Zombies are a staple in horror. The concept of shambling, undead creatures that have lost all their humanity has been done to death a thousand times in every medium you can think of, with each iteration evolving the idea in one way or another. Video games have contributed to the consistent interest the undead has sustained, with the zombie hack-and-slash boom of the 2010s introducing notable franchises like the Dead Rising and Dead Island series.
At that time, zombie games left a lot to be desired, though we often remember these games fondly. Games like Dead Island featured crafting systems and typical zombies to rip and tear through, but these portrayals were nothing compared to what was on TV and film around the same time. After all, it was the era of The Walking Dead TV series.
It seemed Dead Island 2 could be subject to the same fate. Originally announced in 2014, it was delayed for nearly a decade and switched between multiple teams, including the original developer Techland.
After playing Dead Island 2 for more than 38 hours, however, it’s clear that developer Dambuster Studios isn’t simply trying to bank off the success of the title’s predecessor but instead has made a horror experience that is as detailed as it is terrifying.
While Dead Island 2 isn’t perfect and there are the occasional visual bugs, Dambuster has created a sequel even better than its predecessor—and it was certainly worth the wait.
To live and love in beautiful HELL.A.
From the first shot of Dead Island 2‘s opening cinematic, Dambuster Studios transports you to the orange skies over Los Angeles. The song accompanying the cinematic provides a melancholic backdrop to the beautiful scenery shown across HELL.A. This is a good primer for the game, where players will constantly need to reckon with the sheer and prominent ugliness inside of this beautiful city.
From the second you choose your character, each feeling unique in personality and stats, you’re introduced into a world that feels detailed down to the smallest signage. One of our favorite examples of this is early in the game, when, following a fiery plane crash, you walk through the burning wreckage only for the plane’s bathroom door to shoot open. In a darkly-comedic detail, you can see someone has been slammed against the wall due to there being no seatbelt—fluids and other matter splattered around him.
This attention to detail is also present in Dead Island 2’s environmental storytelling, as you find notes throughout the game that correspond with named zombies or other important details that players can search for. There are whole Lost and Found quests that force the player to follow specific clues and look for details, such as the story of a pool boy who fell in love on the job in Beverly Hills.
That’s not to say that the world is small, as it often appears much larger and harder to navigate than it appears on the tourist maps that work as your guide. If there’s one thing for certain, there is plenty to do and collectibles to find in HELL.A. At the time of writing, we’ve spent 40 hours in the game and still have countless more to see.
Despite all the zombies, Dead Island 2’s beautifully cinematic world can make it easy to forget that it’s a horror game. On several occasions, we were caught off guard by jump scares and gruesome sights. Most of the marketing for Dead Island 2 has been very bright and energetic, and there are so many moments when it is, but the terror is waiting in the dark. That’s where the game’s extensive weapon crafting system comes in, allowing you to take full advantage of another of Dambuster’s own inventions: the anatomically correct gore system.
The flying viscera is the best part
The zombies in Dead Island 2 are especially grotesque in a way that may make some people a little nauseous at first—but in the best possible way. Despite their unfortunate appearance, the wide variation in zombie species and body type is really refreshing, as the thick to the muscular, and everyone in between, have undead representation.
If the wonderfully grotesque look of these decaying zombies doesn’t make you feel queasy, how you hack and slash at them certainly might. Dead Island 2’s zombies are anatomically correct, which means they react exactly how you expect them to when hit. For example, if you smack a zombie with the broad side of a baseball bat, you’ll see his jaw go flying into the distance. To say anything more than that would be spoiling the joy players can experience for themselves, but we highly encourage you to experiment with slaying the undead.
The weapon crafting system deserves special attention as well, especially how it can be used with melee weapons. For a large part of Dead Island 2, players will only have access to melee weapons. There’s a wide range of them that will work across playstyles, but what’s cool is that each seems to have a custom look reflecting each mod applied to it, meaning your weapons will be customized to look as unique as you’ve made them. One example included role-playing as Negan from The Walking Dead thanks to a baseball bat and a well-placed Punctuator mod.
This customization also applies to found weapons, with some instance-based treasure seemingly being based on a similar system as Borderlands loot, where it drops scaled with your level. These weapons will have rarity and modifiers that change the quality of the weapon, with adjectives added to the title to give a quick explanation of its effects.
While there is a lot to praise in Dead Island 2, it’s not without its faults, like the occasional visual bugs that seem to worsen the longer you play the game. There were times when the game’s framerate dropped for about 10 seconds and the occasional zombie texture would stretch when it gets stuck, but these only happened a handful of times over the 40-hour playthrough.
Dead Island 2’s Alexa Game Control feature, which is Amazon’s latest foray into gaming, is also plagued with bugs. It’s only available in certain countries, including the U.S., but we had difficulty getting it to work. The basic Alexa commands work, mostly, but talking to the zombies, setting waypoints, and switching weapons are nearly impossible to get to work—and God help you if you try to use it to order pizza. It’s an inclusion that feels like a gimmick than something that’s fleshed out and fun to use.
The Dead Island is alive and well
While it took over a decade and going through development hell to get to us, Dead Island 2 is one of the rare examples where the sequel is even better than the original. While it does have the issues many games do at launch, the weapon system, detailed world, and the most impressive gore system ever made will likely help propel Dead Island to get a third game in another decade, but on an actual island this time.
Disclosure: Our review copy of Dead Island 2 was provided by Plaion.