Dead Island 2 Review (PS5) – Escape From HELL-A
As I said back in my preview, it’s still surprising to see that Dead Island 2 has finally made it. After nine years, the game that was beginning to look a lot like a myth has finally made it. Various developer changes, delays and no more than a trailer had people wondering if it was going to go the way of Scalebound and Starcraft: Ghost.
Fortunately not, and it is finally here! A fully fleshed out sequel, set in the aftermath of L.A (which yes, isn’t an island but shut up), Dead Island 2 is kicking and maiming its way into the newest generation of consoles and PC’s. It’s the usual affair: the world’s gone to pot, survivors are surviving and the undead have got a penchant for the consumption of human flesh.
Is it the sequel we’d long-since given up on, showing us how it’s done, or should we have abandoned hope all ye who feined enthusiasm all that time ago? Tool up, and let’s find out.
When There’s No Room In Hell, The Dead Go To Beverley Hills
It would be remiss to call the story in Dead Island 2 “more of the same” and clock off, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. The world has gone to hell, zombies do ravage the earth and you, the player character, are one of the lucky ones with immunity. The player, one of six chosen Slayers (we’ll get into the details later) are aboard an evacuation flight, when it crashes.
L.A has been designated a quarantine zone, hence the Escape from L.A. island framing pitch, and it’s up to you to escape. Along the way players will come across other currently-alive people, like recent and aging Hollywood actors, their entourage, as well as mercenary types and the less-desirables. Sam B from the first game rocks up, but unfortunately doesn’t bust out an acapella version of “Who Do You Voodoo?”. Shame.
Anyway, you’re immune and as such, the CDC want a word and to [hopefully] make a vaccine from your magic blood. Can they be trusted, or is it a ruse to take you in and subject you to something a bit more nefarious? And who are the mysterious weirdos that seem to be embracing it…?
That would be telling… so I won’t. But at least they’re not Scientologists.
All The Sights And Screams
I have played the first Dead Island, and whilst it was occasionally vibrant, it wasn’t exactly breathtaking in its display. Then, I progressed to Dying Light, which is just varying shades of brown with a bit of red over them occasionally. So, my scepticism was valid before I saw Dead Island 2. Sometimes, however, it’s nice to be proven wrong.
This game is absolutely stunning, and I say that without hyperbole. Playing it on a PlayStation 5 and a relatively decent spec TV is a literal sight to be believed. What does help massively is the tone that Dambuster Studios has gone for. Out is the drab browns and dirge, in are the bright Hollywood Hills, loud colours from pool parties and a pulpy, self-deprecating tone to it all.
Travelling between zones in daylight is actively fun, seeing what bright delights and chaos we’re heading for next. At night, fires light the skies and zombies lurk in corners that add a smidge of horror to an otherwise riot of a time. But for me, there were two points where I had to stop and admire the view.
The first was the backyard of a rocker, whose house overlooks the hills and the carnage of L.A., in all its splendour. The other was getting to Venice Beach, seeing the undead surfers and fitness freaks reminiscent of that early, famous trailer that did the rounds.
F.L.E.S.H and Blood
When cutting down zombies by the thousands, it’s easy to see them as a homogenised blur of the same enemy over and over. Fortunately, Dead Island 2 has two things going in its favour: the zombies are location-specific in what they wear, and the newly introduced F.L.E.S.H system makes it so much fun to kill them. Got that stereotypical nerdly disdain for muscle bros at Venice Beach? Well, you’re in luck.
But beside living out 80’s nerd movie trope fantasies, let’s look deeper into the F.L.E.S.H system. The Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids sounds fancy, but in layman’s terms it’s more a showcase for how violent this game is. Which is a good thing, by the way.
Times have moved on from Half-Life 2’s ragdoll physics, which were impressive, but bodies just flopped to the floor. Now, we’ve got accurate limb targeting and dismemberment, protruding bones and eyeballs dangling like ball-in-a-cup toys from sockets. I’m not exaggerating this for clout, there’s some genuine body horror here that would make Takashi Miike take a bow.
Crippling a zombie’s arms so that it flails like a tranquilized Ace Ventura is hilarious, but that’s not all you can do to them.
Shocking, Isn’t It?
It’s weird writing about “elemental status effects” outside of an RPG, but Dead Island 2 puts them to very good use here. Of the more obvious ones in gaming, red barrels and oil spills indicate fire damage. But what about water, acid and electricity as offensive, environmental attacks? Oh yes, L.A. is your playground here.
