Dead Island 2
“Dead Island 2 is a fun slice of ultraviolence, but it squanders a golden opportunity to serve up a meatier zombie story.”
- Richly detailed world
- Excellent environmental storytelling
- Sickly satisfying gore
- Highly customizable weapons
- Generic zombie story
- Repetitive melee combat
- Dull mission objectives
For a game that’s so eager to call out the vapid world of influencers and empty-headed Californians, Dead Island 2 sure doesn’t have much to say itself.
Like most zombie media, the long-delayed sequel to 2011’s Dead Island has a clear target in mind. It takes players to a post-apocalyptic version of Los Angeles that’s been quarantined after a zombie outbreak, leaving any remaining survivors to fend for themselves. It’s a clear satirical premise, as social media-obsessed adults and carefree millionaires transform into mindless monsters that only live to consume. It’s just a shame that the first-person hack-and-slasher shambles past that meaty premise in pursuit of overcooked genre clichés.
If you’re just looking for brainless fun, Dead Island 2 is a perfectly enjoyable zombie game that’s filled to the brim with delicious gore and top-notch environmental storytelling. It just never quite lives up to the strength of its allegorical premise, with a generic narrative and repetitive missions that I was shambling through by the end.
Escape from Hell-A
Dead Island 2 plays out like a zombie-infested ode to John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. It follows a group of survivors trying to bust out of a nightmarish version of Los Angeles that’s been left for dead by the U.S. government. Rather than taking a full open-world approach, developer Dambuster Studios breaks the city up into smaller, open-ended chunks that provide a masterclass in great level design. The Santa Monica Pier is a richly detailed adaptation of the real thing, with dilapidated rides turning into dangerous electrical hazards. Another level takes me to a massive film studio, represented as a maze of empty trailers and Hollywood sound stages.
Its richly detailed version of Los Angeles is just begging to be satirized.
What’s most impressive here is how much environmental storytelling is packed into every single space. Early on, I stumble into an abandoned influencer hype house that’s loaded with sight gags. In one room, I find a social media “apology” script scrawled on a whiteboard, sitting behind a camera. Outside, I stumble into a pool full of inflatable pool toys and bathing-suit-clad zombies. In just about any space I go to, I can suss out exactly what was happening before it was overrun with monsters. It’s the kind of detail I expect from an immersive sim like Hitman or Prey.
What’s less exciting is its written narrative, which feels like a missed opportunity given how engrossing the world is. When the story begins, it seems like Dambuster is taking a Dawn of the Dead approach by using zombies as a stand-in for the privileged world of Los Angeles in all its forms. That TikTok hype house I found feels like a modern version of Dawn of the Dead’s mall, poking fun at the way influencers commodify and consume content. Perhaps it’s a little cynical, but there’s a clear thematic link that dives into the kind of social allegory the genre is built on.
That idea doesn’t really carry through the main story. Instead, I find myself limping through a fairly generic action blockbuster that fuses both zombie and superhero genre tropes. A survivor is immune to the disease and must survive in order to help a doctor find a cure — where have I heard that one before? I kept waiting for that tired story to subvert itself, tying it to some of the compelling thematic threads I’d found in the world. For the most part, those are mere set dressing. The actual narrative seems more concerned with paying homage to movies and the vague concept of a “Hollywood ending.”
The survivors themselves are just as thin, squandering a fun cast of California eccentrics with rushed character arcs. In one story beat, I meet a disfigured man who’s holed himself up in the sewers like Disney’s Beast with a collection of DVDs. There’s a sad, sweet moment there where he begs me to stay with him and watch a movie with him. I barely ever see him again, leaving that story mostly unfulfilled. My own character is even less developed. I decide to play as Carla, a motorcycle stunt woman with a big attitude, but I come to regret that decision after realizing her personality largely boils down to “yelling swears a lot.”
Everything feels a bit dated and that’s the only place where I begin to wonder if the sequel’s decade-long development cycle came into play. The level design feels modern, but its story and character feel like they’re stuck in an early 2010s era where teen boys were still the target. It’s only disappointing because its richly detailed version of Los Angeles is just begging to be satirized.
For the tinkerers
Dead Island 2 is fortunately much more successful when it comes to zombie carnage, though parts of it are similarly mixed. The main combat hook is built around first-person melee attacks, with players wielding shovels, rakes, pickaxes, and more. There’s an impressive arsenal of weapons to toy around with and each one can be customized with elemental damage and other buffs. There’s a morbid joy to that experimentation; I spent a fair amount of time strapping modifications onto tools just to see how they’d visually impact my weapon. My favorite invention in my playthrough was a long stick that I’d basically transformed into a cattle prod by giving it an electrical boost.
