Dead Island 2 delivers all the dismemberment and blunt force trauma you’d expect from an open-world zombie sequel, but is that enough? Here’s our review.
The zombies in Dead Island 2 are proper old-fashioned zombies. Yes, some of them can run. Some muscular specimens even jump and pound the ground. But all are unmistakably rotting corpses reanimated with cannibalistic intent – slobbering, snarling, lurching on legs half-chewed by their brethren, swiping desperately at the fleshy faces of the living.
Your violent intervention into their existence only accentuates their quintessential zombie-ness. The way they stumble and totter when batted back by a steel pipe, a visible gash appearing where metal met skull, is a grim delight. As is the way they shuffle on obliviously while on fire, before succumbing to the flames. And that’s before you factor in the horribly impressive dismemberment system. Maybe you amputate a swinging arm as it’s about to scratch your eyes out, or stop a runner in its tracks with a cleaver swipe to the knee. Physics and mocap embrace in bloody harmony.
There’s a sturdy reliability to these mechanisms, and it bleeds through to the game’s vision of an apocalyptic Los Angeles (nicknamed Hell-A). Perhaps it says more about the state of many other titles at launch these days, but it’s almost surprising that this not-quite-open-world adventure performs almost entirely glitch-free, despite the complexity of its decaying stars. The few remaining live folk aren’t too shabby, either. Stranded after missing the evac transports, they huddle in secure spaces, hoping for aid, their faces, clothes and mannerisms conveying personality as much as the convincing voicework.
Hell-A is a world that really fits the bill for zombie slaying. While not actually an island, of course, the represented districts, from Bel-Air and Beverly Hills to Venice Beach and Monarch Studios, hold cultural significance which trumps that of the first game’s holiday resort. There’s early satisfaction, for instance, in breaking into the gated mansions of the rich and famous, extracting voyeuristic pleasure from seeing glossy lifestyles rendered meaningless. Zombification is a great leveller after all – turning film stars into flesh eating monsters alongside the help. True, the satire here, poking at obsession with celebrity status and pop culture, is hardly profound, but it’s delivered with a sharp tongue.
While Dead Island 2 has its share of characters, stories and dialogue, though, it wants you to care more about making zombies fall over, fall apart and explode, and adopts a no-nonsense pace to suit. Your inventory screen soon fills with a wealth of melee weapons, from hammers to katanas, which you swing in the direction of your onscreen reticule. Almost inevitably with first-person close combat, it’s haphazard and messy, but since you’re playing a character who runs more on bloodlust than skill, there’s a certain logic to that. Plus it steadies once you unlock the ability to block and parry rather than dodge, because you can face up your opponent instead of dancing around them.
The weapons themselves are weighty beasts, and each choice leads to notably different results. The contrast between blunt and sharp trauma is the main consideration, but there are plenty of other nuances, and more so when you upgrade to add effects such as extra staggering potential or an electrified blade. But no matter how sophisticated the tools get, including guns later in the game, sometimes there’s no beating a trusty shovel to get the job done.
Or, if that seems a little direct, you might enjoy playing with fire, and several other elements – water, oil, electricity and acidic green goo – that often appear in the environment, again accompanied by some neat physics routines. Containers of the liquids can also be slopped about – perhaps you pour water around a live wire to electrify a patch of the floor, or produce a pool of toxic waste you can kick your assailants into (your boot is an essential line of defence early on, stopping all ordinary zombies in their tracks). Just take care not to fall foul of your own schemes.
So far, so jolly good. On discovering all this stuff, you’ll likely conclude that there’s a heck of a lot going on in Dead Island 2, begging to be played with. Somehow, however, it doesn’t add up to a great deal, and quickly slips into a well-worn rut of modern open-world design. In hindsight, the writing is on the wall from the start, when you find yourself scooping up crafting materials – scrap metal, wire, fabric – cash and healing items from every abandoned room. Not long after, side quests start to emerge as NPCs think up ways to pad out your adventure, and the lure of greater loot becomes the main force of momentum.
To be clear, it’s not that Dead Island 2 rests on its laurels. It keeps introducing new techniques for your character, new zombies – one unleashes a swarm of flies, for instance, while another gobs balls of acid – and a plethora of new spaces in which to destroy them, including a fairground and a movie set. But what you do in the first few hours is pretty much exactly what you’ll be doing for the next 15 or more. After the fact, you’d be hard pressed to recall any particular mission other than by its location.
Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons the world feels so unimpeachably solid is that your interactions with it are really quite limited. Your character’s repertoire consists of hit, throw and shoot, with only a smattering of jumping and clambering required. Many combat spaces lack verticality, and fail to introduce challenges beyond the demand to ‘kill them all’. Otherwise, progress blocks come from needing to find keys or switches, which happens so often that the protagonist complains about all the pointless busywork – surely a sign that the designers know they’re repeating themselves too often.
Such mundanities feel doubly egregious because Dead Island 2 comes hot on the heels of Resident Evil 4, a ‘zombie’ game which manages to inject each of its scenes with a slightly different challenge that demands a bespoke approach. In contrast, while some sequences in Dead Island 2 can be tricky, the solution is usually to whip out your big weapons and recharging special attacks rather than rethink a strategy or re-spec your character. Especially since, in many cases, death confers little or no penalty.
As such, a set up that is thoroughly entertaining in its first few hours becomes increasingly dull the longer that time extends, even accounting for the jolt provided by co-op play. Then the tight focus on combat comes to seem misplaced, as NPCs fail to impress on you that they matter and missions become nothing more than a string of waypoints to follow. There are 24 campaign missions to complete here, and by the final third of that number you may be counting them off like days in a jail sentence, let alone worrying about side quests that largely offer more of the same.
Perhaps most of all, though, it’s those proper old-fashioned zombies that stop Dead Island 2 being more than it is. Despite all the different types, they are after all only zombies – each an automaton that mindlessly bee-lines in your direction, to sooner or later drop under the weight of a baseball bat to the skull. With that, and with the excruciating detail in its modelling and animation, Dead Island 2 ends as a macabre simulation of the effects of trauma on cadavers. Hour after hour you bludgeon away chunks of flesh, remove heads in blood-fuelled slow motion, watch skin crisp under flame or melt under acid. The comic potential of over the top violence wanes with each gut-spilling swing thanks to its relentlessness, until it’s as dead as the zombies themselves.
Your chosen character, from a cast of half-a-dozen, helps add flavour to proceedings. Cockney cover star Jacob is probably the pick, with just enough humanity mixed in with his irreverent jokes to keep him on the right side of charming. A cry of “Come on you manky f*ckers!” when faced with his first wave of zeds sets a winning tone.
Slaying zombies is great fun for a few hours, but Dead Island 2 is much longer than that.