After perhaps one of the most tumultuous development periods in recent video game history, we’ve been rightfully concerned about Dead Island 2.
It was announced nine years ago, and has been passed from Yager Development to Sumo Digital before finally ending up with Deep Silver’s internal studio, Dambuster, back in 2019. Updates were quiet for a couple of years but finally, in late 2022, we started getting a proper look at what Dead Island 2 might actually be. With a final delay from February to April, however, we’ve still been worried about what the final game might turn out like. But after being let loose with the first five hours, we’re pleasantly surprised.
Despite what’s technically an eight year delay, Dead Island 2 doesn’t feel dated or old. It feels exactly like a Dead Island sequel in 2023 should feel like, and we’re more than happy with that.
A true sequel to Dead Island – even if it’s no longer set on an island
Dead Island and its sort-of sequel, Dead Island Riptide, were firm favourites of ours because of their ridiculous violence, humour in the face of danger and fun, customisable melee combat. Neither game was exactly a critical hit, but they were wildly entertaining – and we lapped up their vacation paradise settings. Dead Island 2, despite still carrying the ‘Island’ in its title, is no longer set on an island: the fictional resort of Banoi has been left behind and it’s now set in Los Angeles. Or ‘Hell A’ as the game likes to call it.
It’s very much not a fictional island, but the opening to Dead Island 2 still gives off that luxury-holiday-gone-wrong vibe that we loved so much about the first game. Starting with a plane crash – a fantastic, over-the-top setpiece scene that does a fantastic job of capturing your attention – you’ll soon find yourself wandering the fancy villas of Beverly Hills, complete with swimming pools and expensive vacation vibes. Straight away, there’s no mistaking that this is a true sequel to Dead Island.
Different characters and unique abilities
Upon starting Dead Island 2, you’re given a selection of six characters to choose between. Each one has their own unique abilities that come in the form of ‘cards’. While you can gain new ability cards as you play through the game, the two starting cards for each character are completely unique and you won’t be able to pick them up later on. In other words, choose your character carefully, because you can’t switch without starting a brand new game.
There’s Jacob, for example, who gets a stackable damage boost when he attacks in quick succession. That’s accompanied by a boost to critical hits when his stamina is low. Or there’s Dani, whose heavy attacks trigger an explosion on impact, and she can also regain lost health by slaying zombies in quick succession. We ultimately opted to play as Carla, who gains a damage boost when multiple zombies are nearby, and gets a boost to her toughness when her health is low. Each character also has slightly different stats for things like toughness, health and critical damage. But you might simply choose to play as whoever you most like the look of. That’s fine too.
Those skill cards are one major difference between Dead Island 2 and its predecessors. You no longer have a skill tree, instead gaining new skills by adding cards to your deck which can be swapped and changed as you progress. Cards come in various categories: some add passive abilities, like adding damage bonuses or various perks like gaining health each time you successfully dodge. Others add to your repertoire of moves, like allowing you to drop-kick zombies, or perform a war cry.
Of course, you can’t keep adding cards willy-nilly. You have a limited amount of slots in each card category, and so you’ll have to choose carefully. More slots do become available as you progress, though, and so the further you get through the game, the more abilities you’re able to carry. Each time you level up, you might be handed some new cards. Others can be found as you explore the environment, so it often pays to poke around – as long as it’s safe to do so, of course.
Combat is as fun as ever
What has made a return from Dead Island is the weapon system. Once again, Dead Island 2 is heavily melee-focused, with a vast array of items you find on the floor being able to be utilised as a weapon. An old piece of wood? It’ll do until you find something better. Of course, weapons can be modded just as before, too, and it’s pretty much exactly how you remember it. You’ll find blueprints as you play, allowing you to head to a workbench and turn a regular ol’ baseball bat into an electrified version of The Walking Dead‘s ‘Lucille’. There’s a huge amount of fun to be had here in creating your own masterpiece and we’ve only scratched the surface of it. You need to be careful, though: an electric weapon sounds fantastic until you’re swinging it around near a pool of water. You’re not resistant to your own damage.
