Dead Island 2, for better or worse, feels very much like both the original game and Riptide. With 12 years having passed since the release of Dead Island, Dead Island 2 is in a unique and unenviable position. It needs to both evoke the feeling and spirit of the original game while also having modern sensibilities such that today’s players will be engaged.
After spending the first five hours with Dead Island 2, I feel like Dambuster Studios may have succeeded. From what I’ve played and seen, Dead Island 2 manages to both capture the original’s vibe while forging its own identity that sits comfortably alongside contemporary games.
That being said, while there’s been some modernisation of the Dead Island formula, the gameplay is very much of the same ilk and plays like you remember games from the early 2010s playing. I think it needs to in order to call itself Dead Island, though I do worry that its old-school style could wear thin. Within the time I played it, it didn’t, but how well Dead Island 2 survives across dozens of hours of play remains to be seen.
Dead Island 2 Hands-On Preview
Set in Los Angeles (famously not an island, though Dambuster Studios told us the quarantine zone makes it an “island” of sorts), Dead Island 2 has a similar tropical, sunny ambience to the original. However, it becomes very quickly apparent that Dead Island 2 eschews the first game’s sombre and serious tone (something which Techland took with it to Dying Light) in favour of something more light-hearted, silly and slapstick. I have to be honest, I’m not too sure about this overall shift. It leans more towards Duke Nukem and the worst of Borderlands‘ “gags” and the humour, for me, often fell quite flat.
I also disliked pretty much every character I encountered along the way. Whether this is Dambuster’s commentary on the unlikeable nature and fakeness of LA stereotypes, I can’t be sure, but it certainly made it more difficult for me to care about saving any of them. Thankfully, my choice of main character was a saving grace. I opted to play as ex-stuntman Jacob (the star of the trailers thus far) and enjoyed his easygoing attitude and breezy charm. As one of six possible ‘Slayers’, Jacob has higher survivability than some of the others so seemed like a natural choice.
Each of the playable characters has their own unique perks and abilities which will shape the way you play. With Jacob, I was able to more confidently wade into swarms of zombies and come out alive, whereas other characters (which I didn’t get a chance to sample) focus on backstabs, criticals, doing etc.
Beyond their innate abilities, each character is able to be customised as you play through your choice of ability cards. For example, as you complete main missions and level up, you’re rewarded with ability cards that unlock special moves or augment your existing ones in some way. With Jacob, I unlocked a jumping fly kick which sent zombies flying and I paired it with another card that provided bonuses when knocking enemies down. There’s a surprising amount of depth and customisation available through the cards which only gets greater the further you play.
As I was playing the opening five or so hours, what I got to play was really just an extended tutorial explaining the mechanics, enemy types and so on. After surviving a plane crash, caused by a selfish ass who was infected and still got on the evacuation plane, I needed to fight my way out and look for a way to survive. It wasn’t long before I met a Hollywood starlet who offered me shelter at her home but before I could join them, swarms of zombies begin attacking and the combat tutorial began. Here you’re taught about melee weapons, dodging, stunning and so on. I can’t say the combat system in Dead Island 2 is revolutionary but it certainly is fun thanks, in part, to the FLESH system.
Depending on the weapon you use and the type and location of the attack, zombies are destroyed in various ways. For example, if you pummel at their limbs, eventually they break off and leave a bloody disgusting trail. Wail away at a zombie’s head and you’ll expose their throbbing brain or cave in their face.
The gore is really next level in Dead Island 2. This is definitely not a game for the younger players in your house. While the FLESH system is designed to get you to think strategically about your attacks, I spent most of my time in combat using my heavy attack, dodging and just generally going to town. There is a modicum of strategy to the melee combat but you can get by just fine with a good old button mashing.
Weapon selection and crafting go hand in hand and you’ll be switching up weapons regularly while playing. Unfortunately, weapons degrade meaning you’ll need to repair them once they break, however, because there are plenty of things lying around to whack zombies with, you’ll never be short a stick or wrench or tyre iron. Crafting allows you to add elemental damage like electricity to your weapon while mods enable them to deal more damage or grant them specific perks which make them more useful in certain situations. Given the variety in the types of zombies wandering around LA, you’ll need a range of weapons to take them all down effectively.
Oddly, as you’re making your way from point A to B (which is something you’ll spend the majority of your time doing in Dead Island 2) you can quite easily avoid 100% of the zombies you see along the way. I asked Dambuster about this and they told me “When you’re in the more open-world sections of the game, that’s sort of intentional that you don’t have to engage with every single zombie. Obviously, there are more as you pick up missions and you go and do certain things to progress the story. It was a pacing thing really to try and make it so that there are areas of the game where you feel relatively safe and if you want to, you can go and attack the zombies, blow them up and gain XP, but also you can just work around them, get onto the next, objective and things like that.”
After spending an extended hands-on with Dead Island 2, I’m not without reservations about its longevity but am equally impressed with how satisfying and fun the basic gameplay loop is. Smashing zombies to actual pieces doesn’t get old and with all of the weapons in your arsenal in Dead Island 2, you’ll be hacking and chopping and slicing and whacking and smashing till the cows come home.
The plot seems pretty basic and the characters unlikable thus far, but it’s not too much of an issue since you spend most of your time roaming the streets of LA instead of having conversations with jackasses. Not being able to play this preview in co-op certainly highlights how much more I think I would enjoy Dead Island 2 with a mate tagging along but that being said, going it alone has plenty of its own charms.
At this stage, Dead Island 2 seems like a very faithful sequel, albeit with some modern sensibilities and questionable humour and tone. Basically, it’s a B-Movie…which is actually kind of perfect.
Dead Island 2 was previewed on PC using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Dead Island 2 will launch for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S on 21 April 2023.