Gross, gory, and gorgeous in equal measure, Dead Island 2 may not be one of 2023's most exciting or innovative games, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun and well worth the wait.
How do you think you’d fare in an apocalypse, eh? Think you’d be the first to fall, doomed to endlessly wander the rest of your life – well, death – in pursuit of fresh flesh, or would you be a survivor? We’ve seen and played enough zombie romps by now to get a sense of who we’d be once the brown stuff hits the fan, after all; we know the types of people who’d make it, and the types who wouldn’t.
I used to think that I could make it. I mean, if I had help and knew someone who could teach me how to use a shotgun, anyway. No, I’m never going to survive the arachnid apocalypse – I’ll be dead within the first 15 minutes, having screamed myself to death – but I used to think that if it came to zombies, I could make it work. I could rock it and sock it like badass Carla.
In Dead Island 2, you play as one of six protagonists, and I hopped in as stunt motorcyclist and Los Angeles local, Carla. It’s the first decision you’ll make when you boot up the game, and I took entirely too long to make it, carefully comparing skills until I eeny-meeny-miney-mo-ed it and landed on our outrageously confident lead. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Dead Island 2 characters aren’t necessarily interchangeable, so even though the scenes are the same, “how the players react to what other characters say will differ”. That means I was stuck with Carla and her relentless comedic commentary, and while it occasionally fell on the wrong side of irritating, it at least made me realise that if it did come down to it, Carla would be a survivor, and I would not.
The putting-the-gore-in-gorgeous Dead Island 2 knows exactly what it is, and it has no lofty intentions of sharing a cerebral experience here. It’s a bloody, brilliant, gore-soaked looter shooter that looks, sounds, and plays fantastically. That said, Carla seems so rarely affected by the violence around her – so untroubled by the gruesome sights she routinely encounters – it’s pretty clear that she’s made of stronger stuff than I am. And she sure knows how to swing a sledgehammer.
I can’t say I was particularly surprised by the plot or how we got there – in fact, I’m not convinced there are any new ways to tell a zombie apocalypse story left – but I did care about its people, albeit some more than others. There’s a whole gamut of LA stereotypes to check in on – the obligatory spoiled leading lady, a (simply dreadful) wannabe content creator, the washed-up Rat Packer, a buzzed, ageing rock star; you get the idea – but hey, I mostly enjoyed their company.
LA itself (I’m sorry, I can’t refer to it as “Hell-A” without cringing my arse off), is an absolute joy to explore, by the way. That may seem a little odd, given the iconic landmarks we know so well are now splattered with blood and curdled brains, but Dambuster’s approach to world-building – that is, neat but detailed locations that exist in isolation but sit alongside each other like complementary Trivia Pursuit slices – is a delightful one.
It means you have plenty of places to explore without ever feeling overwhelmed or too far away from your next waypoint. That doesn’t mean you won’t be overwhelmed by zombies, of course – if you’re coming into this hoping to avoid getting guts on your flip-flops, then this really isn’t the game for you – but this up-close-and-personal world-building is the perfect setting for the game’s equally up-close-and-personal combat system.
Dead Island 2 is unapologetically violent and violently unapologetic, and you’ll never stop marvelling at the deliciously gory ways you can despatch enemies, from driving your fist into their faces, making their eyeballs pop, to hobbling them at the knees and swinging a mallet through their skulls. Fighting is ferocious and tremendously fulfilling, with each weapon and each scuffle feeling meaty and satisfying, especially when you hit your groove and perfect that all-important block.
Experimenting with different makeshift weapon mods and perks never gets old, either, and while I’ll admit there’s a little imbalance to the crafting materials (I appreciate there needs to be a sense of scarcity, but good grief), working out what enemy responds best to what perk is a joy.
As is Dambuster’s careful matching of zombie skins to the environment, by the way. Expect to take on undead busboys at the hotel, while a gaggle of shambling police officers await you at the LAPD station in Venice. You’ll face soldiers in military zones and hazmat-suited-up scientists at the CDC stations, while leisure-suit-wearing shoppers want to rip you apart in the mall. It’s such a minute detail, I suppose, but one that made such a tangible impact on my experience, I couldn’t not mention it.
