Dead Island 2 Review
Hell-A Violent Return
There’s something innately cathartic to dropkicking zombies off rooftops, cracking their skulls open, or setting them on fire in Dead Island 2. Almost a decade spent in development hell might make anyone justifiably cautious about any project, but Dambuster Studios’ approach to reviving the first-person action series, while not without its missteps, delivers an honest and straightforward zombie-slaying experience.
As a high-energy intro sequence throws you out of a fireball and into a sea of infected, you get to pick between six playable characters called Slayers. Each one has their own background, personality, and unique skills, alongside differently distributed stats.
For my main playthrough, I picked Dani, a badass Irish rockabilly brawler with an attitude to boot, whose very slow health regeneration was less of an obstacle than I initially expected.
The vast majority of time spent in Dead Island 2 revolves around helping zombies properly embrace death and discover the joys of dismemberment. To do so, you employ a varied arsenal of weapons, which you find laying around or obtain from various other sources, including quest rewards.
You’ll eventually end up decently equipped even if you don’t spend too much time off the beaten path. If you do decide to explore, hard-earned cash convinces vendors to part way with fuses that open rooms housing higher-quality weapon crates and crafting materials.
Alternatively, solving simple puzzles to restore power or put out fires lets you access similar areas. You can also don your detective hat to track down keys carried by more elusive named zombies that open various lockboxes which also contain higher-quality loot.
Weapons of higher rarity have more customizable perk slots that enable you to grant them different deadly effects through crafting. There’s quite a bit of variety on offer, from swords and crowbars that excel at maiming and harvesting body parts to pikes whose thrusting attacks keep enemies at a distance.
I was particularly fond of attaching spiky bits to hammers, so I could deal bleeding damage while using wide sweeps to forcefully make several enemies kiss the ground. Going ham with swift, electrified dual claws is equally exhilarating, as it stuns foes, rendering them vulnerable for a few seconds.
Dead Island 2 also entrusts you with multiple firearms, which help you fight zombies from afar as long as you craft or find enough ammo. They sound and feel great to use, coming in handy when you need to pick off a stronger opponent from a group or work around their defenses.
You can also kick foes and use cooldown-based throwable items like grenades, pipe bombs, or electrified shurikens to take them out from afar. Defensive abilities like dodging and blocking keep you alive, while Fury Mode lets you tap into your own zombie powers – obtained during the game’s opening moments – and rip enemies to shreds with your bare hands.
It all makes for a combat system that can be very satisfying to engage with. When it works, it’s easy to lose yourself in the gory violence you unleash – and which the DualSense controller adequately punctuates with well-timed vibrations – then revel in the pile of body parts at your feet.
On the flip side, the more chaotic fights can bring frustrating deaths, courtesy of facing annoying zombie combinations in tight spots. On several occasions, I had to helplessly watch Dani struggle and fail to get back up after a spontaneous explosion sent her tumbling to the ground in the center of a burning oil puddle. Thankfully, death in Dead Island 2 is mostly a minor inconvenience.
While exploring the semi-open districts, you respawn relatively close to where you died and can often resume finishing off the wounded infected that got the best of you. In the worst-case scenarios, you need to restart a checkpoint during a story or side mission. On a few rare occasions, you may hit a temporary brick wall, if you end up low on healing supplies and ammo, but can always leave to restock and return later.
Although you’ll find plenty of great action in Dead Island 2, it does begin to gradually lose momentum as you approach the final stages of its story campaign. Its multiple zombie variants do require you to adjust tactics on the fly, but the ways in which you dispatch them don’t change that much from start to finish.
Regular infected – like the slow Shamblers and Walkers or agile Runners – can come paired with stronger Apex versions. These include the Crusher, a hulking resilient foe that pounds the ground with a powerful shockwave attack, or the Slobber, whose acidic vomit is a menace both up close and at range.
Just like each zombie has its own set of attacks, they also have their strengths and weaknesses. Try bleeding a Shambler dry and you’ll get nowhere, since it no longer has any blood left to give. Hit a Crusher’s legs and you’ll deal little damage, but target its upper body – preferably with a weapon that makes it bleed – and you’ll soon bring it to its knees.
One of my favorite moves was using the Dash Strike ability to quickly close in the distance and shut Screamers up with a swift palm strike to the face, essentially negating their key attack, which slowed me and enraged other infected.
Each of these zombie types also come in a couple of sub-variants. Shocking Runners discharge electricity in a large area around them. Infected food couriers drop snacks when killed, in a final show of dedication to their profession. Slobbers can trade acid for fire, while regular walkers can wear hazmat suits or firefighter jackets, becoming immune to weapons that deal caustic or fire damage.
They encourage you to opt for different weapon upgrades as well as seek out resources to craft stronger mods and perks unlocked as you play. But even when you face these stronger zombies, there’s a limit to how creatively you can get rid of them.
You sometimes have the option of using electric or fire attacks to turn inert oil and water puddles or caustic barrels in the environment into deadly traps. This lets you watch surprised zombies burn, get zapped, or slowly walk to their death.
However, in most cases, all I really had to do was wield a weapon whose damage could harm my opponents and hack or shoot away. This way, I crushed bone and tore flesh all the same – all represented in gruesome visual detail – while weaving in the occasional dodge or block. This approach carried me through the greater part of the game and, while I did feel like a badass zombie slayer, they did become rote, making me wish more creative kills were possible and proactively encouraged.
