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Dead Island 2 review: as disposably entertaining as an electrified pipe-wrench

Menace beach

To pre-empt your first question, no, Dead Island 2 was not worth waiting eleven years for. In its defence, however, few things are. If George Romero had taken over a decade to make Night Of The Living Dead, the fact it takes place largely in a basement would look less like canny guerrilla filmmaking and more like staggering incompetence. It only took NASA eight years to put men on the moon from the point they started trying, which puts the value of many inhibited projects (like my folder of unfinished novels) into depressingly sharp relief.

Dead Island 2 does not put zombies on the moon, though given how daft the main game is, don't rule out a Dead Island 2: Moon's Haunted expansion shambling your way in late 2023. Yet that doesn't mean it's a bad game. In fact, it's quite an enjoyable one. Together, Deep Silver and Dambuster Studios have raised a moderately entertaining sequel to Techland's ye olde zombie survival sim, one that injects some life into its desiccated subject matter by being incredibly shiny, wilfully silly, spectacularly gory, and generally a touch more imaginative than I expected.

Dead Island 2 switches focus from the original game's fictional island of Banoi to the fiction-generating city of Los Angeles, which eagle-eyed readers may observe is not, in fact, an island. This might seem like a slight oversight on the developer's part. But it's in keeping with the sequel's laissez-faire attitude toward its own premise. You play as one of four larger-than-life (aka odious shithead) survivors who attempt to flee the City of Angels on the last flight out. But your plane has barely cleared the Hollywood sign before it's shot down by the military. Emerging from the wreckage (mostly) unscathed, you join up with Hollywood A-lister Emma Jaunt and what remains of her entourage, holing up in the modern art installation she calls a home as you seek a new route out of the city.

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Choosing LA as its setting is probably the smartest thing Dead Island 2 does. The game has visible fun playing with its unique culture and social strata, particularly in its first half. You'll encounter pampered celebrities struggling to accept their sudden irrelevance, weaselly hangers-on trying to prove their worth to their fallen idols, wannabe influencers seeking to exploit the carnage for clicks, and aging rockstars so hopped up on booze and drugs that the end of the world barely registers. All this is portrayed through a consistently obnoxious and intermittently humorous script, and intensely cinematic first-person cutscenes that rival Cyberpunk 2077 in quality.

Despite the production values on show, it's hard to discern much of a point from all this this. If this game is about anything other than bisecting zombie heads, it's how people search for purpose in a world where their superficial significance has been ripped away. But what satire it deploys is scattershot and inconsistent, with the game ditching the celebrity angle entirely in its second half. It's entertaining in the moment, but like a movie star on a comedown after an all-night bender, you'll have forgotten most of what happened by the time you step out into the California sunshine.

Standing in the garden of a Hollywood mansion, watching the hills around the hollywood sign burn in Dead Island 2
A view of the Santa Monica pier at night, the ferris wheel lit up in red, in Dead Island 2
A view of a pool in a hollywood mansion, except the pool has a dead body in it because this is Dead Island 2

Dead Island 2's visual flair is more successfully applied to the broader world design. Like Banoi in the first game, Dead Island 2's LA isn't a contiguous open world. Instead, it's broken up into around a dozen separate chunks. These areas are as stunningly realised as they are geometrically intricate. The Bel Air and Beverly Hills areas let you explore in intimate detail the opulently strange suburban lives of the Los Angeles elite, both areas featuring vast mansions that are almost stacked on top of one another, connected by winding networks of lanes and alleyways. Later in the game, you'll visit more touristy urban areas like Venice Beach, where streets of seafood restaurants and bike rental stores look out over a shoreline populated with swimwear-clad undead.

Sightseeing opportunities are fleeting, however, as you're rarely more than a few seconds from having your neck chewed by a walking corpse. More than anything else, Dead Island 2 is about getting up close and personal with the undead, then sticking something sharp or heavy into their faces. The game's melee combat is much improved over the mediocre offering of the original, though I was initially concerned that Dead Island 2 had biffed it all over again. Combat feels sluggish at first. It's tricky to time your dodge ability with the flailing attacks of the undead, while the first weapon it hands you has all the percussive potential of a pool noodle.

My feelings quickly changed once I'd unlocked two features. First was the dropkick, a supremely silly risk-reward manoeuvre that lets you slam your boots into the chest of a zombie to send them flying, but also leaves you lying on the floor and therefore vulnerable to attack. Second was the golf club, the first melee weapon I properly clicked with. There's something particularly satisfying about the way it thwacks into a zombie's mush, and while there are tons of more exotic death implements scattered around LA, I always kept a nine-iron stuffed in my back pocket.

