In many ways, Dead Island 2 is exactly the game you think it is: a zombie co-op brawler with next-level gore, sarcastic yet pointed commentary, and a whole load of weapons. I went into my Dead Island 2 preview expecting just that – give me 50 different ways to beat up the living dead, and I’ll be satisfied. However, while at its core it’s very much about mindless zombie killing, Dead Island 2 is also a surprising masterclass in environmental storytelling.
As with all good stories set in the zombie apocalypse, players need to have a balance between the old world and the new; and what better way of heightening the stakes by reminding players of what’s been lost through things like journals, letters, post-it notes, and more.
In the six hours I spent with Dead Island 2 for this preview, I went from picking up baseball bats to hit a home run with a walker’s head to a prime sleuth, determined to find out how and why the people around me all died, and, in some cases, how they ended up in Hell-A.
It doesn’t sound very Dead Island-esque, I know, but there’s something here that taps into your emotional makeup as a human being, quantifying the lived experiences of the strangers you encounter on a day-to-day basis. And for someone who’s always been confident that the secret services are missing out on my social media stalking abilities, that’s never appealed to me more.
Let’s talk about the game’s premise. The world goes to shit and it seems all the rich people in Los Angeles are throwing their wallets around, desperate to book their seat on a flight that’ll seemingly get them out of Hell-A. Six others, the playable Dead Island 2 characters, manage to sneak onto the plane in some form or another, but their luck doesn’t last for long as the plane comes crashing down.
When you wake up, you’re sitting in ground zero, with a load of celebrities who, let’s be honest, have been born with a silver spoon in their mouth. They’re useless in the face of adversity and they expect you to do the dirty work. That is made clear, at least, when well-known actress Emma Jaunt and her crew scamper back to her Bel Air mansion while you try to save other passengers in the wreckage.
However, in the process, you’re bitten by a newly-turned zombie, and you’re forced to hurry back towards Jaunt’s yourself. It’s a stunning introduction and one which forces you to battle your way through houses you could only dream of buying. When you arrive at Jaunt’s, you’re handcuffed with a gun pointed at your head, but guess what? In a stroke of luck it turns out you’re immune.
Now, with the help of Sammy B, the returning Dead Island character who links Hell-A’s world with what came before, you can go forth and save the world.
The main story is exactly what you’d expect from a Dead Island sequel, and while it’s a little grown up from its predecessors in places, it’s not the thing that blew my mind in the preview. The environmental storytelling did.
Dead Island 2 encourages you to go off the beaten track and explore. From the moment I opened up the Bel Air map, I realised there was so much more to explore than just Jaunt’s place. There was the irresistibly named street ‘Glitterati Corner’, the Goat Pen house, and dozens of question marks scattered over the map begging me to discover their mysteries.
In the first mansion I broke into, I found a panic room, which I realised I could access by just smashing the conveniently placed, but also terribly designed fuse box. When the door swung open, I was greeted by a zombified Colt Swanson, who was feasting on what I can only presume to be his friend on the floor. I didn’t think much of it at first, but as Swanson hit the ground, he dropped his house keys – and with it, clues to his identity too.
Just from looking around the panic room, two things were clear: Swanson frequented the panic room often and he was a musician. How did I work that out? Well, the panic room was filled with a crate of beer, toiletries, whey powder, food, and his guitar. Under a pillow on the bed, there was a recording of Swanson playing his guitar while singing along to it.
How the two ended up in the panic room, though, wasn’t exactly clear. As I explored the mansion further – taking the long way deliberately – it was clear that Swanson, who appeared to be a member of a band called Gods and Whiskey, held out for as long as possible. While windows and doors had been barricaded, the signs of an internal struggle were clear throughout; soft furnishings were strewn everywhere, stained red with blood.
There were lots of zombies still in the house, which I thought was a little strange, until I noticed the birthday cake sat decomposing on the dining room table floor. Someone had a birthday party, I thought. And it ended in disaster.
The fact I was able to glean that much information about a single zombie in just 15 minutes tells you all you need to know about the lengths Dambuster’s narrative team has gone to when thinking about its narrative design. But really, that’s only the beginning.
Over the course of your Dead Island 2 preview, you can pick up dozens of collectibles, all of which will give you some sort of insight into that person’s life either before or after the outbreak. As the game goes on, you’ll get more clued up as to how the outbreak started and what’s at stake, which is perfect for grounding you in the gameplay and reminding you that while this is still an arcade beat-em-up, there’s still a human story at its heart.
Once you realise that, it’s hard to ignore it. While Dead Island 2 does have a good central plot – and one that’ll keep you guessing at that – the human stories found outside of the main narrative are the ones that kept me coming back.
One of the best I experienced during the preview was the introduction to one of Hollywood’s biggest old timers, Curtis Sinclair. By exploring the aforementioned Glitterati Corner, I was able to tackle one of the game’s first side quests, which required me to clear Sinclair’s mansion and grounds of zombies so he could finally come downstairs on his painfully slow stairlift.
While I could have blasted my way through that side mission in about ten or so minutes, I took my time with it, taking stock of my surroundings as I went. It seemed the old-timer had thrown a proper Hollywood party based on the valet parking, the cloakroom, and the fact that the former-guests-now-zombies were all dressed to the nines.
In the cloakroom, I discovered a phone with a series of text messages which indicated that Sinclair’s nephew, Tony, had come to the party with the intention of breaking into his uncle’s safe in order to steal back “his money”. The heist went wrong though, and Tony ended up getting bitten.
Based on the texts I’d found, it was clear Tony was trying to scam his uncle out of money, so when he appeared in the hallway dying for my brains, I took great delight in maiming him with a recently modded snooker cue.
Dambuster didn’t need to go to this much trouble to illustrate Hell-A’s wider world, but it has, and the game is much better for it. Instead of leading you down a linear path that treats a zombie outbreak like any other 80s pulp horror film, it puts you firmly in the director’s chair, allowing you to find out as much or as little as you like about the people you might have lost along the way.
Dead Island 2 is coming to PS5/4, Xbox, and PC in April. You can find out more about the Dead Island 2 release date here.