Enemies scale to your level, which ensures that the 10 districts you explore always pose a certain amount of threat. This also stops you from feeling like you’re consistently gaining power as you obtain new skills. Instead, you see several uneven power spikes when obtaining weapons with higher damage values.
Staying on top of upgrades and securing a steady supply of materials and zombie parts is important. Holding onto old items as you level up not only renders you less efficient but can withhold valuable resources you would otherwise gain via scrapping.
If you discover a weapon and perk combination that you enjoy a lot, you can opt to repair it using money when its durability degrades. There’s also the option of paying a usually hefty sum to keep its level and power relevant to the enemies you’re facing.
It’s a flexible system, allowing you to freely swap mods and perks as long as you have the resources to craft them. My only real enemies proved to be my hoarding tendency and the limited inventory space, which made me wish I could scrap weapons without first picking them up.
As you complete quests, you gain not just core abilities, but also skill cards that alter how they behave. Autophage skills enable riskier playstyles, granting greater benefits, like improving your Fury Mode duration, while also having disadvantages, such as reducing health or stamina. Much like mods, you can also freely swap them around.
But as hard as it is to argue against making zombies explode when you deliver the killing blow or briefly pushing them back when you heal, skill cards don’t drastically impact your build. The flavorful tweaks they provide, while fun to discover initially, don’t stop gameplay from becoming repetitive as you find a selection that works.
The more special encounters that Dead Island 2 does throw your way – including holding off waves of zombies while having access to mortars or stage equipment that you can use to explosive effect against the horde – also occur inconsistently.
For each of them, there are other more tedious quests that task you with finding some item for an NPC, which sooner or later involves “killing ‘em all“ for the umpteenth time, often in wave-based encounters that drag on for a bit too long.
The lack of unique boss fights is another negative mark. Your first encounters with the Apex variants are framed as impactful events, as you discover these previously unknown threats. They’re quickly followed by disappointment when you soon realize that you’ll fight them regularly during your usual treks through the city.
Quests also rely too much on breaking up the pace by asking you to find batteries or breakers, look around for levers to restore power, or pixel hunt for objects of importance when you need to investigate rooms. These bits do communicate the state of disrepair the world is in during the zombie apocalypse, but they also bring a mission’s momentum to a halt while quickly betraying how creatively barren Dead Island 2’s mission design is. I couldn’t help but mirror Dani’s exasperation when bumping into them.
Story-wise, Dead Island 2’s pulpier tone suits it well, allowing it to lean more into the mayhem you cause. It focuses on your chosen Slayer trying to make sense of their newfound zombie powers after being bitten at the start of the story. But although the wild chase across Los Angeles is off to an explosive start, it struggles to find its footing.
Your Slayer is a passenger through this apocalyptic take on the City of Angels. The narrative, however, isn’t quite sure if it wants to paint them (or at least Dani) as a figure who mainly cares about themselves or an empathetic hero of the people.
It also introduces characters it never properly develops or helps you bond with, at least not without going out of your way to listen to optional conversations that occur when you visit safe areas. For three-quarters of the story, it feels like you’re going from place to place largely as an excuse to kill zombies.
Then, the final part promises to significantly up the stakes, delving into the nature of the infection spreading across the city. It sadly never properly does so, relegating that task to notes you find in the environment.
Worse yet, it delivers a recycled final boss fight and a lackluster conclusion that’s more interested in setting up a potential follow-up than providing a proper sense of closure.
The few people who show a shred of promise – like a washed-up rocker in his underpants who thinks you’re bringing him pizza when he first meets you in the middle of a zombie apocalypse – are left by the wayside all too soon.
Dani herself isn’t what I’d call remarkable either, but her voice acting really sold me on the fact that I was playing as a badass brawler who translates her moshpit experience quite well into bashing zombie heads.
Aside from the occasional quips or humorous interaction – of which there are a few – the only other redeeming factor in the writing came from a couple of tasteful journal entries that supported a handful of side quests.
On the PS5, Dead Island 2 ran almost flawlessly. The build I had access to did not let me select between quality or performance modes, defaulting to what I’d assume was the latter and running at a steady 60 FPS.
Aside from some very minor pop-in, I only encountered two jarring issues. One was a lack of player reflections – especially noticeable in the early hours when you’re spending lots of time inside mansions with plenty of mirrors and windows.
The other was related to the minimap arrow’s tendency to point in the opposite direction than that in which I was heading, making navigation a pain in more cluttered areas like the pier.
DEAD ISLAND 2 VERDICT
Dead Island 2’s visceral combat can effortlessly pull you into the zone as you slash, shoot, and kick zombies, while making sure they head into the afterlife with fewer limbs attached. A simple but effective upgrade system gives you the means to counter any foe, while its varied arsenal of melee and ranged weapons keeps things interesting for a good while.
Repetition does inevitably set in well before you roll credits, being reflected both in its uninspired mission objectives and how you eliminate opponents. Its disjointed and confused narrative doesn’t do it any favors either, but, as long as you focus on slaying zombies, there’s certainly fun to be had here.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Shutting a Screamer up with a swift palm strike to the face for the very first time.
Good vs Bad
- Visceral combat
- Varied arsenal
- Simple and effective upgrade system
- Gruesomely detailed gore
- Uninspired mission objectives
- Gets repetitive well before the end
- Disjointed, confused narrative
- Lacks unique boss fights