The core melee attack system is a little thin, mostly only requiring players to smash one trigger over and over. It can be held down for power attacks and there’s a block button, but that’s about all there is when it comes to the basics. Even elemental enhancements are just a matter of adding a status effect on hit. In a lot of battles against beefier bosses, I simply found myself kiting around them in tight circles while hammering one button until they died.
The appeal here comes from testing out different weapons, which bring some needed variety and nuance. For instance, a pitchfork allows me to keep a safe distance from enemies and poke at them, while a police baton forces players to get up close and personal with quick strikes. Fast weapons benefit most from the system, but heavier ones aren’t quite as satisfying. Striking with a heavy hammer feels like swinging a pool noodle underwater. There’s a resistance to swings that makes those weapons feel oddly weightless.
Despite some of those flaws, melee combat still largely clicks. That’s thanks to Dead Island 2’s grotesque and beautiful flesh system. No matter where I slash a zombie, I can see its skin and sinews start to separate. That allows me to target specific limbs, cutting them off their feet with a sharp object or busting in a skull with a baseball bat. It’s a stomach-churning effect on par with the violence of Sniper Elite 5but a practical one too. I’m always able to see exactly where my hit landed and what parts of the human body are close to breaking. It’s a dynamic layer on top of something mechanically repetitive.
Combat does eventually deepen, though it takes a surprisingly long time to hit that point. I wouldn’t get my first gun until around five hours in and I’d get a slow drip of abilities like an ultimate fury attack even later. I always appreciate a game that doesn’t play all of its cards right away and teaches new ideas up through the end, though it does take a bit too long for combat to really get cooking as a result. I only found my groove once I could flip between electrified machine guns and poisonous baseball bats, letting me juggle swarms of zombies at any distance.
The narrative may not land, but the sandbox violence is worth the trip.
What really brings everything together is its perk system, which adds a lot of nitty-gritty customization potential. Each survivor can collect and equip cards that change their playstyle significantly. My version of Carla was largely built around blocks and counters, as she’d stun enemies with a successful parry and then regain health when polishing them off with a gruesome finisher. I tweaked some of her secondary abilities too, giving her a flying dropkick that would let me boot enemies off of buildings or piers.
Dead Island 2 is a game for tinkerers. It’s all about taking the most basic of tools and trying to get the most mileage out of them like a scavenger cobbling together whatever they can find into a weapon. As a system, it’s a smart fit for a zombie game about characters trying to survive using anything they can get their hands on. The narrative may not land, but the sandbox violence is worth the trip.
There are a lot of big-picture aspects of Dead Island 2 that set it up for success. Combat is morbidly fun and every environment feels incredibly distinct and full of detail. It’s a shame, then, that the story missions that link all that together are so drab. On paper, there’s a lot of creativity on display in some of the narrative setups. One early mission has me crashing a wedding and killing a literal bridezilla. Another sends me down the Santa Monica pier, where I eventually face off with a boardwalk monster in demented clown makeup. Each mission is a comedic little California horror movie vignette.
It feels like every single objective I’m given is some sort of key and lock system.
The moment-to-moment gameplay of those missions isn’t quite so varied. In just about every mission, I follow a waypoint to a door that needs to be opened or a device that needs to be turned on to find that it’s locked. Then I’m sent on some sort of digression to find what I need to keep moving. At a point, it feels like every single objective I’m given is some sort of key and lock system. That’s most obvious in one late-game mission where I pop into an expensive cell phone store. I need to access information on a phone, but I find out the servers are down when clicking on it. I head to the server room and click the door only to find that it’s locked. I head to the front desk to find a key, only to find a note that the key is with a zombified employee outside. That’s a lock within a lock within a lock.
In between those objectives, I usually find myself fighting off a swarm of zombies. These combat encounters tend to drag on longer than I ever want, with zombies spilling out of vents or just abruptly spawning in. It doesn’t help that enemy variety is pretty limited here as Dambuster mostly sticks to humanoid shapes. There are a few design twists, like heavily padded firefighters that are harder to chop through or water boys carrying fragile jugs waiting to be electrified, but most monsters feel like light variations on one another.
Side missions help break up some of that monotony, bringing more ideas to the table. One quest line has me helping a social media influencer film some videos where I need to kill zombies in specific ways, like electrocuting them with the help of a broken bumper cart ride. It’s a goofy, slapstick way for me to engage with some of the nuances of Dead Island 2’s environmental combat. It’s just a shame that I rarely get the same energy in the main story.
I had as much fun here as I would have had watching a schlocky B-movie, but Dead Island 2 doesn’t do much to push the crowded (and dated) zombie genre forward. An underwhelming narrative and a general lack of creativity in mission design left me hungry for a more substantial meal. There’s a sharp-witted takedown of American privilege somewhere in Dead Island’s arsenal, an edge that was perhaps dulled down with age. For the series to survive another decade, it might need to hit the grindstone and craft a point that can actually pierce skin.
Dead Island 2 was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 hooked up to a TCL 6-Series R635.