The early hours of my zombie-slaying escapades in Dead Island 2 left me with a somewhat empty feeling. As time went on, that feeling was alleviated somewhat as the game found its footing but was also partly because I was willing to meet it on its level. Dead Island 2 knows what it wants to be, and isn’t trying to be anything else. Whether or not you’re down for the type of ride it offers will ultimately determine if this zombie franchise was worth reviving.
Not much meat on this bone
While I wasn’t expecting a finely crafted epic from a game with the slogan “See you in HELL-A,” I at least hoped for something engaging enough to pull me along. Instead, the main story is about as basic and uninspired as, well, any other generic zombie plot. You choose from a handful of characters attempting to evacuate L.A during a zombie outbreak. When that plan goes down in flames, you discover your character is somehow immune to the virus.
From there, you adventure through the different regions trying to find a way to get yourself and a rag-tag group of survivors to safety. I’m not sure how varied it is for the other characters, but my character Amy’s motivation for trying to escape was because she didn’t want to “miss nationals.”
The supporting cast is one-note at best, and glorified menus at worst. Once you reach your main base of operations early in the game, the house is suddenly populated with several new characters with no introduction or mention from anyone else. Aside from the two “main” supporting characters, everyone else just waits around until it’s their turn to move the plot along.
The humor of the game leans too hard on being referential and “modern,” such as a streamer commenting on how she shouldn’t curse in the first few minutes of her video. Even if these jokes all land for you now, they seriously date the game and will be painful to look back on. The rest of the humor is nothing special either, but at least stands on its own.
Even though Dead Island 2’s plot failed to meet my low expectations, I did find the environmental and background storytelling much more satisfying. Unlike the plot, which never strays far from its tongue-in-cheek tone, there is a much broader range of micro-stories to find, such as children’s letters to their (likely deceased) parents, or an end-of-the-world bucket list. Since you’ll be scavenging crafting materials the entire game, you get plenty of time to observe each and every room.
Bash-em, break-em, build-em
The first-person melee combat in Dead Island 2 is its foundation, and thankfully it built a rock solid one. You will swing weapons ranging from daggers and claws to pipes, shovels, katanas, and more. You only have one main attack, plus the option to charge it, but the layers around this simple mode of beating zombies to death are what keep it from getting brainless.
I was concerned that doing wild swings on zombies, watching for their lunges to dodge or block, and repeating would get stale, but the feedback combined with the downright nauseating level of visceral carnage you inflict on the undead encouraged me to engage in many fights I could’ve otherwise simply run past. Seeing the flesh peel off half a zombie’s face, or dynamically severing a leg at the knee is one of the few things this game does that justifies being on modern hardware.
Weapons can be found or purchased, and then upgraded at workbenches to tweak their stats and even apply elemental effects. These enhancements range from electricity that stuns zombies and bounces between nearby targets, and fire that deals damage over time.
All weapons have durability and a base damage level, but the amount of use you get out of even a found weapon felt very generous. Another smart choice is the option to power up any weapon (for a cost) to your current level. That meant I never felt penalized for investing in a weapon early on only to have it drop off in usefulness.
The areas you’re doing all this zombie slaughtering are varied and great to explore, but it’s all held back by being broken up into individual hubs as opposed to a seamless open world. Transitioning from one area to another via loading screens feels archaic and in opposition to the way the game wants you to play.
Dead Island 2’s take on character builds revolves around a card system. The character you start as comes with two unique cards, plus there are a few character-specific cards you get as you progress, but most are universal. Cards are divided into different categories, and you unlock additional slots per category as you level up. There are far more cards than you could ever equip, so choosing your loadout of cards is how you can tweak your experience a bit.
This entire system is quite shallow, and I ended up ignoring a lot of the cards I was rewarded with since some simply felt inferior to others. The winners were the ones that gave you a new move, such as a powerful dashing palm-strike that connects with a delicious slow-mo crunch. I would’ve much preferred fewer cards, but have each one be as impactful on how I played.
After putting Dead Island 2 down, had I not been writing a review on it, I could easily have seen myself never thinking about it again. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun – it certainly was, just not in a way that stood out. It has all the game design strengths and weaknesses from a decade ago wrapped up in modern graphics and new gore tech.
While the referential humor is bordering on being outdated on day-one, and the narrative can easily be ignored, there’s plenty of fun to be had brutalizing hundreds of zombies with all manner of blunt, bladed, and ballistic weaponry. Dead Island 2 is like a candy bar – good enough in the moment, but not a homecooked meal you’ll think back on again.
Dead Island 2 was reviewed on the PlayStation 5 with a code provided by the team. It is also available on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC starting April 21, 2023.
- Visceral combat remains satisfying throughout
- Exploration and environmental storytelling is interesting
- Weapon upgrade and degradation system don’t feel punishing and encourage experimentation
- Plot and referential humor fall flat
- Card system feels bloated