It’s hard to believe that the first Dead Island released way back in 2011, with its sequel in development for a very long time. I first played a version of Dead Island 2 at the EB Games Expo around seven(!) years ago, and since then the game has gone through some pretty dramatic changes. For a while, it seemed like it would never actually release, but after some delays, it’s now mere weeks away, which seems pretty wild.
Out of development hell and into a hell of the irreverent zombie kind, I was pleased to discover after a few hours spent in the violent and comical world of Dead Island 2 that the title looks to buck the trend of games with troubled development cycles, and is actually, well, pretty bloody good.
What becomes immediately obvious once you start up Dead Island 2 is that the tone and style is going for silly over serious, in almost every way. Like Saints Row is the colourful, goofy cousin of GTA, Dead Island 2 further cements itself as the over-the-top, kooky uncle of Dying Light. Trading dark, gritty themes of humans dealing with a zombie apocalypse and all of the horrors within, Dead Island 2 is set in HELL-A (said like L.A., which I note because for a while now I’ve been saying it like “hella cool”, and I appreciate how silly that makes me sound).
HELL-A is the best and worst parts of Hollywood, which makes for a particularly fun playground to hack through the undead. Giant movie-star mansions with pools, bowling alleys and arcades, gorgeous environments destroyed, covered in blood and set on fire with the classic Hollywood sign overlooking the violence. It’s fun to fight through, and the recently-ravaged city is a fun change of pace from other games that are set in long-deserted, overgrown and dilapidated towns
“HELL-A makes for a particularly fun playground to hack through the undead.”
Straight away, you’ll pick a slayer from a motley crew of characters, each with their own personalities and flair for the dramatic. I went with Dani for my playthrough, a “rockabilly brawler” with a foul mouth and twisted sense of humour. Where voice acting can be a deal breaker when it comes to games that go for comedy, I’m happy to report that Dead Island 2 presents its protagonists as relatively likeable and relatable. I enjoyed playing as Dani and I’m hopeful that the other slayers – like exotic dancer with “rippling pecs” Ryan or quick-witted Paralympian Amy – will provide similar levity to the insane scenarios you’ll find yourself in.
It’s not just personality that is different between them, though; each slayer has their own traits, abilities and starting stats as well. This is punctuated by a sort of collectable card system, where the cards you’ll find can be slotted into a deck that provides new ways to kill zombies, or passive buffs. I got to dabble with a few of these and can imagine that this will set up nicely for those players who like to optimise their builds for zombie slaying as best as possibe.
And the zombie slaying in Dead Island 2 feels good. Melee focused and grabbing whatever weapons are laying around, like golf clubs, hammers, planks of wood and more, smacking the undead over the head feels incredibly satisfying with the associated thuds and thunks you’d hope for. Beyond that, Dead Island 2 uses technology that would make Dead Space proud, where limbs, skin and other fleshy bits can get sliced off of zombies in what seems like an unlimited amount of ways. It’s gory and delightful to see the blood and flesh fly, allowing for some creative and gnarly kills (with slow motion final blows, of course).
Weapons can be modified and upgraded as well, so you can add extra oomph or other fun elements like electricity to shock zombies for extra damage. While I only got to try this out during the early stages of the game, the possibilities are tantalising, and I appreciate that if you find a weapon that you enjoy using, you can repair it after it breaks so that you don’t lose it entirely. It didn’t take long before I had a large collection to choose from, each feeling different and gratifying in motion in their own way.
The storyline is about as irreverent and silly as the rest of Dead Island 2, which makes for an entertaining romp so far. Several quests in, I was a survivor in a plane crash, defended a movie-star from a horde of zombies, went toe-to-toe with a giant zombie in a wedding dress and helped an influencer make some content for their social media by showing them a range of kills that would get their followers to smash that follow button like I was smashing undead skulls.
Dead Island 2 fully capitalises on its setting, full of obnoxious characters that need your help, while still making most of them interesting and fun. One quest in particular has you battling through a variety of different film sets, culminating in a battle against a boss with some unique mechanics, utilising your environment in clever ways that make sense narratively and add extra layers to combat. Another has you drop-kicking zombies into a literal pool of acid. It bodes well for the rest of the game, and I look forward to the potentially zany quests ahead of me.
The only concern I have after working through these opening missions is the potential lack of variety; while some stood out as very creative and interesting, others devolved into a pretty standard “find a battery in a garage and plug it in”, or simply mowing through lots of enemies to defend a spot. Others relied a little too heavily on “big zombies” that are more spongey and difficult to kill as a roadblock. Some of that is expected of the genre, sure, but I hope that the rest of the game offers more in the way of its unique scenarios that really did have me grinning due to their creativity.
When my time with Dead Island 2 wrapped up for this preview period, I instantly felt like I wanted to play more of it. Its setting is entertaining, the violent and creative zombie-killing feels good and the story so far is compelling enough. It also feels pretty polished, with good production values in its visuals, voice acting and audio across the board.
With all the drama in its development history, I wasn’t expecting Dead Island 2 to be as compelling as it is, but when you also factor in that the wild experience can be played with friends by your side, I am delighted by the possibility of sharing these laughs and ridiculous moments with others.
Dead Island 2 launches on April 21, 2023 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4 and PC.