Many zombies being exploded in a screenshot of Dead Island 2 - the word 'maimed' is popping up from them a lot

As the combat system unfolds, it reveals itself to be surprisingly creative. Alongside an increasingly eclectic array of melee weapons, you'll also gain access to a variety of "curveballs", throwables like pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails that aid with crowd control. The game also features an elaborate fluid simulation that lets you use jerry cans to coat the ground with substances like water and oil, before lobbing a fire or electricity-based weapon at the pool to zap or incinerate clusters of walkers. Even certain zombies, like undead soldiers jangling with grenades, can be used as ad-hoc weapons. It speaks volumes about the combat that I only now mention guns, which are by far the least interesting weapon class in the game (although they're still useful for dealing with larger groups and setting off traps).

It should be noted all of this is astoundingly violent. Dead Island 2 really dwells on the interaction between hazardous implements and the human body. The fact you can chop off limbs in this game is almost quaint, considering you can whack a zombie's jaw off with a police baton, or sink a claw hammer into its skull so its eyes pop out, or cover them with caustic alkali and watch them melt like that lad from Robocop in real time. It truly is Verhoeven levels of gratuitous, and if there's anything in this game I'd believe took eleven years to make, it's the way the undead fall apart in response your attacks.

The strength of Dead Island 2's combat is undoubtedly what carries the game. Nothing else in it is anywhere near as involved or interesting. The survival mechanics are downright token by comparison. As you explore environments, you'll mindlessly hoover up an endless stream of resources, before taking them to a workbench for some highly perfunctory crafting. You don’t actually craft new weapons, instead crafting upgrades to weapons you pick up as you explore, increasing their damage or speed, or giving them elemental abilities. Frankly though, weapons are acquired so frequently that by the time you've upgraded one, you've found a base weapon that's either equally good or better, which makes the whole system feel redundant.

Zombies set on fire in a carpark in Dead Island 2
A zombie being axed in the skull with an electrified fire axe, in a screenshot from Dead Island 2

The abundance of loot also undermines Dead Island 2's secondary content. As you explore, you'll encounter an abundance of locked containers, the keys for which are usually held by specific zombies. But the game makes tracking down these zombies weirdly difficult, giving you no indication as to where they might be, while the reward for finding them is often just more resources. It's far easier to buy "fuses" from vendors that unlock resource caches that are marked on the map. Meanwhile, more interesting ideas go underutilised. Occasionally, you'll come across a puzzle that requires you to connect broken electrical circuits using water, and it feels like the seed of a puzzling system the game never follows up on. While fruitlessly searching LA for keys, I found myself thinking of Far Cry 5's "prepper cache" puzzles, which I mined the game for because they were fun to solve, regardless of whether I needed the resources contained within.

The more structured side missions fare better. These are reminiscent of GTA V's uncharitably named "Strangers and Freaks" missions, tending to revolve around colourful characters spawned by LA's distinctive culture. An early example sees you helping an ageing movie star escape the top floor of his house, because he blew up the staircase with grenades while defending it. These shorter asides are better than the missions that force you to revisit a main quest location, which are rather unsubtle attempts to bulk out the game.

Two zombies shamble towards the player on Venice Beach in Dead Island 2

As for that main story, again, it's oddly reminiscent of Cyberpunk. While not exactly short, it's slighter than you might expect, driving a surprisingly pacey line through a world that could easily support more exploration. Standout missions include a romp through a zombie-infested movie studio, using stage effects to create hazards for the zombs, and a delightfully spoopy crawl along the Santa Monica pier that was only slightly spoiled by my character's repeated deployment of paedophile jokes. While the game mostly plays its zombie apocalypse for laughs, there are moments along the way where the real horror of the situation shines through. Just before you hit the pier, you explore an abandoned CDC research centre where the scientists understood the disease's lethality, but not its capacity for resurrection. "The bodybags started to hatch like cocoons" your character mutters in a rare moment of earnest clarity.

But then you're back to punching your whole arm through a zombie's face using reinforced knuckledusters. And to be perfectly honest, Dead Island 2 is better for it. This is a game that that understands its own entirely disposable nature, that knows it's landing at the tail end of overwhelming zombie survival fatigue. Instead of trying to resist that, it embraces it, resulting in a breezy, messy adventure that has zero nutritional value, but will fill your bloodstream with yummy, delicious sugar. Dead Island 2 is a stinky trash game, and this filthy racoon had a grand old time rolling around in it.

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Dead Island 2

PS4, Xbox One, PC

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About the Author
Rick Lane avatar

Rick Lane

Contributor

Rick snuck into his dad's office to play Doom when he was six and has been obsessed with PC gaming ever since. A freelance journalist since 2008, he's contributed to RPS since 2014. He loves shooters, survival games, and anything to do with VR. If you ask him about immersive sims, expect to be there for a while.
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