Dead Island 2 was announced just a few years after its 2011 predecessor, but the sequel has taken nearly a decade to come to life. Developer Dambuster Studios is the third studio to work on the game, using this opportunity to create its own Dead Island 2 from the ground up. While assumptions might be made about a game that’s spent this long in development, jumping from multiple teams, the final game is a worthwhile follow-up, especially for fans of the original. Dead Island 2, much like its predecessor, isn’t breaking new ground narratively, but a good hook moves you through the game’s various Los Angeles districts. The star of the show is the zombies and the gory and customizable action that happens because of them. Over 2000 zombies were mutilated, maimed, electrocuted, burned, and obliterated during my time with Dead Island 2. I rolled credits most excited about this carnage my tour through LA brought me. I only wish the rest of the game was as enamoring.
Dead Island 2 doesn’t take long to get into the action. After a quick cutscene setting up this idealized take on Los Angeles and how it’s become a dead island of sorts, I selected Amy, one of six slayers you can play as in the game’s story. She’s a Paralympian and an agile, speed-based character. While each of the six slayers has a different personality and backstory alongside two exclusive innate abilities, I finished Dead Island 2 feeling like who I played matters little narratively. Amy would occasionally comment about how she needed to get out of Los Angeles to make it to her next running competition, but other than that, her barks and lines felt generic enough that I wasn’t concerned I was missing part of the larger Dead Island 2 narrative by not playing through the game as each survivor.
Unlockable skill cards offer more of that variance I wanted. With 15 equipable slots, I decked out Amy to play a lot like the zombies I was fighting, utilizing their ground pounds, screams, strikes, and more against them. While some cards offer abilities usable against the undead, others are best described as perks that activate in combat, like my favorite that restored a bit of health every time I performed a perfect dodge or block. This card, coupled with the ones that let me utilize moves learned from surrounding zombies, allowed my Amy to play to her strength: agility. I was focused less on hitting hard and more on hitting a lot, but I could see how other cards would result in different approaches to combat. The cards are easy to understand and fun to collect, encouraging me to try out different ones often. This system and the weapons are where players find the most contrast between playthroughs.
The story of Dead Island 2 takes Amy through many of the locations you’d hope to visit in Los Angeles, from Beverly Hills to movie studio lots to the Santa Monica Pier and, of course, Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not an engrossing story, and quickly takes a back seat to exploring the world and killing zombies, but it’s serviceable, sprinkled in with the kind of characters you’d expect to run into in a post-apocalyptic LA like a Hollywood A-lister or washed-up rockstar. It’s also paced nicely, rarely overstaying its welcome and letting me return to the action right when I start to miss it. But ultimately, it’s not a story that will stay long with me, even if the team is setting up more adventures with this cast.
I was excited about each location whenever I visited a new one. They’re lovingly designed, almost as if you were getting the greatest hits of each locale, perfect for the touristy romp through Los Angeles that Dead Island 2 ends up being.
Dead Island 2’s visual design made each location even more memorable – the game’s art is stunning at times. The landscape is bright and saturated, and so much of this world is soaked in blood, gore, and end-of-the-world storytelling. Zombies, dead and alive, paint the walls of celebrity mansions, caustic guts bubble in hallways throughout famed hotels, and my hacks and slashes only color the streets redder. The extreme gore remained shocking throughout my nearly 20 hours. Literal heads rolled, arms were ripped off, and guts spilled from inside stomach cavities as I watched my weapons tear through flesh. I would have liked this action to arrive a couple of hours quicker, but once it did, it continued to escalate until the end.
I loved how I could customize different weapons to inflict more damage on the undead. Weapons, of which there are a ton, vary in rarity and rarer weapons allow for more customization with mods and enhancements. Perks allow you to increase weapon damage, change speed, raise durability, and more, and I liked that some offered pros with cons, which forced me to think more about what I wanted a weapon to be. Adding fire, electricity, caustic acid, bleed, and other enhancements to my weapons lent itself well to the immersive sim-like nature present in much of Dead Island 2’s world, as did throwable ”curveballs” like chemical bombs and zombie-luring bait.
Throughout Los Angeles, I found water spouts, electrical wires, gasoline spills, and other environmental cues aiding destruction. And they’re easy to read, too. My electric wolverine claws could electrify water and the zombies within it, which gives them the persistently damaging electrified status effect. The same goes for fire and gasoline and other combos. Once the game introduced shotguns, pistols, assault rifles, and submachine guns into the mix, I had even more range in combat, both from a literal standpoint and in that I could interact with Dead Island 2’s immersive sim elements in a new way.
Dambuster Studios uses these elements to create short and sweet puzzles to reach loot and collectibles, and most of my post-campaign enjoyment came from these. Side quests are fine, with some of the better ones leaning heavily into the caricatured version of Los Angeles I imagine most people who don’t live there, like myself, have of the city and its people to great effect. I loved killing zombies atop a cringe hype house on camera so that an influencer could show her followers what was happening here, and using movie set pyrotechnics to destroy hordes of zombies in another. These side quests, much like the main quests, shined when they moved at a brisk pace. But sometimes, areas become wave-based arenas where killing zombies becomes exhausting, especially in the latter third of the game.
Combat is most fun in short bursts when taking down a handful of zombies. But some setpieces in the game throw dozens of zombies at you and the thrill of combat can become a chore. Immersive sim elements and Skill Card abilities help spice up these sequences, but ultimately, killing waves of zombies in the same arena gets boring quickly. This issue especially stands out often truncated by the more interesting open-area combat that happens throughout a lot of the game, especially outside of main story quests.
With Dead Island 2 behind me, I’m thrilled Dambuster Studios could take something we first learned about way back in 2014 and successfully bring it across the finish line with its own take on the series’ vision. Dead Island 2 plays, looks, and sounds like a B-movie horror comedy from the 1990s, and the team leans into that full bore with its systems. At the core of this game is zombie destruction, and Dead Island 2 features both plenty of systems with which to engage in it and plenty of zombies to destroy.” Its serviceable story does just enough to move slayers across Los Angeles’ postcard locations at a brisk pace, and I appreciate how much side content is available within them to keep each visit entertaining. This game won’t stay with me long, but I’m not sure it was meant to. With Dead Island 2, Dambuster Studios asks little of the player – only that you enjoy a good excuse to kill zombies in increasingly gory ways for a weekend or two – and in doing so, it delivers on the promise of what this series is all about.
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