Some of my personal favorite games use zombies to good effect (including Dying Light, The Last of Us Part II, and Telltale’s version of The Walking Dead), but it’s usually not the zombies themselves that make these games so good. Instead, it’s everything around, and often how the zombies put people in impossible situations, which helps to create unique and exciting gaming experiences.
However, this is not the case in Dead Island 2. In this long-delayed and highly-anticipated sequel, the zombies are really the only real bright spot in what is otherwise just a bland “open world” game.
The lucky chosen ones?
Welcome to Hell-A.
Dead Island 2 is a standalone sequel set approximately ten years after the action of the first game. Instead of the fictional Pacific island of Banoi, this time the action is set in the very real Los Angeles, but here too the dead have gotten into the habit of coming back to life.
The game begins as we see a series of aliens sneaking aboard a plane trying to escape the impending apocalypse. After a bit of back and forth, the plane goes down, of course, and in the role of one of the survivors, you claw your way out of the wreckage, bruised.
You are free to choose from six different playable characters, and much emphasis is placed on how they differ from each other. Ryan, for example, is big and powerful, and has to withstand an extra push, while Dani is an adrenaline junkie who has more endurance than some of the other jiplings.
In reality, it still appears as if there is not all the difference between the chosen ones. I myself went for Amy, who is supposed to be more the most agile character, without at any point feeling like I was faster or more flexible than the people I played with.
Each character, however, comes with a unique voice actor and personality, and also has slightly different dialogue when meeting other survivors, so it matters who you choose to play as.
“Pool party”, everyone is invited!
Wealth and ruin
Speaking of dialogue, there is of course also a somewhat typical course of action that takes place behind the scenes in Dead Island 2, without this being much to write home about. In short, the story involves gathering together a number of other survivors to find a loophole that leads out of the lost metropolis.
It is a terribly unmemorable narrative. The plot is predictable, stiff and occasionally completely absent, and with the exception of a couple of interesting supporting characters there is remarkably little to notice.
The action nevertheless gives us a good excuse to set out on regular trips across a realistic and colorful version of the real Los Angeles, here affectionately called Hell-A. It’s not a massive open world, but instead a series of smaller sandboxes that are filled with side quests, loot and people to get to know.
The game has a couple of genuinely funny moments.
The page content is unfortunately quite lacking: Many of the clients you meet are two-dimensional extras who ask you to kill zombies in various ways, and the Borderlands-like humor they play tends to miss more than it hits.
On the other hand, I enjoyed the occasional treasure hunts that appeared in the “lost and found” category, but these were also not something I felt were worth spending too much time on.
Moving batteries are typical conundrums.
Fortunately, there are many unique areas to explore during the course of the game: the journey goes from Bel-Air and intricate hillside mansions, all the way to the barren beaches of Venice Beach and the world-famous Santa Monica Pier. It’s a great universe, all the while the game has relatively good graphics, but I would have liked to have seen even more variety along the way.
Bloody and brutal
The zombies, on the other hand, come in all shapes and sizes, and the developers have clearly put a lot of effort into the design process. Not only do they look very lifelike as they lurch towards you in blinding sunlight and dark underground tunnels, but there is also an awful lot of detail related to how these creatures can be torn and hacked to pieces by the players.
Blood, entrails, body parts and even different layers of skin fall off as you attack the enemies, and it’s almost borderline beyond disgusting at first. Particularly fascinating is the first time you keep hammering away at a zombie you’ve already taken care of, just to see exactly how many different, nasty parts you can cut that person into.
This gory wealth of detail helps to give the world and the mutated beasts a very special character that is unlike most we have seen before. Eyes dangling from the outside of the eye socket, jaws hanging on shackles and corpses dragging themselves along the ground with half their faces ripped off are just some of the many unique compositions you can come across.
It is periodically extremely brutal, and the stronger you become, the more weight the combat system gets. In the beginning, for example, it takes a lot before you manage to cut off the limbs of a zombie while it is still standing upright – no matter how precise you are – before you later unlock upgrades that allow you to specialize your weapon in just this.
Till death do Us part.
Along the way, various elements appear that you can equip your weapons with and apply to the living dead, and this helps to give the combat system a good deal of depth. Acid, flames and electricity are the typical main suspects that allow you to mutilate several enemies at once, but certain weapons and skills also allow you to combine different effects with each other.
For example, a special attack I unlocked late in the game let me set fire to any enemy I drop kicked in exchange for a fraction of my own health, while water grenades and electric throwing stars were an unbeatable early game combo.
In practical terms, the fighting is admittedly never very advanced. You usually appear back and forth between enemies while firing punches and kicks, and it can quickly become a bit repetitive in the long run. I wish there were even more opportunities to experiment, with more unique skills and single sequences that used the environment in more interesting ways.
Nevertheless, the game should have some praise for the fact that it introduces a couple of quite unique playstyles, and the upgrade options make up for the usual overloaded “loot” system.
The game can be very pretty at times.
The more we are together
To make up for what could otherwise become a bit monotonous, Dead Island 2 opens up full cooperation between up to four players a tiny bit into the game, and from here you can explore everything the experience has to offer together.
There was some tinkering with getting onto the same server as my partner, but once we found a solution that worked, the connection was good enough that we played through the entire game in four or five sessions.
Like most open world games, there are many opportunities to play with what the universe has to offer, and here you can come up with quite a few shenanigans with each other. Exploding barrels, ponds of water just begging to be energized and traps set up by angry “preppers” are things that invite chaotic clashes repeatedly, and this helps to keep the game fresh and light-hearted from start to finish.
It’s always boring when your daughter’s lower body has sunk to the floor. But quite fun for the rest of us, then.
An abrupt “bugs” also offers a lot of fun, such as when one of us fell into an endless white hole three kilometers below the map or when two characters decided that they should be halfway down the floor in a serious cutscene. As usual, it’s no more fun than you make it yourself, and this applies especially to Dead Island 2.
He here has seen better days.
Dead Island 2 is a completely bonkers zombie game, which unfortunately does not have the same distinctive character as other games in the genre. It is by all means fun to chop up the undead; the universe is bright and colorful; and the game has a consistently good sense of progression; but in the main it becomes a bit too simple for large parts of the time.
The dead can take quite a beating, and apart from the use of fire, electricity and poisonous gas, there are disappointingly few opportunities to experiment.
The experience benefits well from the fact that you can play with up to three other players, because without this I think Dead Island 2 could quickly feel downright boring at times.
Instead, I’m left with a pretty good impression of the game — together with a good buddy I managed to find a lot to laugh at and play with along the way — without necessarily needing to ever play any more Dead Island after this.
Dead Island 2 will be released on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (tested), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Windows on April 21.