Platforms: Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC
Los Angeles has really gone to hell. Also, in the fictional world of Dead Island 2, it’s infested with the shambling undead. Zing! Jokes aside, everything about this zombie-slaying action RPG seems to stem from a not-so-subtle condemnation of real-life LA. Whether it's the dominance Hollywood holds over the city, the exploitation of the poor, or an infestation of terminally shallow and overly rich social media influencers, the game has satirical ambitions for its vision of the zombie apocalypse, but its ability to land punchy observations falls far short of George Romero's blunt social commentary.
A lack of depth in all forms is perhaps the biggest problem here. After nearly a decade in development hell – the game was initially announced in 2014 with Yager set to develop, before the studio was removed and replaced by Sumo Digital in 2016, only to be replaced in turn by Dambuster Studios in 2019 – Dead Island 2 has a franchise's hopes riding on it. Unfortunately, it feels stuck in the past, remixing ideas found in both its own predecessors and rival games in the genre, but without anything captivating enough to leave players wanting more by the time the credits roll.
As one of six playable survivors who walk away from a doomed flight out of an already overrun "Hell-A", you'll find yourself swept up in familiar motions – learning you're somehow immune to infection, rescuing survivors, and mowing down the undead with increasing gusto. In keeping with the ‘LA is awful’ theme, few of the survivors you'll meet are what you’d call worth saving – a demanding actress, a bunch of stoner bros, a live-streamer who thinks her #content and #brand is the most important thing in the apocalypse – which makes the early hours of the game more annoying than humorous, as was likely the intent. However, a talented cast of voice actors do at least imbue the toxic characters with some entertaining presence, while Dambuster’s writers eventually steer the story into more interesting territory than a mere excuse to hack-and-slash through hordes of undead.
Some delightfully gory finishing moves spruce things up, but it's a distraction from repetitive combat encounters.
That said, you will be doing a lot of hacking and slashing. Dead Island 2's combat places a heavy emphasis on melee combat, with a fanciful array of weaponry that can be further customised with elemental modifications, if you've found the right blueprints and scavenged enough materials during your rampages through the city. A pair of Wolverine-style claws can be tricked out to spew a caustic solution that dissolves the undead with each slash. And why not rig a battery up to a sword, to deliver electric shocks with every strike? It creates a sense that you've more agency and control over taking out zombies than you do.
In practice, whichever mods or perks you've equipped, combat ultimately remains a matter of hammering the right-hand trigger to deliver as much damage as possible. The only tactical element is accounting for enemy types – flaming weapons won't affect burning zombies, for example – while the main application of skill comes from pulling off well-timed blocks that create openings to attack, or vaguely aiming bladed weapons to lop off limbs and limit enemy attacks. Some delightfully gory finishing moves spruce things up, but there's only so many times you can punch clear through a zombie's rotting head before you realise it's a distraction from repetitive combat encounters.
Pleasantly for the genre, guns aren't available until several hours in, and when they do finally make an appearance, they're not the game-changing element you may expect. While the ability to aim allows you to deliver targeted damage to armoured zombies – those who were firefighters in life, for instance, whose protective gear still shields them from conventional blows, or setting off grenades carried by former soldiers – ammo is typically limited. Whether you're focusing on melee or ranged combat, every weapon in Dead Island 2 is governed by the game's RPG mechanics. Power is determined by item level and what modifications or perks you've applied, so a well-customised combat knife may prove more powerful than an assault rifle. It's a great way to keep you juggling your loadout, and making sure you have a variety of tools at your disposal.
Weapon play is balanced by character skills, which mix up the hacking with abilities – such as a powerful ground slam, to knock enemies off their feet, or Fury attacks – unlocked roughly midway through – that offer immunity from zombification. On top of these, each character has a pair of unique attributes, and a deck of Skill Cards, to allow their play style to be customised to player preference. It's not quite as intuitive as a skill tree, but it does allow for completely re-speccing your character at any point without cost, and experimenting with which cards and skills best complement your play style.
Ultimately, though, an impressive variety of undead enemies and some gorgeously-realised locations end up feeling like little more than Hollywood glamour; special effects to obscure how uninspired the trek you'll be undertaking really is. A few stand-out set pieces – including one on a movie set loomed over by a giant spider animatronic – and some interesting character abilities elevate the production enough to be an entertaining distraction. But much like its LA setting, Dead Island 2 largely proves to be style over substance.