Dead Island 2 brings back its predecessor's brutal gameplay but not its tragic feel. Here's what we got out of a couple of days' stay in post-zombie "Hell-A."

Dead Island 2 Hands-On Preview: Wish You Were Here

Dead Island 2 brings back its predecessor's brutal gameplay but not its tragic feel. Here's what we got out of a couple of days' stay in post-zombie "Hell-A."

I never thought I’d actually get the chance to play Dead Island 2. Despite 2013’s Dead Island: Riptide ending on a cliffhanger, publisher conflicts and development hell kept DI2 under wraps for almost a decade.

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After original developer Techland parted ways with publisher Deep Silver over creative differences, Deep Silver tapped Yager (Spec Ops: The Line) for a sequel before canceling that version in 2015. The project continued under Sumo Digital until 2019, when Deep Silver tapped its internal studio Dambuster (Homefront: The Revolution, Chorus) to take Dead Island 2, at long last, across the finish line.

I got into a closed preview for Dead Island 2, where I was given several days to play as much as possible. After getting several hours in, it’s not what I expected.

Image via Deep Silver

The original Dead Island games under Techland famously leaned into their tragic elements, right from the first game’s famous debut trailer.

While that trailer doesn’t give you a good idea of what to expect from the actual game, much of Dead Island’s impact did come from the contrast between its idyllic island setting and the brutality of its gameplay. You might’ve been having fun smacking zombies around with an electrified shovel, but the characters were engaged in a tense fight for survival, and acted like it.

Dead Island 2, by comparison, is a hyper-violent theme park. You’re set loose in post-outbreak southern California to, in no particular order, dropkick zombies, find a way out, and have a good time. By turns, it’s a horror game, a bloody beat-’em-up, and a pitch-black satire of stereotypical California life, with occasional moments of pathos or insanity.

This isn’t meant as a criticism, but DI2 is a very different overall experience from the original Dead Island. The game’s Creative Director, James Worrall, was a writer on several Grand Theft Auto games, and finding that out made a lot about DI2 make more sense to me. It’s got some of that weird, off-kilter Rockstar flavor.

Image via Deep Silver

DI2 is set a few months after the outbreaks in Dead Island, when the same zombie virus abruptly pops up in Los Angeles. The American military is called in to evacuate civilians, but a major earthquake hits at exactly the right time to screw up the rescue effort.

You play as one of six characters who get onto the last flight out of L.A., either legitimately or by sneaking into the cargo hold. After one of the other evacuees turns out to be infected, the subsequent plane crash leaves you and a handful of other survivors trapped in southern California.

Bright side: you get bitten at the crash site, then discover that you’re apparently immune to the virus. On the assumption that your antibodies might help create a cure and/or get you a ticket out of town, you set out into the newly-christened “Hell-A” to find someone to help.

That ends up setting the tone for a lot of DI2. Most of the playable “Slayers” are sports fanatics and/or adrenaline junkies – a roller derby girl, a Paralympic athlete, a stuntman – so they treat their newfound immunity like it’s their superhero origin story. In Dead Island 2, you aren’t some desperate chump searching for an escape route. You’re having the time of your life, and if you can do some good along the way, so much the better.

Each character has their own pre-set stats, such as better damage resistance or increased movement speed, which don’t change over the course of play. I played the most as Carla, a motocross biker and mechanic who’s made to soak up damage and only gets stronger as her health drops; Amy, conversely, is a glass cannon who’s designed to pick off single targets.

Instead of a traditional talent tree, characters in DI2 have access to a suite of skill cards, which you can earn by leveling or finding in the environment. Each card provides a specific passive bonus or active skill, such as unlocking a powerful drop kick that can send normal zombies flying. The higher your level, the more cards you can equip at once.

Image via Deep Silver

Like the original Dead Island, you do much of your fighting in Dead Island 2 with melee weapons, which range from bits of debris to military hardware. DI2 adds the ability to block or dodge attacks. Time a defensive move right, and you can set up a zombie for a counterattack, which is a big part of the game plan for some survivors.

You can scrounge up extra parts from the environment, like glue, wire, and circuit boards, to add extra effects to every swing, such as elemental damage, damage over time, or additional impact.

That last one’s important because DI2 has a system, FLESH (Fully Locational Evisceration Simulator for Humanoids), that pseudo-realistically deforms a zombie with every hit it takes. You can break a zombie’s legs with a bat, take off their arms with a machete, or send them flying with a hammer swing. In so doing, limbs go limp, skin fries off, or meat melts right off the bone.

It’s actually really gross in a Peter Jackson Dead-Alive sort of way.  At one point, I crafted a baseball bat with a mod that automatically doused anything I hit with industrial solvent, which turned any zombie I fought into a meat skeleton in real time. I had to stop using that bat.

Most of post-outbreak L.A. has a few environmental features you can exploit to burn, melt, or electrocute wayward zombies, like exposed wires, broken water mains, or pools of gasoline. If you’ve got the right gear, you can use those to light up entire packs of zombies at once.

There’s usually something that you can take advantage of in most of Dead Island 2’s levels, and while you won’t always have the right tools for the job (pro-tip: you can ignite oil with electricity), it gives you options besides simply wading into the next fight. This is crucial for crowd control, especially as Amy.

Image via Deep Silver

You also gradually unlock what DI2 calls “Curveballs,” an assortment of thrown items that run off of short, shared recharge timers. The first one you get is “meat bait,” which causes an explosion of gore in a set area that attracts nearby normal zombies.

On my first run, I didn’t really appreciate the Curveballs enough, but the meat bait is an easy way to set zombies up for an easy environmental kill. It turns out that zombies prefer a free meal to not being on fire.

Later Curveballs include a foam bomb that puts out fires but douses zombies in a conductive liquid, a giant homemade throwing star that can sever limbs at a distance, and a simple pipe bomb that delivers direct damage.

Much like the original Dead Island, Dead Island 2 isn’t in any particular hurry. After 8 hours, it was still introducing new mechanics and game-changing skill cards, as well as finally letting me get my hands on a gun. The early game can be rough when you’ve got terrible weapons and no ranged attacks, but it slowly becomes a more violent playground as you go. It’s not a bad idea to bring backup via co-op mode, for up to three players, to get through that opening stretch of the game.

Dead Island 2 is due out on April 21, 2023, for PC through Epic Games, PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, and Series X|S. It’s available for pre-order now

Featured image via Deep Silver.

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Thomas Wilde
Survival horror enthusiast. Veteran of the print era. Comic book nerd.