Review: It’s a marvel that Dead Island 2 is out and an even bigger one that it’s good

dead island 2, review

The biggest adventure for Dead Island 2 happened well before it was released last month. It was a very troubled project that spanned numerous years being traded around by many developers and publishers until the IP finally landed into Deep Silver/Plaion’s hands, who plunked down the cash and had Dambuster Studios finish the job. Against all odds and then more, they managed to pull off a sheer hand-of-freaking-god-placed-down-on-Earth divinity that the final version of the game is.

All that laborious history pushed aside, I’m astounded to report that Dead Island 2 is not only a finished product in store shelves and digital marketplaces, but an otherwise enjoyable open-world romp through the post-apocalyptic streets of a zombie-infested Los Angeles. While it’s still up to debate the logic of the game’s name since it takes place on a continental city rather than an island, everything else about Dead Island 2 is razor-sharp in terms of design, a far cry from the first few entries in the series.

The thing that really impresses me about the game is how focused it is on delivering what everyone expects of it – a zombie-killing sim with over-the-top violence and hilarious taped together specialty weapons – and at the same time also scoring a slam dunk on aspects that it has no business being this tight with, such as the story being as good as it is, and the overall tone of the game, which has been an issue with the Dead Island franchise since the get-go.

dead island 2, review
You’ll meet all manner of freaks and geeks as you explore the hellscape of L.A. Just like you would in real life, I suppose.

Dead Island 2 acknowledges what came before it and quickly shifts gear and becomes a game of its own very quickly into the campaign. You play as one of a handful of survivors who were boarded into a plane en route to safety from the new zombie plague that’s sweeping the world. Things turn sour minutes into the opening cutscene, with an infected patient going rampant inside, causing it to crash somewhere in the vicinity of LA.

Regardless of which of the protagonists you pick – and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses that shape how you play them, such as core strength, agility, combos, and such – you are introduced to a group of people who made it through without themselves turning into the living dead. One of them is a starlet who zips off, the rest of the group in tow, to hold out in her mansion in the hills, but not before giving you her address. 

But that’s not all. You end up bitten by a ghoul and start suffering from the same symptoms as everyone else, although you are able to survive the turn for much longer than expected, enough to bust through the tutorial area around the crash site, and into town. You wake up at Beverly Hills, on your friend’s doorstep, and that’s where the game truly begins. After meeting those making a stand there, you eventually run into one of the survivors from the first game, one-hit rapper Sam B., who explains the reason behind your making it out alive: you are among the chosen immune, like himself.

That’s quite convenient, isn’t it? Well, that doesn’t make you impervious to damage, and let me tell you, there’s a lot of that coming your way. The zombies in this game tend to be extremely aggressive and can do a number on you if you’re not careful. The good part, though, is that the more you level up, you guessed it, you gain more abilities and skills that come in handy when tearing through the hordes of the undead that stand between you and the way outta Dodge.

dead island 2, review
Bring a friend or two for some fun times in co-op

Much like your usual open-world game, such as the Dying Light 2, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Cyberpunk 2077 and such of the world, Dead Island 2 is all about building up your character to suit the style with which you like to play. In this game’s case, you can freely customize your hero’s suite of abilities as you see fit by placing special cards along each unique section that comes with the chosen protagonist. These cards can be bought or found throughout the game, and come in a large variety of types, giving you a whole lot of flexibility in how you want to carry yourself out in the world.

One aspect of the game that sets it specially apart from the other Dead Island entries is how combat works. Gone are the admittedly fun analog controls that measured how strong and where your hits landed that helped set the original game apart from the bunch, in favor of more traditional trigger controls. The strength of your hit, as you’d expect it, is measured by how much you pull on that, and so forth. You can still sorta aim where you hit zombies and Dead Island 2 takes into account head shots and allows you to maim the dead to your heart’s content, but by golly, I really miss being able to wag a machete like an idiot from the older games in the series.

In a very similar way to its predecessors, Dead Island 2 can be played to its entirety via online co-op. The story takes that into account by always addressing you as “they”, not only taking into account gender identity when role-playing as a zombie-slaying hero, but also the number of them stepping onto everyone’s domains while out and about. When playing online, the game takes into account everyone’s levels and provides just enough of a challenge for everyone not to feel like they’re pushovers, and that is done so astonishingly well, considering how badly that could’ve gone. 

dead island 2, review
Venice is as full of life as I remember it…

Then there’s the story and overall tone of Dead Island 2. I won’t try to kid you and say that it’s the best damn tale ever told in living dead fiction that you’ll ever see, but the game does a tremendous job in carrying itself with a tone that straddles the line between taking itself seriously and being playful very subtly. Characters are indeed exaggerated, especially the heroes you get to pick from, but the rest of the cast tends to evoke a sense of depth that I certainly would not expect to see in a game such as this one.

Taking into account the mess that Dead Island 2’s development was over the course of the 10+ since it’s been announced, it’s an absolute miracle that it is the enjoyable game that I got the chance to play on PlayStation 5. It’s technically sound, too, an area which anyone who’s heard about that history would likely expect it to be broken, well, it isn’t. I did run into a few occasions while fighting off enemies where my weapon went through the world and I got to witness the horrible reality of nothingness inside the polygon meshes that compose the game’s geometry, but outside of these, I’ve had buttery-smooth performance all throughout.

Say what you will about what Dead Island 2 is, that it’s way too graphic and violent in the portrayal of its zombies, and that’s definitely true, or what its premise is, which is exactly what its title states, or worse, that logic gap I mentioned in the opening about where the game takes place in – yeah, it’s dumb – but forget all that and focus on the sheer success of the accomplishment that is the mere existence of the finished and fully playable product that it is.

This game had no business being anything but vaporware after the drama surrounding its development, but here we are: me getting this review done for coverage at our website, and you, the reader, getting to this point in it. Other projects had their plugs pulled way earlier down the line than Dead Island 2 jumped past in order to get through to the finish. And that it did so competently is a sight to see, and well, not to get too distracted with, otherwise you might become a random zombie’s next meal, and that, my friend, is not good at all.

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