The zombies in Dead Island 2 don't just die, they perform. They rupture and break, pinwheeling through the air with shattered bone fragments jutting at ugly angles from limbs. Jaws flap loosely, hanging lopsided on a last strip of skin, while eyeballs swing from sockets, rolling around rotting cheeks on a shred of nerve as they stare at the ground. Best of all they melt, with acid based weapons sloughing flesh and muscle from bone like an angry candle under a blowtorch. As their mass drips away they eventually lose the structure and power they need to walk, collapsing like a bundle of sticks when they try to take a step they no longer have the physical mass to complete.
Release date: April 21, 2023
Platform(s): PS5, PS4, PC, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Developer: Deep Silver Dambuster Studios
I have to be honest, only melting zombies and that alone became a bit of a problem for me in the midpoint of the game. It's so gloriously wet and horrible that I ended up with an arsenal of acid-only weapons, perfecting the art of stacking the damage just enough to melt them away rather than killing them outright. The only thing that stopped me completely playing this as a 30-hour zombie liquefying simulator was the presence of acid resistant enemies. FINE. I'll use something else…
Stick with it
Overall, enjoying Dead Island 2 requires you to accept it's 95% hitting zombies with sticks – and the remaining 5% is choosing the stick. It's a game of simple pleasures, then, but one that does well to maximize what it does with it. I admire how much restraint it shows at first to meter out your options. You start with little more than a basic attack and a block, with most of the early weight carried by little more than the game's good looks and sheer novelty of just how much mess you can make with a few cadavers and a plank.
Over time this expands, adding an array of weapon types and elemental options, things like guns and throwable options like grenades and molotovs, and a growing set of skill cards you can use to build your character abilities. These unlock and fine-tune things like dropkick attacks, or area of effect ground pounds and slams, as well as a rage mode you can charge and unleash when things get crowded.
It's a basic set of tools overall and, for the most part, the sheer spectacle of tearing through fetid crowds with acid hammers, flaming swords and electric wrenches carries the game well. It never really builds out to anything particularly deep or complex though, and I would have liked a little more finesse and less button mashing at times. I never clicked with the block move – your main counter to endless attacks – which rewards perfect execution with a stunned enemy. The dodge alternative feels similarly wooly, but has the benefit of getting you out the way whether you nail the timing or not.
Against bosses and minibosses in particular, the basic combat can feel a little exposed. When you face large, damage-soaking enemies with projectile vomit, stunning electrified screams, or slamming knockbacks, the simplicity of… just kind of standing there and hitting them a bit can begin to feel stretched. You don't really have a flexible enough bag of tricks to vary much under pressure, making tougher encounters feel like a one button slog. Towards the end of the game I often found myself going around larger enemies I didn't have to fight, and I just ended up avoiding one late game creature entirely because it could block and heal – it's not hard to deal with, just a joyless pain to whittle away.
However, while the combat plateaus every now and then, there's just about enough variety to keep things moving. The skill cards mete out a steady progression of alternative moves and abilities to rotate in and out of use, while the mid-to-late stage addition of guns adds a fun extra set of toys to play with. But by far the best additional layer comes in the traps you can set. The original Dead Islands and series like Dying Light have always struggled to stick the landing with environmental traps – things like electrified puddles you can never quite get enemies to walk through. Here it solves the problem by giving you jerry cans full of gasoline, acid and water you can pour out, throw and shoot, as well as car batteries that effectively act like electrical grenades.
It creates a portable solution where, if you see a big group of enemies, you can find a water can, pour it out all over the road and then throw a car battery in the puddle to fry entire crowds at once. Hordes can be decimated by just tipping gas out everywhere and then putting a bullet in the discarded container. It's a simple system that fits perfectly in that sweet spot of 'I don't have to do this but by Christ it's fun' – as reactive and improvisational as it is chaotic and unpredictable.
It also helps that this is a very pretty game. The world is made up of a series of semi-open hub-like levels that gradually expand in scale and ambition. You start moving through the alleys of Beverly Hills looting houses, before moving on to more open streets around a hotel and later a movie lot, Hollywood Boulevard and then several beach locations across Santa Monica and Venice Beach. It's always a great looking thing but the later stages are especially a treat – you can almost feel the heat coming off the screen when you reach the sand.
Dambuster Studios has done an excellent job here of absolutely maxing out the experience in every way, but it is worth being clear that you start the game hammering R2 to leather zombies with a stick and you'll end the game, 30+ hours later, hammering R2 to leather zombies with a stick. Just one that's 20 levels higher and on fire. There is some mission variation that has you investigating things by finding and interpreting clues (following a mailman's route for example) but almost everything, main and side missions alike, always ends in zombies. The limited gameplay texture aside, I also had a few spawning issues where zombies could appear or disappear without warning. In some cases, long drawn out battles with tougher enemies went on long enough so that I wandered far enough away from where it started and they had respawned.
For the most part though this is a robustly solid and polished game that, while it might never drop anything groundbreaking, maintains a consistently enjoyable flow of nice touches and ideas. Whether that's a new and interesting location, the flow between open areas to explore or more constrained scripted moments, or something as simple as the great effect of buried undead rising up out of the sand – there's a lot to enjoy here throughout its 'escape LA' story that mixes it all with decent characters, some twists, and a conga line of endlessly mushable zombies.
Dead Island 2 was reviewed on PS5, with code provided by the publisher.