Games labeled as being in "development hell" rarely release in a state anyone would want to experience--if they release at all. With Dead Island 2, however, Dambuster Studios kicks away a decade of dev hell problems like they’re a zombie lunging for its throat to deliver an undead RPG that is surely imperfect, but also enjoyable and even inventive.
Dead Island 2 is a first-person action-RPG set against the backdrop of the same zombie plague that caused mayhem in the original game's story. It moves the series away from its fictional island of Banoi and brings it to Los Angeles--which, you may recall, is definitely not an island. It's an odd move given the franchise's name, but a forgivable one once you begin to explore, as the semi-open world of the game's story and setting prove to be one of its greatest aspects.
None of the game's many locations are massive, but several of them are big enough, and regardless of its size, each zone is full of secrets, side quests, and plenty of reasons to stray from the main path. Dead Island 2 shirks a true sandbox-style open world in favor of smaller but more authored locales with far fewer repeating elements. It's ultimately a benefit to the game, as it tends to strike an engrossing balance between width and depth.
The game's world design relies on indirect routes. While exploring the pier, fences will cause you to duck through the arcade and past the bumper cars to get to the other end, creating new set pieces and keeping you zig-zagging through the unpredictable world. On the beach, storefronts are often explorable, rewarding you with great weapons, cash for upgrades, or other optional secrets. There are few straight paths through LA, and around every corner you'll find more monsters and the treasures they loom over. Backtracking is common, especially when tackling the game's 40+ side missions alongside its 24 main quests. Your first time through any zone, you won't be able to see and do everything, and the many locked doors you'll leave behind make retreading your steps a rewarding effort, as side quests open up new avenues consistently.
Getting through the world of "HELL-A" isn't just about walking the Venice Beach boardwalk or trekking down the lavish Beverly Hills. Chiefly, it's about bludgeoning, beheading, maiming, or otherwise decommissioning the countless zombies who get in your way. Dead Island 2 does an excellent job of evolving its first-person combat by way of both ample enemy and weapon variety, as well as a satisfying combat system that feels weighty and well-considered. I was still discovering new weapons even after I beat the main story, including some named weapons that represent the game's best loot available. Each weapon, be it a firefighter's axe, a wrench, a baseball bat, or one of many others, feels different, and the crafting system contains dozens of blueprints that can customize each weapon several times over, giving them familiar but still exciting status effects, as well as buffs to your chosen "Slayer" of the game's roster of six heroes.
With so much weapon variety, the zombies do well to match. The early distinction between walkers, runners, and shamblers doesn't take long to give way to hulk-like crushers, disorienting screamers, and much more. Dambuster stays true to the mythos of the original game by reintroducing many of the same classes of zombies, albeit now with more variety in their unique immunities, like electrified screamers who can't be killed with electricity since, well, that's already their whole deal. Even then, the game also introduces several new types of undead not previously seen in the series, too.
Adding weight and variety to the combat is great, but it's not really new to the genre. Dead Island 2's secret weapon is its highly detailed damage model--something Dambuster can hang its hat on. Every single enemy in the game exists like the world's grossest onion, with each layer able to be peeled away via katana, mallet, or anything else you'll equip.
Smash a zombie with a baton and the skull will crumble away to reveal the brain, or perhaps their jaw will hang loose like keys on a lanyard. Frying them to a crisp with electricity or melting away their skin with an in-universe sludge called Caustic-X will provide markedly different results. This makes it so not only do you need to consider how and where to inflict damage upon every single enemy in the game, but every slash, gash, and bash will be accounted for. It's unlike anything I've seen in a zombie game, and I've played dozens of them. I've never really been into gore for gore's sake, but even I'll admit that there's a special type of flair to punching a hole through the head of a zombie with homemade Wolverine claws that you just don't see in the genre very much, regardless of the medium.
Combining all of the exciting weapons with the highly varied hordes of zombies makes each encounter a conscious effort. Rarely is it the case where you can turn your brain off and bash through a collection of undead to get to an objective they're blocking. Each fight takes a concerted, thoughtful approach--and to my surprise, it stays tough all the way through.
All this praise is not without some caveats, however. For one, that difficulty can sometimes wade into feeling unfair. Enemies spawn quickly, and the game rarely lets you rest. In the game's two- or three-player co-op, this is usually fine, as you have helping hands, and it gives the world a sense of insecurity that a zombie plague should provide. But in single-player, some of the encounters, as well as the relentless enemy-spawning, may leave you feeling like you're swimming upstream in a river of blood and viscera. Sometimes a particular enemy will be the focus of your objective, and though the game does well to telegraph this, it can be tough to push through the horde to get to the one whose re-death will actually halt the horde from persisting.
Secondly, none of my praise for the game's melee combat can be applied to its gunplay. Guns start to crop up in the game about a third of the way through the story, and though there is also plenty of variety in these weapons--made deeper by player-driven customizations--guns are unwieldy and often feel like a liability. Oddly, they feel better to use when fired from the hip rather than aiming down their sights.There's a cumbersome unpredictability whenever the sight is used, which creates a discrepancy between where you were targeting from the hip and where you may then be targeting from the sight. It behaves like recoil that occurs before you've even fired a shot. This slows down gunplay as it means constantly re-lining up shots whenever you choose to aim in the first place, and though that should at least mean the shotguns of the world are fine since they hardly require aiming, they always felt underpowered.
The game's best gun, the hunting rifle, was my go-to when I felt like I had to use any firearms, but even then I'd just try to line up headshots from the hip, knowing that aiming more than that would likely just cause me to waste ammo. Still, you can feasibly beat the game using few to no guns at all, and you may be better off for it.
Exploration, combat, and upgrades all shine, which is helpful when the story is so forgettable. Though the sequel is written by a different team than the original, Dead Island 2's writing suffers from problems that tie them together like a familiar bouquet of unexplained motivations, grating dialogue, and a bad final act that races past a would-be charming level of campiness and crashes into groan-inducing territory.
I would be hard-pressed to name nearly any character other than my selected hero, Amy, or Sam B., who reprises his role from the first game. A fictional actor named Emma Jaunt plays a central part, too, and a shadowy legion of anti-heroes routinely pops up to mime narrative intrigue, but none of it amounts to anything.
The spirit of the story is fun in a Grand Theft Auto sort of way, in that it targets, above all others, rich American socialites as the butt of its jokes. Though some of these characters are made out to be good people, the writing often revels in sending zombie teeth barreling for the jugulars of streamers, actors, and others deemed to be the vapid wealthy elite. But this is merely the air of storytelling. It lets the world feel lived in, and it actually makes some of the many collectibles enjoyable to read, but whenever cutscenes would threaten to tell a story, I found myself groaning like the undead.
For a game in development for more than a decade, it's a minor miracle for Dead Island 2 to come out at all. The fact that it's arrived in such a state that players can have fun with it for the duration of its story and beyond--even as that story itself is an afterthought--is a testament to the team that got it to a once-unlikely finish line. Along with the lackluster story, poor gunplay and some balancing issues hurt Dead Island 2, but its deep melee combat systems and rich setting make it a better game than the original, which is maybe the most important thing I can say about it after everything it's been through.