Nine years ago, Dead Island 2 entered the public zeitgeist with a vibrant and funny reveal trailer. It teased a new, colourful setting in L.A. whilst doubling down on that irreverent tone of the original game. However, as the years passed on, the rumour mill began to churn out tales of internal struggles, with the project switching development hands and being delayed time and time again. When the review code eventually landed in our inbox — a mere eight years after its proposed 2015 release window — we couldn't help but feel sceptical. Thankfully, our pessimism was met with utter surprise, as Dead Island 2 isn't just a cohesive zombie-slayer — it's a pretty good one.
Dead Island 2 is an open-levelled RPG, set within the zombie-infested streets of Los Angeles, and right away we're touching on one of our favourite aspects of this sequel. 'Hell-A', as it's coined, isn't an enormous open world filled with an overwhelming number of icons. It's actually made up of 10 carefully curated open levels, ranging from the millionaire mansions of Bel-Air to the labyrinthine sound stages of Monarch Studios. It's totally refreshing to be given manageable spaces to explore that feel purposeful and unique in their own ways. There aren't repetitive areas, we aren't left running for miles on end to get to our destination, and even the levels themselves range in both size and linearity. There are still side-quests and other content to work your way through, but these serve more as ways to study the environment a little closer, give you cooler weapons, and ultimately make you feel like a badass as you slay countless undead opponents.
It all means that each time we reached a new area, we were rubbing our hands together, looking forward to uncovering new world details offered up by its environment. And each new zone has its own flavour too, like the blood-soaked undead bridesmaids in the Halperin Hotel, or the bevy of muscly giants brought to their untimely demise at the Venice Beach strongman competition. The levels don't just influence where you're slaying zombies, but what kinds of zombies you're slaying, and it keeps you on your toes as you explore. Truthfully, we were completely won over by Dead Island 2's setting. It feels like a 2010 game in its scale, carefully and densely curated with all the graphical and mechanical prowess of a 2023 release — and we mean that in the best kind of way.
But what's a great zompocalypse — the game's term, not ours — without some fun zombie-slaying gameplay? Dead Island 2 thankfully moves on from the stilted game feel of its predecessor to deliver something fast-paced, dynamic, and horrifically gory. The game's 'FLESH' system really does make this some of the most satisfying zombie-killing put to the medium. With each slash, bash, and swing, skin and bones are torn, snapped, amputated, and mutilated before your very eyes. Bones jut out of removed legs as you swipe at them with katanas, eyes pop out of sockets as you bash skulls with hammers, and skin will burn away in real time as you wield some deadly acidic knuckle dusters. On the odd occasion, we felt the game could have done with more zombies on-screen at once, but if that was the cost of having highly detailed gore, we think it was well worth the price.
That's because the FLESH mechanic feeds into the weapons systems. It isn't anything groundbreaking, or even new to the franchise, as you fiddle with weapon classes, perks, and damage types. However, the chaos you can cause with said weapons becomes a case of morbid curiosity. What would a sledgehammer with an impact mod do to a zombie's skull? How easily could you slice off limbs with an acid-tinged sword? It's a fun form of bloody experimentation that entices you into its weapons modification in a way that most games fail to do.
That being said, it's guilty of the video game sin of filling your inventory with too many pointless things. You'll spend nearly every waking moment of your exploration of L.A collecting various doodads as you loot suitcases, drawers, cupboards, car boots, shelves, safes, chests, trucks, and even the zombies themselves. All of these knick-knacks are used to craft up the deadliest of weapons, but we'd be lying if we said the rigmarole of looting didn't get old after a while. The influx of bigger and better weapons means you're constantly having to decide between ditching the weapons you like for something with higher stats and a different tier.
Then there's the card system, which works through the game's six playable characters, a mechanic that feels like a scaled back version of something originally intended for more. At the beginning of your campaign, you'll choose your own protagonist, each with their own personality, skills, and traits. We chose the foul-mouthed Irishwoman, Dani, who prioritises stamina but still packs a punch with her Thunderstruck explosion ability. We were relatively surprised by the personality on show during the game's cutscenes, but it all began to feel a bit pointless. Dialogue for all the NPCs was generic as to fit each of the six protagonists, and since you couldn't switch characters during the game's campaign, nor is there any difference to the campaign based on who you play, there was really no reason to replay it all just to try out a different character type. And really, the less we say about the game's run-of-the-mill storyline, the better.
Of course, the bigger feature here are the cards themselves, which will apply a bunch of passive and unique abilities to your character. There is certainly a depth to the kind of builds you can craft as you unlock and discover more cards across the campaign. For Dani, we used the likes of an impact amplifier for our drop kick, and you can mix up your ultimate-styled Fury Mode ability to rampage through hordes of zombies. However, outside one or two key skills and the odd boss fight, we really weren't compelled to dive deep into the card system, especially when just slashing and smashing away would be just as fun and effective.
In the end, though, Dead Island 2 is a refreshing surprise amid the 2023 release roster. It's a fun and simple zombie-slasher experience that may be let down by its uninspiring RPG elements and boring loot-cycle, but more than makes up for it with its killer setting, brutal melee combat, and stunning graphics. While we suspect some will be disappointed by the game's size after all these years, we found it utterly revitalising to find a AAA experience that respects your time, and more importantly doesn't overstay its welcome. In the day and age of 300-hour RPGs, it's nice to know that some games are here for a fun time, not a long time.