To Live and Die in HeLL.A.
During the 2014 Sony E3 press conference, viewers were treated to a surprise cinematic trailer, one that has since gone down in history. The trailer featured a meat-headed jogger taking a casual dash down Venice Beach, blissfully unaware of the absolutely bombastic chaos that was exploding all around him, as hordes of flesh-eating creatures lay waste to the beautiful people of California. Ultimately becoming one of the infected himself, the jogger is eventually wiped out by a speeding minivan, before an onscreen graphic finally reveals the trailer as a preview for Dead Island 2.
That trailer debuted almost 10 years ago. And on April 21, 2023, Dead Island 2 will finally release, two console generations on from its initial announcement, and after passing through no less than three development studios. Having been mired in development hell for almost a decade, and been the subject of cancellation rumors, internet jokes, and even a reference point for other games and studios, it seems a miracle that we finally have anything in our hands. But can the talent of British developer Dambuster Studios resurrect this long-since-decayed release, or would it have been better left dead and buried?
Look, we all know the story, so there ain’t nothing left to it but to do it.
Dead Island 2 (PlayStation [PS5 reviewed], PC, Xbox)
Developer: Dambuster Studios
Publisher: Deep Silver
Released: April 21, 2023
It must be noted that, with Dead Island 2, Dambuster Studios is not attempting to reinvent the wheel. The long-time-coming sequel essentially builds upon the general design and gameplay structure of its now-decade-old predecessor. That isn’t to say that this is a case of “If it ain’t broke…”, because Dead Island was fucking broke. This is a title where I once kicked an inflatable beach ball, which resulted in my character screaming, keeling over, and dying on the spot. No, rather than attempting a full conceptive rebirth, Dead Island 2 is more a “Take Two” on what came before, with stronger efforts made to deliver the player experience perhaps expected of that release.
Our story concerns a party of six survivors — each one the worst person you’ve ever met — who crawl from the wreckage of a failed evacuation flight, crash-landing in the heart of Los Angeles, or “Hell-A” as it is now known. Beginning in media res, the outbreak is already underway, covering the City of Angels in blood and bodies while the local authorities attempt to put a band-aid on an oozing, pustulous wound. Choosing one member of the pity party, our “Slayer” is thrust into the thick of the carnage, and must utilize adaptation, improvisation, and smart-mouthed quippin’ (boy howdy, the quippin’) to find their way out of the city and to higher ground, away from millions of arm-munching, TikTok-filming posers.
What follows is an open world odyssey, as the Slayer treks through a million-dollar city of broken dreams — From the closed gate communities of Bel Air and the splendor of Beverly Hills, to the baking, radiant sands of Venice Beach and, of course, the star-studded avenues and alleyways of Hollywood. It goes without saying that these venues have all seen better days — less brain-encrusted days, at least — and this bizarre juxtaposition of celebrity and atrocity never fails to remain an unnervingly attractive take on a potential armageddon. I’ll still take it over Florida.
You Ought’nt Be In Pictures
Initially, Dead Island 2 appears poorly plotted at best and baffling at worst — why your punk-rock character chooses to instantly do the bidding of The Rich makes zero sense whatsoever — but, as the story progresses, an evolving tale of survival and desperation unfolds, joined by elements of conspiracy, human evolution, and man’s endless inhumanity to man.
And though our ensemble cast is, for the most part, intolerable, a pragmatic realization gives way; These aren’t bad people, per se, they’re just in a bleak and thoroughly miserable situation. As the story progresses, we come to understand the stage and its players better. Even beginning to develop an actual kinship with the same folk that we originally couldn’t stand the sight of. They aren’t necessarily terrible. They’re just human… Except for “Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch?” singer Sam B. He is terrible.
Though disconnecting at the outset, the spirit of Dead Island 2 and its world grows on the player as they come to understand the hopelessness that faces these stragglers — From the whiskey-soaked rock stars and uptight Hollywood divas, to bronze-skinned beach bums and simple folk just trying to survive, let alone thrive. The mask of humanity is off, and the outbreak is making a monster of many, as viral outbreaks tend to do. There are no real “good guys”, just different shades of survivalist.
While it’s fair to say that the plot of DI2 is hardly original, it’s still surprisingly compelling. By the time the final act rolled around, all of sudden, the realization dawned that the survival of this pack of awful bastards had suddenly become the most important thing in my life.
Look, I know the trailers are terrible. There’s some great performances in here. Honest.
Sun’s Out, Guns Out
The core of Dead Island 2 is its combat. It’s the decaying meat of the piece, and the melee-based carnage on offer here is brilliantly devised. Whether wielding swords, baseball bats, axes, steel pipes, or Triple H-esque sledgehammers, there is an effective, wholly satisfying weight and impact to the violence on display, bolstered by the addition of counters, parries, and gleefully explosive execution maneuvers. It’s important that the melee is enjoyable, as it is ultimately 90% of the player’s activities, and Dead Island 2‘s “crunch” is so delicious, that it actually becomes a tad detrimental to the game when guns finally do come into play, (though they do add some variety to all the home-run swingin’ action).
In addition to the weaponry, Dead Island 2 has a mix-and-match build system, that affords your chosen Slayer various skills and perks, sometimes for free, sometimes at the detriment of other abilities. These range from defensive tactics such as dodges and slides, to bonuses such as damage boosts for downing zombies, or awarding health for severing undead limbs. Without giving too much away, things get pretty funky after a point, and you can make your Slayer quite the force to be reckoned with, finely tuned to your own bespoke playstyle.
