While loading into Dead Island 2, a first-person action game from Dambuster Studios, the screen shows a zombie in the midst of being killed. A scrap of tutorial text underlines the image, but the screen is otherwise bare, allowing the player to rotate the gruesome scene of the undead creature through a black void with their controller’s thumbstick and examine each angle of lovingly rendered burned flesh, hanging entrails, or rotting skull.
This screen is key to understanding Dead Island 2’s priorities. It is a game premised on and meant to be enjoyed for its dedication to making walking corpses die (again) in spectacularly gory fashion. Little else seems to matter as much.
Set during the onset of a zombie apocalypse in Los Angeles, California – notably not an island – Dead Island 2 casts players as one of six characters with pre-set starting skills. Though their voice is heard throughout the game, the selected character’s personality has no real bearing on the plot that unfolds over the next two dozen or so hours of bludgeoning, slicing, and shooting mobs of zombies apart. Instead, they are just a silhouette cast in shadow while jogging through sunny streets and a set of hands that grip weapons during the many fights that make up the game.
Though only one aspect of its narrative, the relatively blank player character hints at one of Dead Island 2’s larger problems: Its entire cast is too bland to carry the game’s generic, fragmented plotline.
The Los Angeles setting is gorgeous, sun-baked and ominously shadowed in turn. Placing the fall of civilization amidst the recently abandoned mansions, movie sets, and beachfronts normally populated by the rich and famous is a perfect fit for zombie movie social satire — but unfortunately, the plot does little with this raw material. It skewers the egos of celebrities and influencers shallowly and without great effect, always choosing an easy joke – a whiteboard with the script for an “insensitive about the zombie outbreak” apology video sits near bloodstains and corpses in a streamer house, say – over any real commentary about the culture its action is set within.
The plot is uneven, meandering along fairly aimlessly until it suddenly picks up momentum near the conclusion and ends on an abrupt, sequel-baiting note. What Dead Island 2 does focus on is standard genre fare: searches for a cure, scientific inquiry run amok. And when it deviates from this in attempts at humour, the satire relies on character writing as tired as the game’s approach to zombie fiction.
At one point, the player meets a group of bodybuilders hanging out in a restaurant alongside a tanned, laid-back beach bum burnout who makes his debut with joint in hand wearing a shirt that reads, simply, DOPE in weed-patterned capital letters. In another, they find a perpetually fried old rocker who needs help finding his favourite guitar and lost session tapes to get back his creative spark. Romero this is not.
Worse are the moments where this approach to stereotypical characterisation veers into the offensive — like the protagonist responding “bless you” to the mention of the name Farouk or an Old Hollywood movie set where the zombified extras of a pulp adventure movie swarm the player in body paint, loincloths, tribal tattoos, and beaded jewelry. Free of any greater context and played for laughs, it’s hard to read any of this as anything but ill-considered.
Many players will choose to ignore the story, though, concentrating instead on moment-to-moment action. Luckily, Dead Island 2’s most successful element is its combat system, which sees players taking down zombies with weapons including swords, baseball bats, shotguns, pipe bombs, sledgehammers, and axes. This arsenal is found as pick-ups glowing up from the gloopy remains of freshly annihilated enemies, on the ground or locked away in crates, and can be individually upgraded with discoverable blueprints to not only mete out more raw damage, but also cause enemies to bleed profusely, erupt in flames or bolts of crackling electricity, dissolve in acid, and more.
The zombies’ status as guilt-free demonic punching bags is fully explored through nauseatingly elaborate destruction details. Hack at the arms of a hulking, musclebound undead and his limbs will fly free from his body; slice at a drunkenly shuffling zombie woman’s neck and her head will pop from her shoulders; lighting enemies on fire causes their already horribly rotting skin to blacken with flakey char so they resemble overcooked hamburger. It’s all appropriately gross – admirably so for a zombie game – and evokes the gleeful excesses of a B movie horror far better than the writing and performances.
The balance between overly frail and frustratingly tough enemies is maintained well throughout the game, too. In both the early and late stages of the plot, the default “shambler” zombies can be taken down with a few well-aimed melee attacks or gunshots, and present the biggest threat when, true to convention, they manage to crowd the player.
Special varieties of the undead, like bloated giants, and hunched, goblin-y types, pop up less frequently and absorb an appropriately higher amount of damage. Confronting the typical wave of enemies sees a large number of weaker zombies hanging out around a smaller number of tougher freaks, which provides the majority of fights with the satisfaction of both a decent degree of challenge and gloopy, lower-stakes violence at the same time.
Accompanying this is a welcome, grim sense of creativity. Combat scenarios frequently ask players to defeat enemies by noting their resistances and weaknesses to various elements before spotting puddles of fuel, acid, or water and swapping out the weapon types best used to ignite, corrode, or zap groups of different homicidal undead. As a result, waves of enemies that would otherwise require monotonous, mindless destruction require some quick (but not overly involved) thinking to dispatch.
Still, despite the attention lavished on the combat, the violence itself doesn’t pack quite the punch it ought to. The fighting is a bit too weightless, lacking in the sort of audiovisual feedback that would make the process of actually taking apart the zombies as noxiously satisfying as it is to see the bloody aftereffects of doing so.
Like the loading screen zombie, floating mid-death through a black background, Dead Island 2 is fully focused on the look of its detailed gore to the exclusion of the other details surrounding it. Its unabashed love for schlock horror violence gives it a gruesomely appealing edge, but, without a story capable of properly framing its often-exciting combat or making good on its premise, it’s a game that shambles more than it sprints across its runtime.
Dead Island 2 releases on 21 April for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. We played it on PlayStation 5.
Dead Island 2’s devotion to truly gross zombie gore is commendable, but its bland, stereotypical characters, and tired, genre-rehashing plot make it more difficult to appreciate its inventive combat than it should be.
- Wonderfully gory violence that calls to mind splatter horror
- Beautiful environments and novel premise
- Varied and inventive combat scenarios
- Bland and often stereotypical characters
- Plot takes too long to build momentum before ending abruptly
- The combat system lacks a real feeling of weight