Sparking cables are fine in themselves, if something is close to it. But, let’s say, there’s a Jerry can of water nearby: players can pick up and either pour an area (or throw it) to create a bigger area to shock hordes in. See a couple of barrels that may do some harm but not close enough? Again, grab a can or use a fire-enhanced weapon (more on that soon) to ignite an oil spill and chain that fire for mass ignition damage.
As players progress, there’s caustic hazards that can be used to melt the undead, to gruesome effect. Or even something so simple yet fun as hucking a car battery into a swimming pool and watching the suckers do the flesh-eater fandango.
It’s a double-edged sword at times, as players aren’t immune to these attacks, but timing it right can cause great results. The game will at times reward players with a little slow motion explosion to highlight their efforts.
It’s just a right bugger when the undead get used to it…
Hollywood Attracts The Freaks
One of the more appealing aspects of games like Dead Island, Left 4 Dead and Dead Space are the variations of a theme. The theme being “things that want to eat your face”, if that wasn’t clear. Fortunately, Dead Island 2 carries that tradition on with all of its nasties.
To ease players in, there’s the Shamblers and Walkers: the garden variety zombies for warming up on. This soon progresses to the Runners, plucked from the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. All standard fare, so far. Then there’s the big boys, the Crushers. Guess what they do with those massive, ham-hock arms…
But as the story progresses, so do these evolutions. Big lads that gob caustic goop at Slayers make way for Screamers that both blast an audio shockwave attack and call in other zombies. Then, before you get too used to it, the game introduces a Wolverine-like clawed, agile bastard to keep you on your toes.
And that’s just the basic format. But these undead are like Pokémon; they can use elemental attacks too. Shocking zombies that give off electrical blasts, Runners covered in spikes and shards to cause more damage and such. Conversely, there’s even those that are immune to effects: hazmat wearing zombies won’t take acid damage, and the like.
Thankfully, there’s enough variety in a Slayer’s arsenal to deal with the pesky, putrified pain-in-the-asses to make combat engaging and entertaining.
You’ve Got Red On You
The longevity in a more melee-focused game such as that hinges largely on its combat. If it wasn’t engaging, without the F.L.E.S.H system for example, or weapon variety it would soon become repetitive. Again, to go with the visceral enjoyment of murder (or re-deading), Dead Island 2 has a veritable buffet of weaponry to play with.
Bats, swords, wrenches, maces, golf clubs and more, the list goes… actually not much further than that. But whilst the weapon template is a small pool it’s what you, the player, can do to them that makes it worth it. Crafting and resource-management allow modifications, turning an ordinary bat into an electrifying one. A few improvements to a hand axe can see it burn and cut at the same time, if that’s your thing.
Want a katana that stings like a venomous snake and melts flesh as it slices? Shine on you crazy diamond. The amount of modding is genuinely impressive, allowing players to craft an arsenal for every occasion. Can’t melt this area of hazmat-suited foes? Just whip out a mace that deals more impact damage and crumble zombies like a packet of cookies instead.
Oh, and there are guns too. They’re good for the occasional bit of crowd control, especially the shotguns, but that’s about it. There’s even some unique ones, too, if you’re into second amendment rights and owning them all. But why would you, when one can become a weapon unto themselves… and everything around them.
Kills, Skills and Curveballs
As is de riguer for the modern action game, Dead Island 2 also features levelling and respective weapons/missions too. As in, “No, you’re one level below holding this bat that is exactly like the current one you’ve got but hits harder”. Fortunately, it does away with skill-based grind that plagues the likes of Borderlands, for example. Instead it’s cards, but not random-chance ones or lootbox shenanigans.
Just straight forward, you’ve-unlocked-this-skill kind of cards. This means that you, the Slayer player, can build a character as you see fit. Personally, I went for a build that favoured me ducking and dodging to restore health. I unlocked a dash strike to replace an earlier ground pound, and with that a skill that replenished health on hits too. Coupled with a some skills that benefited combos and quick strikes, as well as small and quick weapons, I was hot-footing around the undead.
Other perks favour strong builds, or if one is playing with friends, buffs that up your team’s strengths. Then there’s the mutational perks that, whilst I won’t spoil the reason for, come with their own perks and caveats.
There’s also a secondary, infinite weapon system known as Curveballs. These vary from throwing stars, to electrified ones, to Molotov cocktails, nailbombs and even zombie bait. Early on, players will most likely have bait and pipe bomb equipped: you can see how this works. By the end, I had a Molotov and nailbomb as my two. They have their own recharge times, but are great in a pinch.
Let Us Slay Together…
As I made a rather witty and concise rundown of each Slayer in my preview, I won’t go massively in-depth again here. Suffice to say, nothing has changed in the presentation of anything: they’re all the same raging stereotype they were and will continue to be. This time around, I went for Jacob, the “Cor blimey apples and pears” geezer from London. Because there is only one place anyone’s from in England, apparently.
