Dead Island 2 Review – Back From The Other Side

Dead Island 2 Review - Back From The Other Side

Often, when a video game goes through development hell, the type of development hell that results in changing developers and multiple delays over many many years the end product is something of a disaster. Think Duke Nukem Forever, think Too Human, think Spore, think Homefront 2. All delayed multiple times over, all went through development purgatory and all turned out to be well below par. In comes Dead Island 2, first announced what seems like an eon ago, a sequel to a couple of ok 360/PS3 games. A game that made its way through not two but three different developers and more delays than I can count without a calculator. A game that finally ended up in the hands of the studio that brought Homefront 2 to life. There is no way this turns out to be a winner is there? Well not only is Dead Island 2 finally here, it is fully functional, very well put together and a whole bunch of fun to boot. 

For those that missed the first two games, the setup is classic Zombie stuff. An outbreak, a small group of survivors and a few lucky immune folks that can take the fight to the undead. The story is much the same here only with a big difference, personality. Dead Island 2 is chock full of wonderful characters that you simply want to be around, from the preppy Hollywood starlet Emma, to the previous outbreak survivor Sam, to the overly aggressive housekeeper Andrea, each of the characters is entertaining in their own way, making them a joy to interact with. They aren’t particularly deep mind, but they are fun and full of humour.

That humour is carried over to the player character, aka the slayers. There are six slayers to choose from, all of which have unique skills, strengths and weaknesses. I went with an Irish rocker who looks like she stepped off the court from a roller derby match called Dani and frankly, I am a little in love. The way she spoke, the way she looked at things and, most importantly, the way she swore had me giggling out loud on more than one occasion.  I dabbled with the other characters as well, all of which seemed to have that same level of fun injected into their personalities, but I can’t say for sure due to my short time with them. 

In case you haven’t realised by now, Dead Island 2 has firmly taken the Zombieland/Shaun of the Dead view on horror as opposed to the straight-laced (and rather pedestrian) angle the original games took. There are silly side quests and laughs aplenty, but just like these classic horror comedies, there are genuine moments of fear, joy and sadness. The story takes a bit of a sci/fi twist in the back third of the game but never loses focus on keeping the player invested in its charming cast and playful nature. There is nothing here that is going to change the way Zombie media is consumed, nothing that is breaking the genre, but it is exactly what fans of horror comedy want, laughs, gore and emotion in equal measure. 

On the gameplay side of things, it should feel familiar to those that have played either Dead Island or Dying Light. The mobility of the slayers sits somewhere in between those two titles and the combat shares a lot of similarities. But where Dead Island was at times a one-note affair as far as combat is concerned, Dead Island 2 has added some smart improvements to the game to mix things up in interesting ways, giving the combat the zest it needs to remain fresh for the entire runtime. Thanks to the fully customisable skill system, players can simply pick and choose appropriate skills to suit their style. Choose between a block and a dodge maneuver, add extra speed to your attacks at the cost of force or just get your ground-pound on to stun zombies. There are a host of fun toys, tools and tricks that can be slotted into the appropriate skill section to mix things up on the fly. It creates a very free-form combat style that feels very personal to the player and I dug it in a big way. I also want to make special mention of the way environmental and elemental attacks play into things. Using the environment in conjunction with things like electricity and fire is a creative joy.  For example, you see a big bunch of zombies in the distance, you notice some electrical wires and a jerry can of water. Combine the two and then lob a chunk of meat into the centre. Watch as the zombie stumble into the puddle and zap themselves into oblivion in the process. Mastering what the environment provides can make the toughest fights that much easier so it is worth getting the lay of the land before diving into battle. 

I should also point out at this point that Dead Island 2 is much more of an Action title first and an RPG second, something of a turnaround from the first game. This is a largely linear experience through a series of open maps with the occasional backtracking or sidequests. Sure there are RPG elements, the aforementioned skill tree, the cool weapon crafting system and different stat boosts through collectables but really this is a game about going through the story and slaying a bunch of zombies in interesting ways, not about branching dialogue trees and min/max builds. As a result, aside from going back to play as the other slayers (which I actually intend to do at some point), there is a finite potential for the replayability of the title, something that fans of the first game (some of which are still playing it) may be annoyed with. For me, the roughly 15-17 hour adventure was bang on, not too long, not too short, but game length can be a seriously personal thing. 

While in most areas, Dead Island 2 is simply taking things that have been done before and adding polish and little twists that suit the game, there is one area that feels like a drastic leap forward and that is gore. Yes, you read that right, gore. The tech developed for Dead Island 2 to simulate skin and flesh peeling, melting, slicing and frying off is a sight to behold. Watch as a skull caves in, a leg is shattered and bone is exposed, as skin bubbles in acid. It is a totally gross and stomach-upsetting thing of beauty and one that I hope other similarly themed titles take note of. It all adds to that camp, over-the-top nature of the game while at the same time absolutely earning its R18+ rating. 

It would be fair to expect a game that has gone through the wringer like Dead Island 2 would hit shelves in a less-than-perfect state. Thankfully, the delays really were used for polish and bug fixing, because in my entire playthrough, I noticed only three significant bugs. One where an NPC was stuck in the floor, one where an NPC warped into an odd mess of polygons and the final (and most common) were some Zombie AI issues where they would get stuck trying to get around environmental obstacles. None of which affected my game one iota. This, more than anything surprised me because I expected to find a janky game, a game that showed its rough development but instead Dead Island 2 presents as a very well-put-together product that hides its battle scars well. 

If I have one issue with Dead Island 2, it is that it perhaps played it a little too safe. Over the years I have come to really enjoy this sub-genre of action titles and at the moment Dying Light 2 is probably the pinnacle of it. Dead Island 2 could have been the top dog had it taken a few risks but as it is, it stuck to a fairly familiar pattern. Had there been something to set it apart in a greater way this could have been in the award season conversations. As it is I feel like it will be fondly remembered but otherwise forgotten by the time those chats start happening. I understand why though, in a lot of cases it is better to perfect an existing formula as opposed to adding the risk of breaking it and that is exactly what Dambuster has chosen to do. 

I can say however that very few games surprise me as much as Dead Island 2 has. It wears its heart on its sleeve and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable horror comedy romp that knows exactly what it wants to be and sticks the landing. The fact it is in such good shape is an absolute testament to how much work Dambuster have put into this and the higher-ups at Plaion should be applauded for giving them all the time they needed to deliver. This is the sort of game I feel we need more of in this increasingly open-world, games-as-a-service industry. One that has a clear beginning and end, one that has a fun story and one that knows that every game isn’t meant to be played forever so just make the ride a blast. If that is the sort of thing that appeals to you, give Dead Island 2 a chance, there is every reason to believe it will surprise you as much as it surprised me. 

Dead Island 2 was reviewed on the PS5 with code kindly supplied by Plaion ANZ

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