Dead Island 2 Review: A Zombie Sequel Packed with Gory Thrills, But Lacks Substance

For a game that criticizes the superficial world of influencers and airheaded Californians, Dead Island 2 doesn’t have much to say. This long-awaited follow-up to the 2011 original brings players to a post-apocalyptic version of Los Angeles, quarantined after a zombie outbreak. The satirical premise is clear, with social media-obsessed adults and carefree millionaires turning into mindless monsters consumed by consumption. Unfortunately, the game fails to fully explore this intriguing concept, opting instead for overused genre tropes.

Escape from Hell-A

Dead Island 2 pays homage to John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. The game revolves around a group of survivors trying to escape a nightmarish version of Los Angeles abandoned by the U.S. government. The city is divided into smaller, open-ended sections, showcasing exceptional level design. The Santa Monica Pier, for instance, is a meticulously crafted recreation, with dilapidated rides transformed into dangerous electrical hazards. Another level takes players to a sprawling film studio, a maze of empty trailers and Hollywood sound stages.

One of the game’s highlights is the abundant environmental storytelling. Every space is filled with details that offer insight into its previous occupants. For example, an abandoned influencer hype house is loaded with sight gags, including a social media “apology” script scrawled on a whiteboard. Outside, a pool filled with inflatable toys and zombie-clad bathers adds to the immersive experience. This level of detail is reminiscent of immersive sims like Hitman or Prey.

However, the written narrative falls short of expectations, failing to fully capitalize on the game’s intriguing world. While the initial setup suggests a social allegory akin to Dawn of the Dead’s critique of consumerism, the main story devolves into a generic action blockbuster that combines zombie and superhero elements. The narrative seems more preoccupied with paying homage to movies and achieving a predictable “Hollywood ending.”

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Dead Island 2 Screamer
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The characters themselves are also disappointingly thin, wasting the potential of a fun cast of California eccentrics. Exciting story beats, such as encountering a disfigured man living like Disney’s Beast in the sewers, are left unfulfilled. Even the player’s own character lacks depth. Playing as Carla, a motorcycle stuntwoman with a big personality, boils down to little more than “yelling swears a lot.”

While the richly detailed version of Los Angeles begs to be satirized, the story and characters feel dated. It seems as though the game’s decade-long development cycle may have hindered its progression. The level design feels modern, but the story and characters appear stuck in the early 2010s, targeting a demographic of teenage boys. This discrepancy is disappointing, given the potential for sharp social commentary.

For the Tinkerers

Fortunately, Dead Island 2 excels in the realm of zombie carnage, albeit with some mixed results. The game’s combat revolves around first-person melee attacks, providing players with an arsenal of weapons like shovels, rakes, and pickaxes. Each weapon can be customized with elemental damage and other enhancements, allowing for experimentation and visual impact. The joy of crafting unique weapons, such as an electrified cattle prod made from a long stick, adds depth to the combat.

While the core melee attack system is relatively barebones, requiring repetitive button smashing, the addition of elemental enhancements spices up the encounters. However, battling beefier bosses often devolves into circling them while relentlessly pressing a single button. The combat shines brightest when experimenting with different weapons, providing a varied and nuanced experience. Fast weapons benefit the most from the system, while heavier ones feel oddly weightless.

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Dead Island 2 zombie
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Despite these flaws, the melee combat is satisfying due to the grotesque and visually striking flesh system. Every zombie can be dismembered, allowing players to target specific limbs and witness the gruesome aftermath. This dynamic system adds a stomach-churning layer to the otherwise repetitive mechanics.

Combat does eventually deepen, although it takes a while to reach that point. Slowly unlocking new abilities and acquiring firearms keeps the gameplay fresh. The perk system is a standout feature, providing extensive customization options. Each survivor can collect and equip cards that significantly alter their playstyle. For example, Carla can focus on blocks and counters, stunning enemies with successful parries and finishing them off with brutal attacks. Experimenting with different abilities and combinations adds depth to the game.

Dead Island 2 is a game for those who enjoy tinkering with mechanics. It encourages players to extract maximum value from basic tools, mimicking the resourcefulness of survivors in a zombie-infested world. While the narrative may not leave a lasting impact, the sandbox violence is worth the journey.

Rinse, Repeat

Dead Island 2 boasts many strong elements that lay the foundation for success. The combat is darkly enjoyable, and each environment is meticulously crafted with attention to detail. However, the story missions that link these aspects together are mundane. While the narrative setups show creativity, the gameplay becomes monotonous. Every mission seems to involve finding keys or unlocking doors, leading to a sense of repetitive objectives. Combat encounters often drag on, with an abundance of zombies spawning in and limited enemy variety.

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Dead Island 2 key art
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Side missions offer some respite from the tedium, introducing new ideas and adding variety. For example, one quest line involves helping a social media influencer create videos by killing zombies in specific ways. These missions provide a whimsical and comedic touch to the environmental combat. Regrettably, the main story lacks the same energy.

Ultimately, Dead Island 2 delivers the thrills of a schlocky B-movie but fails to advance the crowded and outdated zombie genre. A lackluster narrative and unimaginative mission design leave players craving a more substantial experience. While there is an underlying critique of American privilege in Dead Island 2’s arsenal, it lacks the necessary impact. For the series to thrive in the coming decade, it must develop a sharper point that cuts through the genre’s tired conventions.

Dead Island 2 was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 connected to a TCL 6-Series R635.

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