Not just because I got fed up of Dani’s terrible accent written by someone who watched Mrs. Brown’s Boys, Jacob had more health. When it got down to higher levels, this didn’t seem to matter, but it’s good for a starting build. One of his natural skills was critical attacks when he has low stamina, which was a great “hail Mary” feature when swarmed and knackered from swinging.
Toby and I did manage to play some co-op, with my higher level Jacob assisting his Amy. Sadly, it scales the joining player’s level, so me being twenty levels ahead was matched to Toby’s five. It meant I kept my weapons and skills, but I wasn’t wrecking up the proverbial joint whilst he sat back and watched. Which is fair, in a sense.
Eventually it all boils down to “go in and smash”, which sounds good on paper. But the higher and further a player goes, solo or team-based, the harder the curve bends back on them.
They Certainly Do Rip And Tear
Whilst it all seems lovely and wonderful on the surface, there are a few niggles underneath that marr the Dead Island 2 experience a tad. One of those is its crafting system, and the other is the health management. It sounds strange to pick those two, but hear me out.
Crafting, as one can imagine, involves items and scrap found across L.A. and its hubs. Which means lots of highlighted objects and even more pressing square (on PlayStation) repeatedly to pick up each item. For all of its faults, at least Atomic Heart had it right by letting players hoover it up in one go when they enter a room. It becomes routine and therefore boring, clearing a room and then methodically scavenging out of habit.
The life system, and by extension enemy damage, is massively uneven [at the time of writing]. For example, if your health is at 400, an enemy attack will do about a third of that in one swing. A few levels later, and players are at about four times that… so will an enemy’s damage output. It feels that no matter the player’s level, they’ll still be made of tissue in proportion to scaled enemy attacks. I’d say Dead Rising had it best with its health block system: enemy hits do 1-2 blocks, health items restore certain blocks.
In that aspect, the game will start kicking your ass in the story even if you’re the appropriate level for the mission. It’s to emphasise doing side missions first/alongside them to be on par if not better equipped, as well as pad out the runtime. Personally, I thought the story was the right length, and now I’ve finished it, I’ll go back to the side quests. It feels like I missed the point and should have done them side by side, but I had a deadline and I wanted to see the story through.
Come Out Swinging
In summary, largely because I don’t want to spoil the excitement of going in blind, I absolutely loved Dead Island 2. I had my doubts, as I’m sure many will, when this game kept changing hands and kept being delayed. Yet unlike Duke Nukem Forever, Dead Island adapted and used that time properly, not forging on ahead with an archaic gameplay mechanic.
Whilst it does have a few little niggles, as well as the occasional graphical glitch in cutscenes (which we’ve been told are being ironed out), I had more fun with this than I did issues. I had no game-ending bugs, no issues with saves and, considering how much can happen on screen, no lag or screen tearing/delays in my time with this. The only slowdown I had where the sweet explosions or headshot highlights that look impressive when a hit is scored just right.
Zombie games may be not original anymore, but considering the lacklustre enthusiasm and drabness behind Days Gone, that Dead Island 2 eschews “seriousness” in favour of bright and pulp can only be a good thing. Alright, the accents can grate but they’re not off-putting. Yes, the Slayers are stereotypes but as long as players can roll with the game mocking it then that’s fine by me.
As said earlier, it’s a beautiful looking game either at day or night time. Zombie variety, in both type and area-specific clothing, never gets dull, nor does the killing. There are times when I’d switch up head swipes for hitting knees and seeing what happens. Spoiler alert: you’ll cripple legs faster than polio did.
If you’re having doubts after the first game was a bit disappointing, then don’t. Alright, you can groan as I did when Sam B mentions a sewer system moment, but the fun outweighs it. Dead Island doesn’t favour dark and serious, it wants players out there in the sunshine racking up high body counts and working their way through experience-rewarding challenges. Another spoiler alert: there’s a fair few.
This a game with the fun ramped up to eleven. Even with the occasional gripe or “Well that’s bullshit” moment when a zombie you didn’t see halves your health.
Throwing out the dour and the drab, Dead Island 2 is all about killing in style. From the beautifully rendered wastelands of HELL-A, to the equally visceral limb destruction system, there’s endless fun to be had here. With enough to do solo or with friends/strangers, not to mention the upcoming expansions, Dambuster Studios have rewritten how to enjoy oneself in the face of Armageddon.
Dead Island 2 is available from April 21st, and is available on PlayStation 4 & 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and Series S|X, and PC via the Epic Game Store.
Developer: Dambuster Studios
Publisher: Deep Silver
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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