Dead Island 2 Review – Welcome to Hell-A

“Welcome to Hell-A!” reads Dead Island 2’s slogan, and with that it wears its ambitions, setting and vibe fully on its sleeve. This zombie carnage in sunny California does exactly what it promises in a vibrant location with gruesome visuals. Alone or with multiple people; it becomes a gory trek through L.A. that is a lot of fun, but can ultimately feel a bit monotonous.

As in my recent preview could already be read, it’s a small miracle that after all these years we still get a real successor to the interesting Dead Island which appeared in 2011 for PC and consoles: a zombie game, where the focus is on melee attacks from a first-person perspective – laced with dark humor. Three years later, we saw a humorous trailer of a jogger running hard along the beach and boulevard in Los Angeles with iPod and all while zombie mayhem breaks out around him. Still worth a look, because even though this project stalled and changed hands several times, it is the epitome of what this Dead Island 2 made by Dambuster Studios is. It delivers brutal action, takes itself far from seriously and is a literal memory generator with moments that only occur in your game.

So brutal

Because we absolutely cannot ignore the brutality and you had probably already noticed it in several trailers. What Dambuster has done with the combat and especially the so-called Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids, or FLESH, is truly from another world. Bones break, limbs can be removed and heads slapped away. Therefore, the emphasis on melee weapons made me feel that everything I did had real impact. Like the loud pop of a jaw I knocked loose with a steel pipe, after which the zombie continued on its way with the thing dangling from its skull. Or the crack of legs I swept out from under a running zombie with a crowbar only to crush his head under my foot with a splattering punch.

Dead Island 2 knows the sadist in you enjoys this and fuels the power fantasy of knocking hordes of zombies off you in gruesome ways. For example, holding down the attack button causes a heavier attack, which in the case of a boxing punch caused my entire hand to disappear into the zombie’s face. Also, the way a zombie shuffles on with a dangling broken arm and legless zombies keep crawling toward you feels intimidating and thus delightful to deal with.

Improvise, adapt, overcome

A large arsenal of existing and improvised weapons can be found, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses. From lead pipes to billiard cues and butcher knives to demolition hammers; there is plenty to bash undead brains with. To make this more interesting, there is the ability to upgrade these weapons on workbenches based on blueprints and with the materials you find. Weapons have a number of slots to add things. Think about adding more crit damage or damage from a particular element to the attack. Easy answers, of course, are the ability to electrify your battle weapon or add a gas burner to it so that the red heated blade also does fire damage – something that should certainly be exploited heavily later on in situations with lots of zombies! Don’t overlook Bleed either, where coarse serrations ensure that hit zombies continue to bleed for extra damage.

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Not everything is just a clear benefit, as some weapon enhancements have tradeoffs. For example, I could choose to do more damage but have the weapon wear out or break faster. Or what about a higher attack speed in exchange for lower damage, where you have to consider per weapon whether it pays off or not. Firearms are present, albeit not ubiquitous and only in the second half of the game. Here, too, there is a difference in power. An assault rifle does more damage at a distance than a shotgun and works very well if you put an element on it. Not everything is up to the firearms standards you expect and I found a Nail Gun on the beach in Venice Beach, for example, to provide zombie nests with some extra reinforcement.

Boredom strikes

Nyou all sound top-notch, and for the longest time I experienced this in Dead Island 2. Still, there comes a point where I had to admit that there is little variety in what you do. The zombie carnage with physical attacks is only occasionally shaken up by light puzzle elements such as getting certain pumps in the sewers to the right pressure or putting a fuse in a meter box. I also noticed how my own irritation level rose in yet another environment where I had to look for x number of unmarked clues before the story (which as you expect is not much, but at the same time doesn’t have to be) could continue. The physical activities your character does through the 15 to 20 hours of Dead Island 2 consist of slapping, collecting loot and running to the next thing. Rinse and repeat.

Original Dead Island developer Techland knew that this formula couldn’t stay interesting for long and created its own vision of what a zombie game could be with Dying Light. It introduced course action to increase mobility. Dead Island 2 offers none of this and delivers in the first 10 minutes what it does in the last 10. Now, not every game needs to completely reinvent the wheel, but more variety remains a must. For example, whacking zombies did start to bother me after eight hours. The fury system from the original and expansion, where your zombie blood activates and you drive everything to pieces as a powerful monster, returns but is sporadic and short to really shake things up. What doesn’t help is how the automatically generated zombies are often identical, causing several of the exact same-looking undead to attack you. This somewhat breaks the illusion of ordinary residents who suddenly had to take to the streets for brains.

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Setting and the action keeps it afloat

The whole thing is saved by the sunny and unique setting, which especially in the second half goes all out with gym dudes and beach babes. Hollywood, Bel Air, Ocean Avenue and the pier; all the classics pass by, feel authentic and the whole atmosphere it breathes is up and coming West Coast. Except for some sewers, there are hardly any dark sections to be found in the game, although there are story moments that take place at night. You spend most of your time under clear blue skies, which makes Dead Island 2 feel very different from its peers. At its strongest it is in the stories it tells without words, such as the looted houses and overrun stores where business was done until the bloody events took place.

Our slayers who complete the carnage and wish to be the salvation of humanity through their immunity to the zombie virus differ in skills. Whereas strong stripper Ryan can take more hits, Amy on the other hand is fast and dealer Bruno has to rely on backstabbing. For the story, it doesn’t matter other than the voice you hear and the arms you see. I did find it confusing to be constantly referred to as they, while Ryan – who I played with this time – is the most sparkling example of the cis, white straight man you can imagine. Whereas with punk Dani I still thought this was a nice inclusivity thing, so this is just laziness on the part of the audio department. The distribution of skills based on the cards you unlock did little for me to be honest; many turned out to be small boosts or extras in areas I had little use for to really matter. Only a shockwave when using a medkit and card that ignites a groundpound in dire situations made a difference in my playthrough. This could have been a great thing, but Dead Island 2 turns it into little more than cool art to collect.

Basically, Dead Island 2 does exactly what you expect it to do, but with modern graphics and more impactful controls and effects. You feel every blow of the hammer against bone and how the zombies react to the blows is more realistic and in a dark way also more hilarious than ever. Customizing weapons leads to experimentation and gruesome but funny scenes. Enemies are diverse enough in types, but still sometimes double in your view – where with its LA setting it has just the room to be grand, colorful and diverse. Still, I couldn’t escape the fact that Dead Island 2 starts to feel like a repetition exercise after a while. One where eventually even the most gruesome killings start to feel boring.

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