When the world inevitably ends in the midst of a zombie apocalypse I hope it’s more like Dead Island 2 than The Last of Us. Or even Dying Light, for that matter. Human suffering and / or the horrors of a world without discernible law are all well and good, but alongside the former example it all comes off as a bit po-faced and dreary. In Dead Island 2, for instance, zombie hordes are treated as minor inconveniences, and you’re taught early on to never fear anything you can dropkick out the nearest window. This is a world where grief over potentially losing your entire family to slathering undead monsters is balanced out by being able to melt a load of them in a swimming pool full of caustic acid. It’s all so deliberately silly and knowingly ridiculous almost to the point of campness, and by God is it what the genre needs.
Set roughly five years after the events of Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide, the virus has struck again, this time not just restricted to the tropical island of Banoi and its neighbour. Instead, the virus has found its way to LA, mainly Hollywood, Bel Air, and other districts where it feels oddly acceptable to see the residents eaten alive by zombies. You’re picking through the homes of the super rich and comically vapid, and there’s a general air that most of them had it coming in some way or another. There are certainly very few tears shed for the dead or recently dead here. Every fresh corpse is a new source of amusement.
As in previous games, your protagonist is immune to the virus. It’s all new survivors this time round though (although some of the previous cast do turn up), and you’ve got 6 to choose from. With one or two exceptions they’re a who’s who of internet influencer stereotypes, a handful of mildly insufferable Gen X malcontents who actually manage to become much more likable once you’re playing. I tried both fitness enthusiast Carla and firefighter Ryan, ultimately sticking with the latter for my playthrough. There’s not much between the two of them, as luck would have it, as most of the six are paired up in terms of skills (which we’ll come to in due course).
Each character is fully voiced and while their personalities don’t differ enough that any of them just say “Fuck this shit” and leave, they are unique enough that their differences come through. Stat-wise each has a spread of attributes from Toughness to Agility, and each has top marks in one and bottom in another, ostensibly changing the way they handle. It is noticeable for things like stamina regeneration and sprint speed, but ultimately each is a viable choice for solo or group play.
Some of the writing is genuinely funny, if a little quip-heavy, but the voice work all round is very solid. You will come across a number of NPCs, most of whom will offer side quests or join your little enclave of survivors. Initially you’re holed up with megastar Emma Jaunt and her entourage, but steadily your number grows (and occasionally shrinks) as you travel around the various environs of “Hell-A”.
Exploring the world is 80% of the gameplay loop. It’s not open world, but rather split into districts that are open themselves, allowing freedom of movement and exploration. There’s quite often more than one way into a given building, and you’ll need to circumvent security systems and find hidden keys to open certain doors or lockboxes. These keys can sometimes be found lying around, but more often will be carried by uniquely named zombies. You may find the key to a particular safe in a different district altogether, necessitating some backtracking, which is particularly annoying because there’s no fast travel between districts until a good five or six hours in. You have to sprint everywhere, sometimes crossing multiple districts, and it can be somewhat of a chore just getting around.
And not because of the zombies either. Once you realise there’s no real failstate, jogging around LA and shouldering through the shambling undead feels decidedly less threatening than, say, taking an afternoon stroll through Greater Manchester. There are lots of zombies, of course, and Dead Island 2 introduces new variants regularly, but your Survivor is armed to the teeth and each takes such a perverse pleasure in forcefully removing the top half of a zombie skull that all sense of threat dries up quickly.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are enough games out there that make the undead a credible threat and overburden you with tension. Dead Island 2 is not that game. When you’re running around chugging energy drinks and decapitating zombies with an electrified garden rake you feel more like a Nic Cage cosplayer than an apocalypse survivor and that’s entirely intentional. The story does eventually start moving towards emotional pathos and there is some great work in some of the character interactions, but this is zombie sandbox, not zombie nightmare.
A case in point here is the reliance on environmental damage to deal with the hordes. From electrifying puddles of water to burning cans of gasoline, dropkicking zombies into live power cables or melting them in acid, there are many ways to stay alive. It’s particularly fun during an early jaunt through a movie lot, where you can mess with various special effects to cook or fry your pursuers. Later, when the game really starts mixing the randomised hordes that come at you, such environmental training pays off.
You can carry an ungodly amount of weapons about your person at any given time. While the melee weapons degrade eventually, workbenches are pretty well-spaced that allow you to repair them, craft consumables like med kits and ammunition, or upgrade your arsenal. It could be a good five or six hours before you get your first gun, depending on how much you explore, but they’re life-savers in a pinch. They make noise, but not enough to attract hordes the way, say, alarms do. Even when you have firearms, you’re still more likely to resort to a Bowie Knife you’ve somehow imbued with the power of fire to get through a rough spot. You also have items known as Curveballs, which are devices om cooldowns such as pipe bombs, zombie bait, and molotovs.
Skills come in the form of unlockable cards that you equip in an increasing number of slots on your character. They feature direct skills like the frankly overpowered dropkick, a parry, block and offensive slide. But they also apply modifiers to those skills, such as health regen or a damage boost on a perfectly-timed evade. There’s potential in the late game for some form of build-crafting but it does take some time to get there. As expected, you will reach a point where you just feel a little too powerful, although this at least plays into the sandbox nature of the world. A particular development around halfway through the story gives you even more ways to make zombies your rotting bitches.
There are issues though, often arising from the free-form enemy placement and weapon design. On PS5, zombies will noticeably pop in and out of existence, sometimes vanishing or appearing right in front of your eyes. Occasionally, the physics will go bat-shit on a twitching corpse, or zombies will get stuck in scenery. Once, I glitched right through the map and got stuck in some unfinished limbo world before falling to my death in the void. It’s janky, but rarely game-breaking.
Dead Island 2 is fun, though, plain and simple. It’s horrifically gruesome at times (especially the instant kills you get after perfectly parrying a weakened zombie), and knowingly over the top, but it’s also incredibly playable. Some may find the sheen rubbing off after the halfway point given that it relies heavily on backtracking, and ditches any sense of real challenge early on. The only trouble you’ll ever really have are bosses, as death will just respawn you nearby where you died with no real penalty.
Even if you do start to get a bit disenchanted, there are some neat additions that can elevate the gameplay. First of all, there’s co-op. You can jump in at any time with friends and go ham on the hordes, combining your powers, skills, and weapons with the environment to incredibly messy effect. It does up the jank factor a little, unsurprisingly, but the fun factor far outweighs it. Also, it may sound a little gimmicky on the surface, but if you have Alexa you can influence the game directly via the little SKOPE boxes you find in most of the mansions and offices. They allow you to not only distract or aggro the hordes, but even control some of your character actions directly through your Alexa. It’s an interesting idea that adds a new dimension to proceedings, but how much usage it will get remains to be seen.
This simply isn’t a game to focus on the emotional toll of a zombie apocalypse. It’s not interested in portraying humans as the real monsters or forcing you to make tough choices to survive. It revels in dropping you in tiny play areas with locked gates that need batteries, a small horde of zombies to defeat, and maybe a handy puddle of water, gasoline, or acid to kite them through. Hell, one side quest is just you killing in imaginative ways so an influencer can wow her followers. It’s not exactly plumbing new comedy depths these days, but it’s still entertaining.
While the fast travel system makes the exploration a little tedious after a while, and it certainly suffers from some interesting glitches, Dead Island 2 is a gruesomely good time that puts some much-needed fun and mayhem back into the zombie apocalypse sandbox.
LA is a great environment to slay zombies in
Lots of ways to deal with the dead
Tons of things to find
Glitchy at times
Fast travel takes a while to unlock
Can be a bit janky