Still, despite the enormous range of customizable weapons and skills on offer, Dead Island 2 remains challenging. Even as the Slayer levels up, the difficulty remains in a sweet spot that prevents the player from ever becoming too powerful. As kitted out as you become, the infected are perpetually a legitimate threat. But with clever combinations of weaponry, skills, elemental boosts, and environmental attacks, DI2 ensures that while the numbers are on the side of the undead, the wits are with the player.
A special tribute must also be paid to the most satisfying dropkick in video game history. A move that, I guarantee, will become your best friend. Especially on rooftops and in front of windows.
You can’t spell slaughter without ‘laughter’
Dead Island 2 is a repetitive game, wholly and unashamedly. It is essentially a title that tasks the player with going on endless “Locate this person/item” quests, almost always boiling down to making your way to the location in question and slaying triple figures’ worth of zombies en route. There are plenty of side quests in each district, all of which offer rewards in the form of rare weapons, blueprints, and perks, but ultimately, Dead Island 2 only has one real trick, and that is to ask the player to get to an undead infested venue and back alive.
This in itself was a major problem with the first game, and would lead to boredom just scant hours in.
While DI2 doesn’t stray too far from this design path, what it does do to combat fatigue is ensure that the environments are legitimately fun to explore, while constantly drip-feeding the player new characters, fun conversations, and a wide variety of different enemies to be hacked ‘n’ slashed. There is also a metric ton of environmental storytelling, much of which is of the tired “audio log” variety, but some of which is executed via simple set design and in-universe audio — distant screams, abandoned radios, a wedding from hell, a strongman competition turned massacre, a frightening theme park, and a horror movie set where things got a little too meta.
Dead Island 2 has a gameplay mentality that is generations old, but it uses the benefits of modern tech to polish up its 2010’s vibe. The infected are large in number, varied in design, and look gruesomely gorgeous. The world itself is well-realized and intelligently mapped. Elemental and gore effects are dazzling, and cleverly limited use of music ensures that, while the combat is relentless, the player knows when shit is really going down.
Dead Island 2, at its heart, is an old-fashioned game, but it’s wearing a damn flashy new suit.
Don’t Forget to Bring a Towel
Dead Island 2 is far from an excellent title, and its flaws might turn away those without the patience to fully explore its world and mechanics. While it certainly gets better the deeper you delve into its world, this style of explorative, combat & craft-heavy action isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, especially in 2023. The endless grabbing of crafting components, audio logs, and keycards — actions that are so repetitive the Slayer themselves repeatedly rags on it — may lead some players to consider double-checking the calendar.
From a technical standpoint, the sequel is a massive improvement over the notorious original, but still suffers from choppiness — Minor frustrations such as immovable prompts, occasional clipping, failed enemy spawns, or unresponsive enemies. Strange one-off bugs, such as a character’s voice remaining echoed even after they had left a building, (all of which fixed themselves after a reload). Performance-wise, however, the PS5 edition played for review was sound, maintaining its framerate in even the busiest and messiest of zombie massacres. Most importantly, I kicked a beach ball and kept breathing.
When you combine the small technical troubles with the generally Gen-7 approach to gameplay, Dead Island 2 becomes something of a divisive release. Those who perhaps crave more in the way of firearms, vehicular mayhem, or more variety in its quests and activities may struggle to persevere to the point where Hell-A opens up its vulgar box of delights. That said, those who enjoyed the original Dead Island, or similar relentless, zombie-smashing experiences — such as Capcom’s Dead Rising, will think it’s fucking Christmas, with perhaps the best gaming interpretation of a Zack Snyder zombie flick yet.
Rewarding player experimentation and exploration, you get out of DI2 what you put into it, and thus, it’s very much a game for a specific and dedicated audience. And given its exceptionally lofty $70 price tag, “dedicated” is doing a lot of lifting in that sentence.
Gods and Monsters
I’ll level with you. I didn’t want to review Dead Island 2, and I sure as hell didn’t want to play it on my own time. If you’d had asked me to point to a 2023 release that I felt was going to be an absolute slog to play, as well as being a chore to write about, then this sequel would’ve probably been number one with an acid-tipped bullet. 10 minutes into playing, I still felt this way, eye-rolling and deep sighing at the characters, the setup, and the teasing of 15 hours of fetch quests and keycard searching.
But, as time passed, as Hell-A opened up, as the combat evolved, and as I met more and more denizens of Hollyweird, I warmed up immensely to this title. I became excited to explore each new district, while digging the world design, the attractively gruesome visuals, and the “Glam Apocalypse” aesthetic. I appreciated the wanton, salacious, and satisfying violence, and, most surprisingly of all, this atrocious cast of characters eventually became my friends, (except for Sam B.)
It is testament to the talent of Dambuster Studios that they picked up the remnants of the most development hell title of the past 15 years — a game that had “contractual obligation” written all over it — and have turned it into a great sequel. Dead Island 2 sports a solid world, great audio/visuals, and an excellent combat system, wrapped up in a resonant, bleakly comic story of mankind’s inability to ever save itself. Is it perfect? No, it’s not, but it is the redemption story Dead Island needed, as well as perhaps the greatest example of a seemingly doomed release that actually delivered when it finally crawled out of purgatory. I was wrong. I had a fine time with a game I absolutely did not want to play.
And, y’know what? I actually think I’m gonna play through it again.
It shouldn’t have worked. It should have been a disaster. A decade-long internet joke ending in a comically terrible release. And yet, with Dead Island 2, Dambuster delivers a sequel that hugely improves upon the original, offering raw, no-nonsense chaos, wrapped up in a gaudy wrapper of sun, sand, and slaughter. While the old-school, repetitive gameplay won’t be to everyone’s taste, decadent violence, tastelessly compelling environments, and a surprising amount of heart await those who have the patience to wade through the misery of a paradise lost.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]