Dead Island 2 is a whole lot of fun. I want to get that out of the way right here and now, because with a game that has been this long coming, it’s almost a surprise that it works at all, let alone the fact that after five hours of playing, I kinda wanted to… just keep playing. In fact, I’d say Dead Island 2 is a huge credit to Dambuster Studios, because despite multiple developers taking a stab at this one, it being years in the making, and being a little way off yet, the Xbox Series X version I played was pretty much bug free, ran well, looks great, and feels like something that love and energy has been poured into.
OK, so boring stuff out of the way, now you know it works, what is it? I don’t think it’s being disrespectful to say that Dead Island 2 isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel. This is the series that started it all in many ways, with a studio that splintered off and made Dying Light, itself becoming a huge franchise. But Dead Island 2, in many ways, takes things back to the roots. In my extensive time (I played five hours of the game, but with multiple characters, so genuinely this is the most time I’ve ever spent with a preview build that I can recall) playing it, all I could think was how enjoyable it was mechanically. Catharsis in a game: chopping and beating zombies to a pulp, it’s just a damn good time.
It feels untethered, in many ways. There’s less a focus on parkour and verticality that other games might be chasing. This is boots on the ground zombie-smashing, with a massive amount of weapons, and some of the most (and I hate to use this term here but) “life like” dismemberment I’ve ever seen in a game.
The story starts with a plane trying to leave for safety. The zombie outbreak is destroying LA (Hell-A, which is a joke that never lands for me), and the cast of slayers has snuck onto the plane, which itself has infected humans on it; crashes, and we’re back to trying to survive. A brief (but unskippable, even if you’re playing through with a different slayer, sadly) tutorial section introduces the combat, main characters, and then you’re off to the races.
Melee weapons instantly just feel right, too. The weight to each of the variety of weapons on offer feels good. Whether you’ve modded a knife to inflict electricity, or have a mace that does fire damage, it feels right. But there’s an art to the combat that adds some depth, and eventually adds options. While you can block, you can also parry attacks. Doing so unlocks a brief window to hit “X” and then you can smash the zombie up with whichever weapon you’re using. Despite being a canned animation for each of the weapons, it never gets old, and makes the parry worth learning.
But of course, that’s only an option when you start if you pick Carla. Each slayer uses a card-based system, and you gather new cards as you play. There are different slots for these skill cards, and one of them I never even got to see what it was all about. As you level up, you gain more space for cards, and you can build a character to play how you want to. Perhaps as Carla you want to make it so successful blocks give you a health boost, that’s an option.
These character-based skills are varied to each different play style. Amy doesn’t have the parry block, and instead has a dodge on the same button. Hours into my play time as Carla I also unlocked the dodge for her, but I couldn’t equip both, and with both offering different ways to play as well as different buffs for using them, it offered a genuine choice about how you want to spec your slayer.
Even the moves you unlock offer similar choices. An early move for Carla I got was the classic jump kick. Early doors I enjoyed hoofing zombies off rooftops with this, but eventually I unlocked a standard flying kick that did massive damage, while also knocking my stamina down, but didn’t push them back like the main jump kick. These small choices make for an enjoyable game, and a sense of ownership over who you’re playing as.
Speaking of which, the characters have their own stories and reasons to be involved. Missions are lengthy segments that take you to interesting locations. I won’t spoil too much, but I was in hog’s heaven exploring a big posh hotel, emptying it of loot, tracking down a drink-crazed soldier who had some issue with a bride to be. Eventually the bride to be was, well, a massive zombie bride boss fight, because of course it was. But it’s fine, because I could duke round the muscle-bound zombie, use my freshly crafted mace with fire + extra damage mod, and made quick work of her, really.
Each location feels like it’s got something to hide. Locked doors, cabinets, safes, and more have keys that you have to find nearby. Named zombies often have keys to garages or places of interest, where you’ll find a new shiny purple weapon, so you can dump your green golf club. The NPCs feel like they live in these locations, be it Beverly Hills or anywhere else. They are spoiled rich kids, drunk has-been parents, or washed up actors who can’t walk properly. Something I liked is that instead of doing a lot “gamey” things, when you rescue someone, they’ll just say “hey, it’s fine, I managed to get here, I can get back”.
And that’s how Dead Island 2 feels to me: it doesn’t waste your time. It feels respectful of the player, getting you into the action, giving you a character to build, and letting you enjoy the combat and exploration. There’s plenty of variety to the zombies, one is even a bee-keeper who sends infected (presumably) bees at you to chip away at you. But it is also, rightly, a power fantasy. You are strong, but also the difficulty and speed at which you progress feels well dialled in. I didn’t expect to enjoy my time with Dead Island 2 quite as much as I have so far, but stripping back to basics, and offering a simple, good old fashioned “damn good time” is apparently just what I wanted, and that’s before I even get to play in co-op.
Dead Island 2 is coming to PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, PS4, and PS5 on April 21st, 2023.