Dead Age 2 Review: This Undead War of Mine
My favorite zombie games are those that treat their worlds with the gravity of the situation at hand. Stuff like Dead Rising and Zombie Army are fun, but they don't intend to capture the seriousness of what living in a world with the undead would be like. Dead Age 2 does aim to paint such a bleak picture, but it never quite gets there.
For fans of the zombie subgenre, Dead Age 2 has thought of most everything you could wish for: fortifying your home base, recruiting survivors and forming alliances, and scavenging for the last morsels of food in a dire world. On top of that, there are plenty of choices where, despite your intentions, you can't make everyone happy.
But the game's faultier fundamentals, like dialogue and combat, seep into the other more enjoyable areas and infect them, preventing Dead Age 2 from really becoming as enjoyable as it is multifaceted.
Dead Age 2 Review: This Undead War of Mine
Dead Age 2 wears many hats. It's a roguelite, so when you die, you start from the beginning and carry over some perks (or "medals") you earned previously. It's a turn-based combat game too, so each encounter features strict turn orders in small spaces, and you attack with melee or projectiles. It's also a strategy game, so you bring home food, water, and crafting materials to turn your modest base into a survivor's haven.
It's ambitious to say the least, and early on, all of these different paths can feel dazzling, but some of that luster is lost the deeper you go.
Dead Age 2 is a sequel to 2016's Dead Age, but you need not have any knowledge of that first game to play this one, it seems. I had none and didn't feel as though I missed a beat. Its premise is quite simple: the world fell apart, factions rose up, and now you find yourself in a group of people just trying to see tomorrow.
In fact, many story beats in Dead Age 2 are formed from similar cliches. Early on, I found these forgiving. When you play basically every zombie game that comes out (as I do), you notice and even forgive how many use the same narrative tropes.
It's more about how games use those tropes to either spin them on their head or find some deeper sense of humanity at the root of their characters. Dead Age 2 certainly doesn't make it to the root of its characters. Instead, they often say what they do only to serve the gameplay, which ends up not making sense sometimes.
In an early encounter, I came upon a new group of survivors. They wanted to fight. I offered them $40 to relax and let us into their settlement. That money gave me an 80% chance of success, said the game, but I failed the check and we engaged in combat. After I killed several of them, they stood down and let me in, only for the group leader to swear revenge on me unless I gave them money or until I completed quests for them.
These skill checks can be woven into narrative games well, but they aren't in Dead Age 2. It didn't seem sensible that they'd not take my money, I kill them, then they let me in and ask for money. That encounter is representative of more nonsensical ones I'd see across many hours of gameplay.
Combat can feel a bit too random as well, and when it's not unpredictable, it's predictably punishing. Living in a zombie world should be hard, so I can appreciate that, but in a turn-based system, it doesn't make much sense to have most of my gunshots "graze" opponents while crawling zombies can easily chomp on my survivors in the back of the two-tiled grid.
Sometimes it can feel like nothing more than a war of attrition. Do I have enough health kits to brute-force my way through this horde of zombies, pack of wild dogs, or gang of thieves? When I didn't, no strategy saved me, and that really hurts a turn-based combat system by removing the sense of reward through smart planning.
That's not to say it's all bad. What Dead Age 2 gets right is exploration and scavenging. Traveling outside your base is done on a large map featuring countless nodes you can choose to move to. Like a spider's web, the world shoots off in many different directions, and as you approach certain areas, you're told what's possibly there, what the threat is like, and how much time in the day you have left.
Some missions require you to explore and return home within a set amount of time. After all, if you have a friend dying and in need of Zombex, the in-universe zombie cure, you can't take a week or two to find it for them. This turns every encounter and quest into a tough decision. Even simply picking for berries can get you killed, so you're asked to choose to pick just a few, a lot, or none at all.
Your community relies on what you bring home, and you can't build things like the garden or exterior defenses without the proper supplies, but neither can you please everyone on your travels, which can greatly limit your haul.
The game tracks your relationships with other groups and factions, so even as the combat and dialogue can get you in trouble despite your best intentions, there remains a good sense of risk versus reward. Doing favors for people may earn you access to their shops or discounts, but it can also mean taking food out of the mouths of your own people.
This is where Dead Age 2 is best; when you have multiple tasks to complete, all of them seeming vital, but you know you can't possibly do them all. It demands you inject your own personal philosophy into each predicament. Do I save the most number of people, or do I save my people? Do I repair fractured friendships or write off lost causes?
It's these sort of moral quandaries that Dead Age 2 certainly isn't the first to do, but they're still enjoyable here, even as the fighting and communicating along the way can hamper that enjoyment.
Dead Age 2 Review — The Bottom Line
- Tough choices throughout
- Basebuilding is slow but fun
- Scavenging for supplies can be deadly or fruitful at different times
- Dialogue is often very poorly written
- Turn-based combat can often feel stacked against you and lacks strategy
Dead Age 2 is faulty but ambitious. It covers virtually every angle zombie gaming fans could expect, but it only does some of those things well, leaving the game a bit uneven. Scavenging for supplies and building up a base are highlights, but having to talk to or fight with other groups to complete those tasks means one must always trudge through the bad stuff to get to the good.
With better writing and a deeper combat system, Dead Age 2 could've risen to the top of a crowded genre, but as is, it's left shambling among the hordes.
[Note: Headup Games provided the copy of Dead Age 2 used for this review.]