Dead Island 2 is a zombie hack-and-slash with an unnecessarily mysterious past. Its predecessor, Dead Island, established the series as a blood-soaked trough of B-movie sensibility, but a nine-year-long game of hot potato tossed sequel Dead Island 2 behind a curtain, obscuring it from the public after being announced, with Wizard of Oz bombast, at E3 in 2014.
The game you’ll get later this week, on April 21, is not that 2014 game, nor is it the astonishing product of nine years of arduous programming. Dan Evans-Lawes, technical director at publisher Deep Silver, said the game had “basically a complete restart” once it landed, finally, in developer Dambuster Studios’ hands. But I can forgive it for the wait. Dead Island 2 is an entertaining gorefest, and it only ever slips when it tries to be more than that.
I experience it all as Dani, one of six playable Slayers you select early in the game with innate skills (I choose Dani because she regains health for killing zombies in succession). I guide her in first-person around the game’s balmy but bleeding version of modern Los Angeles, occasionally seeing her long shadow, or her stained weapon, or her hands, which she stares at intently upon discovering zombie bites don’t immediately turn her to a maggoty killing machine.
She’s just a regular killing machine. I keep her running with skill cards I pick up around the city and from downed enemies, and add them to my editable deck, which is arranged in a four-card-tall half pyramid. The top of the pyramid, where the standard Abilities card type resides, has five total slots, then protective Survivor cards get four, and it decreases from there.
That might not sound like much room for tailor-making your Slayer, but I find it easy to work with. There are a huge amount of cards to discover and then choose from, all impacting certain aspects of your Slayer’s defensive, offensive, or Autophage qualities, those last being potent abilities that turn you into more of a zombie, at the expense of your health.
But I often ignore my full breadth of options. I like playing defense, so I keep early Abilities cards like Dodge, which stuns enemies when you avoid their attack, and Slayer cards like The Limb Reaper, which lets me maim a zombie for health, around for the entire game.
While certain enemies are resistant to certain types of attacks—a zombie in protective firefighter gear doesn’t care much for fire-based attacks, for example—skill cards change how you heal, hit, and kick in broad strokes. Improve your slide attack damage, press R3 to boost your jump kick, things like that. And since you can alter or add to your deck at any time, testing cards out always feels low stakes, unlike a skill tree or other type of level-up system that requires you spend non-refundable points. This hands-off approach makes sense for Dead Island 2, which definitely wants you to kill zombies, but doesn’t typically care how.
Because of this, whether I jog through the Santa Monica Pier’s soft sand, or on the ruined asphalt around abandoned hot dog carts in Venice Beach, or anywhere else in the game’s highly explorable (but not open-world) map of L.A., I don’t hesitate to hit swarms of roaming zombies with my flaming meat cleaver.
Or, usually my flaming meat cleaver, but my weapon wheel is constantly rotating. I discover more rare weapons as I progress through the game, and I fill their limited upgrade slots with the metal parts, blades, and other crafting materials I pick up around the cracking city. In an effort to find the most damaging upgrade combos, I also rig my weapons with ridiculous modifications through discovered blueprints and mutated body parts, like Leaky Implants and Infected Flesh, both of which allow for weapons like wakizashi swords to sparkle with electricity, or for shotgun bullets to deliver skin-melting, corrosive goo.
While filling out my skill card deck and experimenting with weapons, I quickly adjust to the game’s most common objective, “Kill ‘em all!”, and feel thankful I don’t get queasy at video game gore.
Video game carnage, to me, is an exhilaration safe zone for horror fans who can’t handle revolting shock sites and Cronenberg skin-ripping. I cannot handle those things, so Dead Island 2 is like entering air conditioning during a particularly suffocating summer, and I find comfortable delight in making consecutive hits and watching zombies reveal their meat, muscle, and bones. Aside from giving into a few yelps when an enemy lunges at me the moment I open a locked door, I’m never terrified by Dead Island 2, I’m sadistically amused.
Except for when I’m pissed. And I’m pissed during pretty much every Dead Island 2 boss fight, which, unlike its unconstrained, wild zombie fights, all disappointingly opt for some annoying gimmick I have to conform to. They’re difficult but, unlike the rest of the game, unpleasantly so, requiring me to rely on a dubious combination of luck and strategy instead of what I’m used to, raw force. (The previous games’ Fury Mode returns, letting Dani split enemies apart with her bare hands once I build the meter up through fights and consuming energy drinks.)
