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Given how long it’s taken for Dead Island 2 to release, and how torturous the road to get to its launch has reportedly been, I almost don’t want to criticize it. It feels like watching someone limp over the finish line of a marathon on two freshly broken legs and mocking their form. But this is still a game with an MSRP of $70, so it doesn’t get off easy no matter how difficult the journey was. I just felt the need to acknowledge it upfront.
What has Dead Island 2 become after all that time? Put simply, it’s an acceptable, enjoyable gorefest with enough splattery, cartoonish violence that it outweighs the uncreative gameplay. Dead Island 2 came out functional (which is admittedly more than can be said for some of its neighboring game releases) and its lighthearted sense of humor is the icing on the cake. It’s not a great game, but it’s a good game, and I think that was all anyone was expecting.
Dead Island 2 takes place in Los Angeles, in the middle of a zombie plague that has turned most of the city into gibbering undead. One of the last evacuation planes crashes with six people — the player characters, or Slayers — aboard. The player chooses one of them and must cut a bloody swathe through LA with whatever guns, knives and sharp sticks they can lay their hands on. They link up with and help other survivors and (unintentionally) discover the truth of the outbreak along the way.
City of Angels and Demons: What’s to like
Dead Island 2’s story is certainly a story. The Slayer falls in with a group of other survivors, a motley crew of celebrities, hangers-on and survivalists. It falls on their shoulders to find a way for their group to escape LA or at least outlast the zombie horde. Much shenanigans ensue. And that’s basically it — the story’s not complicated, nor does it need to be. It’s a vessel for getting the player character from one beautiful, zombie-infested locale to another.
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Los Angeles looks gorgeous in this game, the wandering undead doing little to dull its sunny sheen. It is also, one might venture to observe, not an island. To try and make the name “Dead Island 2” make sense, the developers make the central theme of the narrative about isolation, as the military quarantines LA and no one can leave or contact anyone on the outside. It also focuses on LA’s rich, privileged elite and shows how their wealth has given them advantages in this hellhole, but not enough to allow them to leave.
I’m making it sound a lot more subtle and deep than it actually is. Nothing’s deep in Dead Island 2, not even the humor. But the jokes land more often than they miss, and that’s enough to keep the story going. My favorite part of the main game is when the Slayer visits a film studio and must slay zombies through various sets, using the soundstage’s pyrotechnics to their advantage.
The gameplay, similarly, is nothing deep or intricate. The Slayer faces off against several types of zombies, each of which are vulnerable to particular types of damage. They have a series of weapons and mods at their disposal which will deal out that damage, including shocking enemies, burning them or melting them with acid. The melee gameplay is satisfying and crunchy, as each weapon impact produces visible damage on the enemies.
The Slayer can also augment their raw zombie-killing potential with skill cards that give them new perks and abilities. It’s not a game-changer — most of the time I would forget about these cards until I unlocked a new one, but it does add something extra to an otherwise standard melee combat game.
Hell-A Confidential: What’s not to like
As I said above, Dead Island 2’s story is certainly a story. It doesn’t have any emotional component or even a fear factor to speak of. And while that’s great because it keeps melodrama from intruding on the fun, it does mean the story has basically one overarching theme that it runs into the ground: Rich people, especially celebrities, are kind of silly and frivolous.
But for a plot that satirizes modern privilege and wealth, and what little they’re worth in the face of crisis, Dead Island 2 doesn’t exactly know what it wants to say about those who have it. Several of the celebrities you meet seem competent and willing to work with the Slayer and were only prevented from leaving LA by bad fortune, rather than hubris. Despite the game’s “eat the rich” conceit, a lot of the actual people the Slayer meets are no more repulsive than the average yahoo in the zombie apocalypse.
There’s also an issue with the weapons. Crafting and weapon upgrades are all part of Dead Island’s identity. I’m not a huge fan of weapon degradation, but it fits the world — if you can jury-rig a serrated machete that sets anything it touches on fire, the only thing that will set fear in your heart is the thought of it breaking. So that’s all good. However, what I do object to is the weapon leveling system.
As you level up in Dead Island 2, the gear you find in the world levels up with you. So once you hit level 12, for example, most of the weapons you find lying around will also be level 12. However, the same does not hold true for the weapons in your inventory. You have to spend in-game currency to boost those to your current level. So you’ll swiftly be left with a pocket full of tricked-out-but-underpowered gear you can’t afford to level up. It reduces the incentive to invest in your weapons long-term.
And while I enjoy the melee combat, the gun-based gameplay was much less compelling. First, the guns feel less crunchy and substantive than the melee weapons. Second, they are much less fun — it’s not as viscerally satisfying to pop little holes in the shambling undead from a distance. Speaking of melee weapons, my one gripe with them is that the bigger weapons, like sledgehammers, lacked a sense of heft and weight.
Wish you were here: Should you play Dead Island 2?
I wish I could say that Dead Island 2 came out a big winner after such a long development cycle. But it’s not Game of the Year material. It’s not even what I would call a great zombie game — there are many that do story or even gameplay better. But Dead Island 2 is solid. It is competent, and it is fun. If you want some uncomplicated zombie-slaying antics in a beautiful setting, Dead Island 2 will scratch that itch. But I don’t expect anyone to still be talking about it this time next year.
Deep Silver provided us with a review code prior to launch. Dead Island 2 is currently available for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
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