There are a lot of hazards in most environments of Dead Island 2, and while they pose a bit of a risk for you, they’re extremely useful in helping you take down enemies. You might have to be careful not to step in a pool of acid, but drop-kicking incoming zombies into it is a hell of a lot of fun. Or perhaps you could grab a jerry can filled with gasoline, throw it into an incoming crowd then set it on fire. With weapon durability still very much a thing, using the environment to your advantage is important to success.
However you decide to take down your foes, you’re going to have a blast doing so, however. The art of combat will feel familiar if you still remember Dead Island: you can swing your weapon, or charge up an attack to deal extra damage. Kicking or pushing out with your hands is a valid tactic, too, if you need to get a little bit of space between you and your foe. What you’re going to have to put a lot of emphasis on here, though, is blocking or dodging at just the right time. Dead Island 2‘s enemies aren’t going to go easy on you, and if you’re not well prepared for an attack, you’ll quickly be seeing the ‘Game Over’ screen.
A beautiful and gory world
Perhaps the real highlight of Dead Island 2 is just how beautiful it looks. It’s clear that Dambuster has put a lot of effort into creating a rich and vibrant world and playing the preview build on PC, it really shines. Considering its long development period, it’s a pleasant surprise. It did take some tinkering to get it to run well on our set-up, however: eventually we got a solid framerate at 1080p and ‘high’ settings on our RTX 3070 GPU and Ryzen 5 3600 processor. Hopefully there’s time for a little more optimisation before launch, but we can’t imagine many players being able to enjoy the game at 4K Ultra. We’re interested to see how it’s going to perform on consoles as it’s clearly a demanding game, but even with a graphical downgrade it’s still a looker.
Forget about the ‘beautiful’ visuals, though. What truly sets Dead Island 2 apart is its ‘Flesh System’. In other words, this is one of the goriest games we’ve had the pleasure to play, and it’s all the better for it. Get in a scrap with a zombie, and you can expect chunks of flesh to fly around, covering you and your surroundings with blood and guts. Hit an opponent in just the right place with a sharp weapon and don’t be surprised if a severed limb comes flying at you. Eyeballs pop out, jaws flap off, and bodies tear right open, all giving you a great sense of feedback to each hit you land on a foe. If you’re on the squeamish side, there’s a very real possibility that the visceral nature of Dead Island 2 might be a bit too much. But if you revel in all things horror and gore, you’re going to love it.
A wide array of missions
Our time with Dead Island 2 allowed us to play through the first dozen or so missions, giving us a mixture of main quests and side quests. It feels fairly linear in the opening hours: you’re pushed forward in the right direction without too much open world to explore. Not that we minded: those early missions set up the story nicely, and we’re treated to some fantastic environments. The available side quests do help to mix things up a little, though. One of our favourites early on in the game saw us helping fend off zombies that had infiltrated an aging movie star’s home – protecting him as he descended his staircase on the world’s slowest moving stairlift.
Movie stars are a recurring theme of Dead Island 2, actually: this is LA (er, sorry, ‘Hell-A’) after all. Another mission saw us wind up on a film lot, complete with an action-packed set for us to explore. Turns out props make great tools for fighting against zombies, and blowing up rigged vehicles and turning on rain machines can really enhance a dramatic combat sequence.
While we have a good handle on what to expect from Dead Island 2, we do feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface. We are very excited to see what else the game has in store for us though: those first few hours have left us wanting more, which can only be a good thing. It looks fantastic, its environments are a pleasure to explore, its character progression system allows for plenty of customisation, and its melee-base combat is as fun as ever – and more gory than we could have ever imagined. One thing’s for sure: our worries about the game have been allayed, and we’re pretty confident in saying that Dead Island 2 is going to be a must-play for any fan of the series. Is it going to be worth the nine-year wait, though? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Dead Island 2 is coming to PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One and PC on 21st April.