t bad, just repetitive — so was I having fun? It was honestly hard to tell at times. Looking back on my time in Dead Island 2, it reminds me of watching an episode of The Office on a plane (as someone whose already watched the whole show multiple times). I was entertained, and I even laughed… but also kinda just killing time until my plane landed.
That’s ultimately what I think Dead Island 2 offers: entertainment you’ve probably seen before. Part looter shooter, part zombie game, part campy B movie FPS romp, if you’ve played games like Borderlands or Back 4 Blood, nothing in Dead Island 2 will surprise you. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, because it’s not — it just doesn’t ask much of the player. I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing, either; sometimes you want to come home after a hard day’s work and just mindlessly kill stuff. If you’re looking for a game that lets you do that, and Dead Island 2’s aesthetic does it for you, you’ll probably enjoy the game’s 20-30 hours of gameplay. But if zombies and/or looter shooters are old hat to you, it’s unlikely that this is the title to change your mind.