Let’s get one thing straight: I am an idiot. By that, I don’t mean I have a low IQ or did poorly in school. Instead, I’m referring specifically to my tastes. For example, if you put The Rock and Shawshank Redemption in front of me, I’m picking The Rock every single time. It’s not that I can’t engage with more serious media on an intellectual level, I just prefer dumb fun in my entertainment. That’s why, after playing the preview, I was beyond excited for Dead Island 2. It seemed to be taking everything I loved about the original and really honed in on making the perfect game to boot up with your friends and get up to wacky hijinks together . It wasn’t going to light the video game world on fire, but it did seem like it was going to stay in its lane and nail its landing.
Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you that it never quite gets there. What starts as a promising throwback to the Xbox 360 era soon turns into a mess that isn’t sure exactly what it wants to be. There’s still fun to be had here, especially, if you turn your sound off; however, the team at Dambuster Studios can’t quite fully capture the magic in a bottle that it had in front of them.
Welcome to Hell-A
The first thing you’ll notice about your trip to zombified Los Angeles is that Dambuster Studios has decided to eschew the direction Techland took its zombie games. The team that made the original Dead Island, built on that by introducing an open world in Dying Light. Dead Island 2 goes back to basics, giving you bespoke areas to work your way through. For some, this might be a turn-off since there are only 10 areas for you to fight through and they’re relatively small compared to similar games in the first-person action scene.
I actually love the change because smaller worlds allow the developers to pack in more details. It’s also less for your mind to wrap itself around, meaning you can more quickly learn the ins and outs of each map. When I’m on Venice Beach, I know exactly which shops I can duck through to get to a back alley if I don’t want to deal with a certain zombie type. A larger game might seem larger, but more often than not, those open worlds simply turn into the player running from one waypoint to the next without paying as much attention.
You’ll still follow waypoints in Dead Island 2, but the smaller districts give you extra power to make your own path. Think of it as a less scary version of evading Mr. X in Resident Evil 2 Remake. Having a smaller set of maps to run through lets you solve the puzzle of getting from one place to another safely on your own instead of simply following a marker.
Now, I don’t want to compare Dead Island 2 to the Dying Light series too often, these are different studios after all. That said, the parkour that was the selling point for Dying Light 2 is definitely nowhere near Dead Island. The running around is serviceable and the moment-to-moment first-person combat is fun, if a little mindless. Plus, the drop kick remains one of the raddest things around, but the gameplay doesn’t bring much new to the genre. Almost everything here, you’ve probably already seen before and those games likely did it better.
I have to say “almost” because the way the zombies break apart is truly inspiring. There’s just something about seeing a zombie’s jaw hanging off its face after you hit it with a hammer that never got old. While the combat itself is merely “fine,” the after-effects are nearly worth the price of admission on their own. Dambuster also introduces a lineup of “Apex Variant” zombies who both test your skills and give you a grotesque canvas to paint your own brand of body horror.
On top of that, Dead Island 2 has both a skill card mechanic and a crafting system that lets you customize how your character plays. I was hoping for a bit more variety in the skill cards, as they’re mostly relatively minor boosts. The crafting mechanic is where the customization really shines, letting you weld different parts onto your weapons. After a while, you even get special zombie parts that start to make your weapons really sing.
If all of this sounds great to you, then I have a really solid first half of a game to sell you. Sadly, around the halfway point, things begin to fall apart and this destruction is not nearly as awesome as what you’ll be doing with a lead pipe.
Things get messy
I’ve mentioned several times how I liked Dead Island 2 when it was embracing its stupidity. That stays true up to a point, but then the story randomly starts trying to take itself seriously. It wants to give a “scientific” explanation for why this outbreak is happening and why your character is immune. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It’s boring. The story was silly when you were trying to save yourself and some Hollywood actors, but tying in overly serious shady government actions just sucked the air out of the room. By the end of the game, they’re even trying to pull at your heartstrings, which can’t work because you’ve been playing the rest of the game as a person who’s surviving the zombie apocalypse with a shotgun in one hand and a satchel of terrible one-liners in the other.
It just doesn’t work. Maybe if they had focused on the serious side of things from the jump they could’ve nailed the landing, but I think they would’ve been much better off going the other way. Things get even worse when they try to set up a sequel hook at the very end without actually offering any real closure to the main plot. It might just be me, but so obviously planning for a sequel in a game that took a decade to release seems like a mistake waiting to happen.
You could almost write the terrible story away if you wanted to, but as I progressed I began to notice other problems that irked me. For example, Dead Island 2 puts a big focus on loot. You’re going to get a lot of it, but the best gear is reserved for the Legendary tier. These weapons have special abilities that are a blast to use, sometimes literally. However, many of them don’t unlock until after you beat the game, which doesn’t make much sense. I want to use those weapons in content that matters, not to mop up side quests. This issue could be ironed out in DLC, but the lack of end-game content to use them in is glaring.
Dead Island 2 also became much buggier the more I played it. For the first few hours, things were relatively smooth. Sure, there’d be some odd clipping or weird pathing, but nothing major. However, toward the end of my time with it, I had all kinds of issues start to happen. The most egregious though was how often side quests just wouldn’t work. I would follow the marker to a destination and whatever it said was waiting for me wouldn’t be there. If I reloaded the area it would often fix itself, but this was happening to almost every quest by the time I hit the Ocean Avenue map.
The developers have said that there will be a patch that addresses some of these bugs, but I obviously can’t speak to that patch with any certainty. What I can say is that it was incredibly frustrating to never know when something was going to work. I don’t know about you, but when I’m running from the zombie hordes, I’d prefer to not be living on a prayer.
Related: Dead Island 2 preorder guide – Bonuses, editions, and more
If you just want to sit down with your friends, zone out, and murder some zombies, Dead Island 2 is exactly what you’re looking for. The game is far from perfect and, in some respects, is a little mindless, but that’s exactly what I want from time to time. I said it at the top and I’ll say it again, Dead Island 2 nails it if you’re just looking for dumb fun. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be the Fast and Furious of video games.
That said, I can’t deny the major problems I had with the plot, progression, and the plethora of bugs that left a nasty taste in my mouth that’s impossible to ignore. Add in the fact that Dead Island 2 rips away any semblance of a satisfying ending in favor of a sequel that might never come and you have a product that feels like it needed a bit longer in the kitchen. Considering its been in development since 2012, that’s maybe a bigger indictment than you’d think.
|+||The zombie mutilation system is a sight to behold|
|+||Simple, fun fight that’s better with friends|
|–||An uneven plot that never decides what it wants to be|
|–||Progress feels off as you don’t unlock the best items until there’s nothing left to do|
|–||Bugs really started to impact my enjoyment the more I played|