It’s been nearly a decade since Dead Island 2 was announced, and considering what the game has gone through since first appearing way back in 2014 (Dambuster Studios is its third developer), it’s a gaming miracle that it even exists. Fast forward to 2023 and Dead Island 2 has risen from the grave to challenge for the zombie-slaying crown once more. If you’ve been cautiously optimistic, hoping for the best yet preparing for the worst, take comfort in knowing that the game is alive and well. Dead Island 2 is not without its faults, but it’s far better than expected, and that is perhaps an even bigger miracle.
This sequel is set several years after the events of Dead Island, and it’s not necessary to have played that first game, though you might miss a wink-and-nod moment here and there. The game begins with you choosing a character, each of whom has their own attributes, stat ratings, and two innate skills. I went with a foulmouthed, quick-witted Irish lass named Dani – who was wonderfully performed, I might add. From there you’ll be introduced to the skill deck, which is a twist on the traditional skill tree. The deck lets you equip and un-equip skill cards to suit your playstyle, allowing you to alter your abilities for a particular situation or boss fight. Cards are found or awarded as you progress though the game, and as you level-up your character, additional slots will become available. There’s a nice variety of skill cards that do a good job of letting you cater to how you like to play. For instance, I found that I preferred blocking attacks rather than dodging them – and trust me when I say you’ll be doing a whole lot of it.
Dead Island 2 wastes little time throwing you into the action; after your plane crash lands in Los Angeles you must navigate another zombpocalypse, only a little further east than the first game. I don’t want to get to much into the story due to spoilers, but ultimately, you’re trying to get out of LA alive. It’s never that simple, of course, as you get tangled in a web of government intrigue, lies, and cult-like doomsday scenarios along the way. For a zombie game, I thought the story was actually pretty interesting. It’s helped by great performance capture work and in-engine cutscenes that look excellent. The semi-open world plays a big part in the story as well, and if you played the first game, you’ll know that it features a lot of environmental storytelling. That has returned for Dead Island 2 and it brings a lot to the table, especially from a comedic point-of-view. There’s the newlywed zombie couple eating each other’s guts at the altar, gym zombies being too powerful to fight in the beginning, and zombies of people who walk around handing out energy drinks at events dropping said energy drinks upon their (permanent) death.
There is a lot of eye candy to enjoy in Dead Island 2; not necessarily from a technical perspective (though the game does look really good), but rather from a design and artistry standpoint. The zombie designs standout in particular, and I found myself admiring the detail put in to each category and variant of enemy. Each area of the world has zombies that look like they are from that particular place, which I was continually impressed and amused by. Bodybuilders are at the gym, baristas are at the coffee shops, and Geek Squad-looking folks are at the game’s version of the Apple Store. It might seem like nothing, but think about all the times you have played a game and saw the exact same enemies, wearing the exact same outfit, performing the exact same action regardless of context. I really appreciated the level of craftsmanship here, from the veins in a zombie’s head to the clothes they were wearing. The enemy variety does not start and stop at just their visual design, however, extending to their movement and attack patterns as well.
Which leads me to the best part of Dead Island 2 – the combat. As should be the case, fighting zombies is an absolute blast, and Dambuster Studios has created a seriously impressive bit of tech with their gore system. It’s called the Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids, or FLESH for short, and it is some of the coolest gaming (“who do you”) voodoo I’ve seen. The FLESH system allows you to stack bodies in the most satisfying ways possible. Slice a zombie with a sword and watch their body gash open or their guts spill out. Whack them in the face with a hammer enough times and their jaw might start dangling from their skull. Got a particularly fast zombie hot on your trail? Always remember to sweep the leg, but use a sharp weapon to take their legs off altogether – that’ll certainly do the trick. It’s all extremely gory, with some excellent finishing moves to boot (ha!). As I’ve mentioned, there is a nice variety of enemies roaming Los Angeles, from the basic Walkers and Runners, to Screamers and Slobbers.
Of course, what good are all of these zombies to kill if you don’t have any cool things to kill them with? Weapons are here in spades too. No, really – literal spades, as well as hammers, swords, knives, pitchforks, bo staffs, pistols, sniper rifles, and more. You’ll probably find a handful of weapon types that suit your playstyle along the way, and you’ll constantly be acquiring new loot – lots and lots of loot. In the first Dead Island I obsessed over opening every suitcase, cabinet, and locker; unfortunately, my obsession did not improve the second time around. You’re going to need it though, as all of that loot is needed to mod and repair your weapons. After all, why have just a basic sword when you can add a cremation mod that will cut and cook zombies at the same time!