One boss fight suggests I use a number of button-controlled pyrotechnics to win, but the flames only affect the boss when it’s in the exact right location at the exact right time. Another, the Butcho clown fight described by reporters previewing the game last year, frustrates me even more.
Half of Butcho’s body is immune to attacks. He’s able to constantly regenerate health by feeding off of downed zombies, and more zombies slowly enter the arena as you fight, so Butcho has a never-ending food supply to heal with. I start to cry while struggling with Butcho in the middle of one sleepless night, and though I admit my clown phobia and the grating Goosebumps-type carnival song that plays during the fight wasn’t helping, I keep thinking about the difference between “get good” and unfair.
I ultimately defeat Butcho on what feels like a fluke, a couple of seconds where his body contorts and takes more damage for no obvious reason.
I think these more truly role-playing game-style fights drag Dead Island 2’s pacing down, and their difficulty level also make the game feel annoyingly skewed more toward its multiplayer function in crucial places. As a single player by circumstance (the game isn’t out yet!) I’m grateful for when I manage to beat them, so I can keep skipping along the game’s drama-and-guts-filled West Coast.
Drama and guts is what I want out of Dead Island 2. The game’s butchery is realistic enough, though, that I eventually get curious, and a little disturbed, about the satisfaction I receive in committing so much unreal slaughter. It is, however, hard not to be satisfied when the game keeps rewarding me.
Mass murder gets me XP toward leveling up, which happens automatically as I complete its 24 main chapters, some of its 33 available side quests, find missing persons, and receive challenge achievements. Dani’s health bar, damage dealt, and defense incrementally increase as I level up, which allows me to pursue tricky main story quests, access gate kept enemies (an out-of-your-league monster has a skull floating over its head), and “match” weapons to my level, bringing mainstays to new, heinous heights. Additionally, my previously locked skill card slots free themselves as Dani gets stronger.
I crunch on health-replenishing snack bars dropped by downed enemies to keep doing all of this. And as my Dani keeps killing, my zombie knowledge grows to the size of a medieval bestiary in a collectibles tab that tells me the kinds I’ve found—common Walkers susceptible to limb loss like leaves wilting off a desiccated rose, bulging Slobbers that projectile-vomit caustic slime, meathead Crushes that somewhat resemble the Liver King, and so on. I develop favorites (Incendiary Walkers carry gasoline canisters on their back, allowing me to create massive explosions when I hit them with one of my “curveball” projectiles) and least favorites (Butchers, which have arms like choked bone spurs and block almost every attack), but the diversity makes for intriguing, fluid combat in a game oversaturated with it.
But the game’s story, which is gradually revealed through notes I discover and by chatting with the game’s many personalities—people like a drunk, has-been rockstar and a chef trapped in zombie hell with his apron still on—recognizes my internal conflict about finding pleasure in power and violence’s unattractive reality.
Like when it leaves fast food wrappers on a table, or preschooler art taped to a fridge in a random, deserted apartment, for example. These details, and many of the game’s expertly collaged storylines, establish that this city was safe and alive only a few days ago. You are killing people. A brutal reality has forced you to act brutish.
So when environments look beautiful, it’s in this off-putting way that feels accurate to a sudden zombie apocalypse. Ambling beach monsters are shaded by descending peachy sunsets, and the game offers up nuanced textures for blood—congealed and shiny when dried to a wall, matte and expanded when sunken into patio furniture. It’s confusing. Dani is often confused by the decay around her, or, instead, she’s ferociously angry about the people with actual power, the governments and billionaires, who seem pleased to let death rule.
I love that this game offers a chain of semi-pure fun; it’s a fable with a lesson, if you want it to be, or regular zombie mayhem if you don’t. I’m only ever unhappy when Dead Island 2 boss fights pretzel it into something other than what it’s trained me to believe it is, a dopamine feed with cycling conflict and payoff.
Though, truthfully, the boss fights are infrequent enough that my overall enjoyment of the game stays shiny. Through its skillful environmental design and indulgent combat, Dead Island 2 is one of the best, most disgusting playgrounds I’ve ever played in.