And that’s just one example of the team’s studious attention to detail. Each location is such fun to explore, offering plenty of bonus missions, not to mention secret collectibles, cache rooms, and weapons. Exploring the places we so instantly recognise – regardless of whether you’ve ever visited in person – never fails to feel impressive, either, and I particularly enjoyed picking through the corpses on the sun-drenched sand of Venice Beach. That’s not to say these locations don’t take on a wholly more sinister vibe in the dark, though; my night-time trip to Santa Monica and adventures through the sewers were peculiarly unnerving.
Interestingly, though, these locales weren’t quite as stuffed with loot as I’d expected. Sure, you’ll find plenty of resources among corpses as you chop your way through the hordes, but getting hold of the things you need to do the chopping with takes a little more work. That’s not to say you won’t find yourself experimenting with a smorgasbord of hammers and axes and poles and pipes, and, yes, even the humble garden rake; you will, and you’ll love doing it, too. But even with degradable weapons, it was a rare thing to find my inventory full.
Because it moves away from its predecessor’s truly open world, where you roam in Dead Island 2 will be very firmly tied to the story, at least until you unlock fast travel (which is about three-quarters of the way through, strangely enough). That’s not a complaint, though; it was a curiously effective way to keep me invested in both the story and side missions alike. It does, however, mean you rarely get to wander at your own leisure in the early game, not unless you’re willing to chop through more hordes, anyway – which is always a gamble, particularly if your weapons have degraded and you’re low on health.
And for the most part, the game offers just the right amount of challenge, too. You can’t change or even choose the difficulty, which means you’re at the mercy of the default setting, but Dambuster has got this one just right. I felt confident if not complacent – it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the swarms, especially in tight spaces – and while I emerged victorious from most, most is certainly not all, which adds a wonderful layer of additional peril to every encounter, however seemingly benign.
To help you with the hordes, you unlock a special ability called Fury later on in the campaign. To tell you much else will spoil both the story and your experience, but it adds a delightful wrinkle. While it never lasted long enough to satisfy my own surprising bloodlust, tearing enemies apart with your bare knuckles is innately gratifying.
On top of this, there are also Skill Cards, which is Dead Island 2’s take on the tired old skill tree. The deck system enables you to build different loadouts for different playstyles, while also offering a pretty nifty way of tailoring your skills to tackle particularly tricky foes, too. They’re customisable at any time from within your pause menu, which means if you find yourself struggling with a particularly tough crowd of zombs – and you will, particularly in the late game – you can make tweaks on the fly.
It wasn’t until the end of the campaign that frustrations crept in, as there were a couple of tough boss fights – and one in particular – that felt outrageously unfair given the HP of the boss, the numerous additional enemies, and the mind-numbingly aggravating environmental hazards to watch out for, too. It’s not even as if you can step away, go XP farming and level up and come back when you’re a bit stronger, either; all missions – main and side – will, by and large, level up with you, regardless of when you unlocked them or how many times you’ve levelled up since.
Also, I would’ve welcomed getting a hold of some guns an hour or two before the story gets you there. It’s not that I was bored by the combat exactly, but the endless meleeing had lost a little of its shine.
All in all, Dead Island 2 ran pretty well. I had a couple of irksome issues; I once had to restart a mission because I couldn’t complete the “kill them all” objective as one zombie had spawned inside a van I couldn’t reach, and on another occasion, a character I’d just met fell through the floor – I could just about make out the top of their head above the carpet – leaving others in the scene to make emotional pleas to what appeared to be a talking, floating crossbow.
Am I being picky? Maybe, but despite these minor quibbles, I had a surprisingly good time with Dead Island 2. I don’t suppose its visceral violence will suit everyone, and I suspect some may find the gameplay a little tired for 2023. But while it doesn’t iterate on the arguably tired zombie game formula… well, does it have to?
Dead Island 2 may not bring much that’s new to the table, but what it does do, it does bloody brilliantly… and that’s enough for me.