Sometimes, all you need from a video game is for it to let you beat zombies with a burning shovel. That’s what Dead Island 2 is prepared to offer you. It’s not a complicated experience.
It’s strange, though. DI2 is unpolished, like it was thrown together from disparate parts, with design choices that make it feel like a lost 360/PS3 game. It must be doing something right, because I was glued to it for a good 15 hours, but I’m a sucker for zombie stories. Take my opinion with a grain of salt.
With that established, there’s a lot about Dead Island 2 that I like. It’s a cheerful blast of over-the-top, comedy violence that treats post-outbreak Los Angeles like a city-sized rage room. I can’t fault anyone who finds it repetitive or shallow, but if you’re looking for a slapstick/splatterpunk (splatterstick?) co-op action game, Dead Island 2 delivers.
DI2 is set in an off-kilter version of modern-day L.A., immediately after an outbreak of an unknown, unexplained zombie plague. The U.S. military’s attempts to contain it were complicated by a suspiciously well-timed, major earthquake. At the start of the game, that’s driven the Army into a full retreat.
You play as one of six survivors who made it onto the last flight out of L.A., which crashes minutes after takeoff. In the aftermath, you get infected by a zombie bite, but unlike anyone else in L.A., recover from it. With a new lease on life, you set out into the newly-christened “Hell-A” to contact the surviving authorities and leverage your immunity to get a free ride out of town.
My first impression of DI2 was that Dambuster Studios had made a Dead Rising game by mistake. Right from the start, DI2 is a blood-soaked sitcom premise, which stands in stark contrast to the original Dead Island’s grim tone. If DI was 28 Days Later, DI2 is a remake of Shaun of the Dead set in southern California.
In DI2’s post-outbreak L.A., other survivors have doubled down on their Hollywood weirdness, from actors who now refuse to break character, to struggling indie directors using zombies as extras, to YouTube millionaires who can’t decide whether they want to survive the “zompocalypse” or make content about it.
The goal, according to DI2’s creative director James Wornall, was to keep much of the game light and funny, so when it does try for big horror moments, it’s a sucker punch. It’s a valid concept, but I’d argue that DI2 only successfully makes that swerve twice.
The rest of the time, Dead Island 2 is a surprisingly upbeat if gory brawler where most of the characters are too weird to take seriously. There are exceptions, such as Emma Jaunt, an A-lister actress turned unwilling hostess to a survivors’ enclave, but whenever DI2 decides to get real, it’s jarring, not impactful.
That dramatic shift in tone is the biggest difference between DI2 and the original Dead Island, but many of DI2’s systems are taken straight from its predecessor.
This includes its emphasis on melee combat and bizarre weapon mods. Early on, you’re forced to fight through L.A. with whatever bits of club-shaped debris you can find. Get a few levels under your belt, and you’ll start to find more effective gear like nightsticks, sledgehammers, swords, and axes, as well as the tools and blueprints to modify each one into a crazy steampunk nightmare. At around the midway point, DI2 also reintroduces the Fury mechanic, where you can go on a short-lived rage-induced violence bender and claw zombies to death with your bare hands.
Conversely, DI2 removes the first game’s skill trees in favor of a card-based system that lets you gradually customize your character’s abilities and passive buffs. This includes a couple of new attacks, like a rushing palm strike, and a defensive skill where you can block or dodge incoming attacks. Time your evasion right, and it can set a zombie up for a devastating counterhit.
Every zombie deforms, breaks, and splatters realistically when struck, and you’re encouraged to lower a zombie’s threat level through dismemberment. Crushers can punch your lights out, but not if you break both their arms first.
The real star of DI2’s combat, however, is L.A. itself. Every street and building in the city is littered with hazards, like broken water mains, live wires, or spilled fuel, and any one of them can be used for a quick zombie kill. If you see a bunch of zombies in a flooded sinkhole, go ahead and throw in a car battery (above). It’ll be hilarious.
The cluttered environments mean that there’s no such thing as a “standard” fight in DI2. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve seen zombies set off explosions by themselves, or when one gunshot in the wrong place ended in an electrical arc that covered half the street. DI2 can get repetitive fast if you simply bash every zombie to death with a tire iron, but a little chaos goes a long way.
Even so, I want to establish that DI2 is at its best as a co-op game. I ran through it solo at first and had some fun with it, but having even one other player along for the ride makes DI2 a dramatically better experience. After a few test sessions on the pre-release version of the game, the netcode’s better than I expected; I played a long session between Seattle and Guadalajara with no issues. If you’re going to play DI2, definitely bring friends.
Whether you’re alone or not, DI2 has the same problem as the original, in that it hits a wall as soon as it introduces guns. Zombies have no counter for bullets, and ammunition’s everywhere.
As soon as I had a decent rifle, I went from barely surviving Beverly Hills to going on murderous rampages down Ocean Avenue. If something was still alive after a few bullets, I could pop my Fury mode and turn it to paint. My tricked-out melee weapons went from the game’s whole hustle to a fallback option, and most of my hard-earned Skill Cards no longer mattered.
On the one hand, this suits the story DI2 wants to tell. By roughly its halfway point, you aren’t a desperate survivor in the ruins of civilization; you’re a hypercaffeinated superhero for whom the zombie apocalypse is all upside. You should be the most dangerous thing with a pulse in all of Hell-A.
On the other hand, DI2 runs out of gas once it becomes a first-person shooter. All it can do is throw more and bigger waves of zombies at you until it careens to a stop 10-15 hours later. Even with my strong pro-zombie bias, it’s hard to give DI2 an unqualified recommendation due to how fast it falls apart in its back half.
Dead Island 2 Review — The Bottom Line
- Truly visceral combat, no pun intended.
- Much better as a co-op zombie-smashing arena game than as a solo experience.
- It nails the “zombie apocalypse playground” vibe in a way that not much else has since the original Dead Rising.
- A mostly likable cast of NPCs.
- A smoother online multiplayer experience than I expected.
- Getting a gun breaks the game.
- It runs out of ideas, and steam, roughly halfway through.
- Maybe half its jokes land, and that’s being generous.
- It doesn’t feel unfinished, but rather that it was wrapped up in a hurry.
If you aren’t as big a mark for zombie horror as I am, there’s a lot you can pick apart about Dead Island 2. It’s dated, a little shallow, and is effectively over at its halfway point.
It’s still a good co-op game, its story kept me interested up to the end, and I can’t hate any game where I can dropkick a zombie into downed power lines. If you pick up Dead Island 2, bring a couple of horror-nerd friends to Hell-A with you and it’s good for a few fun evenings. For solo play, though, only true zombie maniacs need apply.
[Note: Deep Silver provided the copy of Dead Island 2 used for this review. Featured image by GameSkinny.]
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