Unfortunately, not everything was working correctly in Dead Island 2 during my 25+ hours with it. Most egregious were improperly balanced difficulty in the first third of the story, which I believe is caused by a progression problem, and a soft lock that I ran into during the final third. I can’t overstate how much more fun the game became after the opening act, mainly because it starts giving you much better weapons – guns in particular. Early on, I would get overwhelmed by large groups of zombies pretty often and die easily, but once the game started giving me some proper tools of death things got exponentially better. It’s almost as if the story and progression weren’t balanced properly, leaving me feeling under-powered at times. A similar issue reared its ugly head towards the end of the game; with only three story quests remaining the recommended character level jumped four levels above where I currently was. Despite the discrepancy, I thought it wouldn’t be that tall of a task to press forward...I thought wrong. The game forced me to grind to level 22, so let this be a PSA to do as many side quests as you can during your playthrough. I completed a handful, but that was obviously not enough, which is frustrating considering that side quests are supposed to be optional content. For folks who come for the main story or campaign of a game and prefer to leave the rest behind, that is going to be a tough pill to swallow. Oddly, I am fairly certain that the story missions all scaled to my level the rest of the time, and if they didn’t, then why in the world did the level requirement jump so high and so fast at the very end?
There are other minor annoyances such as never ending zombie spawns in some areas, which I ended up just having to run away from usually. In addition, Dead Island 2 could use a bug squashing update. At one point I glitched into a wall and could not get out, zombies would spawn in front of me as I was sprinting, and they would also morph out of my line of attack occasionally. It’s nothing a performance patch can’t fix, and unfortunately that is a pervasive trend in the industry nowadays.
While I played 95% of the game solo and enjoyed myself quite a bit, I think the game is likely at its best in co-op with friends. I have fond memories of playing the first Dead Island entirely in co-op with a buddy, and I’m looking forward to playing this entry with that same pal all these years later. With that said, reviewing a multiplayer game prior to release can be tough, as you are reliant on other reviewers and members of the development team to (hopefully) populate your game. Of course, Dead Island 2 is playable start to finish in single-player, but we make it a point at Gaming Nexus to review any and all modes in a title. Fortunately, I was able to play cooperatively for a couple of hours with another player (who I think was a dev) and it’s simply more fun maiming zombies with a buddy. They can also revive you when you inevitably get killed, which is a big help as well. However, there are some technical hiccups on the co-op front, with other players appearing like they were running at a lower frame rate on my screen. It was weird – the game itself was running fine, but my partner looked un-optimized. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it’s the best way that my non-technical self can describe it.
Look, I know Dead Island 2 won’t be on a bunch of game of the year lists, but it’s a far better sequel than we could have imagined after three developers and 12 years have come and gone since the original. The game’s combat and FLESH gore system will make you feel like a zombie-slaying god, but it’s bookended by balance and progression issues that will require a bit of patience. Still, I had a blast massacring and maiming my way through zombie hordes in LA.
Dead Island 2 is a fun FPS action romp that succeeds at making you feel like a zombie-slaying god. It’s not going to set the gaming world on fire, and yes, there are some issues, but slaughtering my way across LA never got old.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Hello! I'm Jason, the resident noob here at Gaming Nexus. When not working my day job, I moonlight as a husband to a human and a father to two canines. Of course, I am also an avid gamer and general nerd. My favorite genres of games are strategy, management, city-builders, sports games, RPGs, and shooters, but I don't limit myself to those. My favorite game of all-time is Red Dead Redemption 2 and I have somehow played it for nearly 1,000 hours.
My first video game system was the NES and I never looked back. I currently play on PS5, PS VR2, and PS Vita, although I've dabbled in Xbox Game Pass on PC in the past. I co-host a weekly PlayStation news podcast with a lifelong friend/family member called The Dual Sense Podcast, so I stay pretty well versed in that ecosystem. Before that, I co-hosted a basketball podcast.
Follow me on Twitter @TheDualSensePod, or check out my YouTube channel.