Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Release Date: April 21, 2023
Dead Island 2 is not a revolutionary sequel. Instead, the foundations laid down by the 2011 original and its 2013 follow-up, Dead Island: Riptide, are modestly built upon. Players craving more of the same but with prettier visuals will be pleased. But there’s a lingering sense that Dead Island 2 could have been much more.
Of course, the mere fact that Dead Island 2 even exists, and is set to launch in a perfectly playable state, should be commended. The game has endured a seemingly tortuous production process since its announcement in 2014. Over the last nine years, it switched developers twice before finally being shepherded over the line by British studio Dambuster.
Unfortunately, the story of Dead Island 2’s lengthy development may be more engaging than the final product, as this open-world action game is extremely repetitive. While the thrill of shattering a zombie's jaw with a blunt object, or slicing off limbs with a sharp blade, initially excites, there’s not enough substance here to sustain long-term interest.
If you can rope a buddy into joining you on a trip to this sun-soaked — or should that be blood-soaked — digital recreation of Los Angeles, you might have enough throwaway fun to stick around. But go it alone, and the bland missions and annoying characters will soon have you itching to vacation elsewhere. Read on for our full Dead Island 2 review.
Dead Island 2 review: Gameplay
Dead Island 2 is centered on one thing only: killing as many zombies as possible. Right from the start, you’ll be confronted with hordes of undead foes, and it’s your job to ensure your character doesn’t become a mid-afternoon walker snack by any means necessary.
You’ll fight off zombies using all manner of blunt objects from lead pipes to golf clubs. But you also have access to a variety of sharp blades including a katana that’s satisfying to wield. Guns are another (very powerful) option, but ammo is scarce. Scavenged weapons will get the job done in a pinch, but you’ll need to modify your armaments if you want to survive to see the sunset.
The weapon upgrade system is deep enough to give you a strong degree of control over your arsenal. For example, you can opt to improve damage but at the cost of decreased durability. And you can even imbue your weapons with elemental effects, such as the ability to shoot sparks of electricity or set undead enemies on fire.
Making use of the environment is also critical to your survival. Kick a zombie into a pool of toxic waste and their skin will corrode, similarly push them into a blazing inferno and they will burn to a crisp. Practically every combat arena is stuffed with opportunities like these. If you want to survive the game’s toughest encounters you need to lure zombies into traps rather than just mindlessly swing whatever melee weapon you’ve got to hand.
Whacking zombies to death or setting them on fire is sadistic fun at first, but it quickly becomes very repetitive as that’s all there is to Dead Island 2. Different flavors of the infected attempt to inject some much-needed variety, but the methods required to tackle these more dangerous foes are the same as regular zombies. And uneven difficulty spikes make some mid-game portions very frustrating.
Upgrading your character is another essential element to progression. In the game’s opening moments, you choose from a set of six survivors each with unique perks and stats. As you advance through Dead Island 2 you can further customize your avatar via a card system that acts as a more creative equivalent to a traditional skill tree.
Rather than cards giving you routine upgrades like increased health or reduced damage, most unlock new abilities or buff your pre-existing move set. I unlocked several cards that rewarded me with health recovery and damage increases whenever I played aggressively. This had a tangible impact on how I approached combat. Dead Island 2 definitely gives you the opportunity to craft a character that suits your playstyle.
Dead Island 2 review: Exploration and missions
When you’re not (re)killing the undead or scrolling through upgrade menus, you’ll have the chance to explore the game’s take on LA, here rechristened as Hell-A. The map is not a truly open world; it’s split into multiple smaller zones instead. This does have the advantage of making the world feel more manageable in scale right out of the gate.
Combing through LA’s many abandoned houses is surprisingly engaging, and you’re rewarded with crafting materials and high-powered weapons for taking the time to stop and thoroughly loot your surroundings. Pay attention and you’ll also uncover stories told through environmental cues. In fact, a highlight of my time with Dead Island 2 came when I stumbled upon an influencer house complete podcast room and abandoned YouTube filming setup.
The main campaign also takes you to a wide variety of locations. The best story mission has you fighting through a movie studio backlot complete with a gigantic animatronic spider that spits poison at zombies. While others send you to a military quarantine zone on the beach, an overrun sewer and the Venice Beach boardwalk. However, it’s a shame that missions essentially boil down to just two repeated steps: go to a new location, and then kill all the zombies there.
Optional side missions occasionally offer more enjoyable context for why you’re killing even more zombies — an early one tasks you with getting footage for a wannabe social media star — but the ultimate goal is always the same. In Dead Island 2, if you’re not mowing down zombies, you’re probably looking at a loading screen.
The entire game can be played in up to three-player co-op, and I strongly recommend you enlist a couple of buddies if possible. The comradery helps alleviate some of the tedium, and with some friends by your side, the damage-sponge bosses go down a little quicker.
Dead Island 2 review: Story
Dead Island 2 is set roughly a decade after the events of the first game and sees the state of California placed under lockdown due to a fresh viral zombie outbreak. While attempting to escape, your protagonist gets bitten, finds out they’re immune, and sets out to rendezvous with a group of scientists who believe they can make a cure with your blood (how very The Last of Us).
It’s all very predictable stuff and Dead Island 2 doesn’t take its own story seriously for a moment. Side characters crack-wise constantly, and your protagonist has a snaky response for all situations. The constant attempts at humor get irritating very quickly. The central plot throws up a few twists in an effort to keep you engaged, but the entire cast is so annoying that by the halfway point I was sort of hoping the zombies would overrun the safe houses.
Fans of the first Dead Island game may be pleased to know that there are a few callbacks to past events, and a returning character plays a somewhat prominent role. But newcomers will be able to follow along. Although Dead Island 2’s story is so pedestrian that even the most dedicated franchise veterans might find themselves itching to skip cutscenes.
Dead Island 2 review: Visuals and sound
On PS5, Dead Island 2 is an excellent-looking game. The glossy postcard quality of LA contrasts wonderfully with the violent gameplay, and there are more than a few spots where I stopped to admire the scenery. The zombies are expertly animated, shambling along and lurching at you in a way that feels ripped straight out of a classic horror movie.
The gore system is also seriously impressive. Strike a zombie with a sharp knife and its flesh will tear, slam a blunt object into its face and its jaw will dislodge and hang loose. Similarly, gruesome injuries appear when you burn enemies with fire or acid. In fact, the brutality of the simulated violence is so intense that I winced on more than one occasion.
Adding to the savagery are Dead Island 2’s impactful sound effects, which bring a real sense of weight to combat encounters. Plus, zombies groan in a seriously unsettling manner. The voice acting for the human character doesn’t fair as well. However, the grating script is the main reason that you’ll desperately want to mute the game’s entire cast.
Dead Island 2 review: Verdict
Just playing Dead Island 2 in 2023 feels like a minor miracle after such a protracted production cycle. Nevertheless, the novelty of finally experiencing this long-in-development sequel wears off pretty quickly. Then all that remains is a hugely repetitive experience punctuated by hackneyed story beats.
There are some cheap thrills to be gleaned from Dead Island 2, and its gore system is unquestionably impressive. But the readily apparent flaws take root fairly quickly and make slogging through its uninspired missions a less-than-appealing proposition. After a few hours of play, you might be wishing your visa to this undead paradise was rejected.