It wasn't until two hours or so into my seven hours with Dead Island 2 when I finally understood that the linear nature of the game wasn't just part of the tutorial, and that Dambuster Studios' game wasn't going to eventually swing its proverbial doors open and reveal to me the sandbox I was looking for. Action-RPGs, especially zombie-centric ones, have so often utilized an open-world setting over the past 15 years that it was, for a good while, jarring to see that Dead Island 2 isn't actually the latest in a long line of them. That took some mental remapping of what this game is going to be, and while I do find the smaller scope disappointing, it's not without its benefits too.
In my hands-on time with the game, I visited several areas, including the disgustingly wealthy Bel-Air, a dilapidated but probably once five-star hotel, and a formerly proud movie studio. Sometimes the way these areas would snake around surrounded by unclimbable walls felt very restrictive, closer to a game as tightly set as BioShock rather than even the original Dead Island's large hubs. While this is a much more linear game than its predecessors, there are many optional nooks in each area. I encountered many locked rooms, safes, and loot caches that would each require further investigating or even backtracking, some of which wasn't possible in my limited demo. These side attractions, be they puzzles or just temporarily inaccessible, gave me the sense that, though the world was narrower, it was also sometimes deeper.
A great example came about an hour into the game, when I trekked down the Hollywood Hills and found myself in a luxurious home/studio belonging to a media group of online influencers--rich Gen Z kids with podcasts, basically. I had to pass through this as part of the main campaign, but I could do just that--find the key and move along. Instead, I explored the space and found a lot of environmental storytelling that felt deeper than anything in the original game, and perhaps deeper than this game could've had if it hadn't ditched the sandbox.
The glass-paneled McMansion, done up with a spiral staircase, a bowling alley, and basement bar led out to an elaborate sun- and blood-soaked poolside turntable and home gym. Sports cars littered the sizable parking area, and a recording room told me about the streamers who once solicited subs and donations there. It would've been a lavish place if not for the fact that its former denizens were now shambling in and around the pool, stopping to sometimes eat the flesh of victims long since left baking in the California sun.
My favorite detail, however, was a whiteboard that contained a scripted apology that a resident influencer was tasked with delivering to their fans in the early days following the zombie outbreak. The text of the apology implied the influencer was downplaying the outbreak to their fans--"truthing" it like we see so often in the real world when irresponsible people with microphones convince others to believe bad ideas. The apology script even included prompts of when to cry and told the influencer to feign sincerity. The snapshot of a world of spoiled brats who once lived in excess now ripped and torn apart by the undead was as cynical of modern culture as Grand Theft Auto has been for decades, and enriched the world with character and history I didn't anticipate.
The original Dead Island was a much wider world, but Dead Island 2 feels fuller, tucking away more stories in its limited space. A boss battle with a hulking undead bride left roaming a reception on the day of the outbreak was another highlight, as the bout did two things effectively: introduced one of the game's mini-boss zombie classes, which would thereafter appear commonly, and reminded me of its unserious tone as I found myself "dancing" with the bride to the tune of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Sad Wedding"--a banger in any context, but here it became emblematic of the dark humor that colors the whole world of Dead Island 2.
Environmental storytelling is what might save the game from criticism regarding its shrunken world, but it's clear Dambuster wants the focal point of the game to be its combat anyway. Bashing zombie skulls and slashing off their legs isn't a novel mechanic in video games, but Dead Island 2 does it better than many others, and cleverly adds layers--literally--to this process. Weapons come in different varieties, including maiming, headhunting, and frenzy. These denote how they feel to use and what they'll do to the undead. Headhunting weapons provide blunt force, maiming weapons are slower, but great for keeping groups of zombies out of your personal space or taking off their limbs, and frenzy weapons allow for fast slashing and dashing. A good zombie-killer will carry several of each in their weapon wheel and swap them out regularly for hordes of different sizes and shapes.
As you attack the monsters, their bodies will deconstruct with great detail. Bludgeon them in the face and their jaw may hang off like a loose door hinge or their skin will peel away to reveal red flesh, bones, and eventually brains underneath, like peeling back the world's least appetizing onion. You can even take off their arms to save yourself from being grabbed. Each cut and whack leaves marks, making each zombie kill feel up close and grotesque in the game's first-person perspective. While I expect the game will eventually move into being a power fantasy, I was glad to see that taking on even just two or three zombies at a time proved challenging, which meant I had to strategize how to bob, weave, hack, and slash with each group of zombies in order to stay on my feet.
It's not just melee combat the game wants to empower you with, but a variety of environmental kills, too. From sparking a gas leak with a homemade electrified weapon you can craft at a workbench, to kicking them into a pool full of military-grade poisonous sludge that causes their skin to melt off like ice cream in the sun, the game begs for your creativity--so much so that it can feel too heavy-handed at times. Coming upon a horde of zombies not yet aware of me and standing next to a bunch of red barrels doesn't make me feel crafty. It feels like I'm pushing a big glowing action button placed in front of me. Other encounters are less telegraphed, however, and do a better job of giving me the tools for destruction, without the unnecessary instructions. Combining my modded weapons, throwables like bait and pipe bombs, and things lying around such as gas canisters or would-be electrical hazards helps keep the combat interesting, and it's all made better by being tougher than I expected.
Co-op wasn't available in my demo, but the game's three-player option means a full team can load out with half of the game's cast. Each of the six characters has their own personality, voice lines, and starting stats. Though you can't swap one out for another on the same save file, I made time for an additional character to see how differently they play. Characters have their own special abilities, and though many of the unlockable skill cards are universal, some are specific to certain characters, which should mean that character and team builds are worth consideration. One thing that was the same across both my characters, Amy and Dani, was that they suffered from the video game trope of a lonesome hero talking to themself way too much, but I suspect in co-op those lines will be drowned out by real-life chatter anyway.
In all, my time with Dead Island 2 could be neatly divided in three: the first portion, in which I awaited the linear intro to give way to the sandbox, the longer period once I realized it wasn't coming, and the time in between, where I had to actively recalibrate my expectations. An open-world setting does not inherently make a game better, but I--and likely many others--were reasonably expecting to find one here. Hopefully reading this affords you the ability to recalibrate ahead of time, because I do think that if you can approach it on its own terms, not those assumed by the makeup of the first game or implied by past collaborators on its long road to release, there's reason to believe that Dead Island 2 has managed to escape development hell.
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