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Dead Island 2 preview: maim to fame

We've played the first 14 missions of Dead Island 2, and it's shaping up to be a strong zombie-bursting adventure
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It’s totally understandable to have doubts about Dead Island 2. Technically this game was announced nine years ago, with three different development teams being in charge of the project over that time. Usually, that’s not a good sign, but the British Dambuster Studios (formerly Crytek UK, and Free Radical Design before that) has done an incredible job of reanimating the shambling corpse of this series and giving us all a reason to care again.

Dead Island 2 brings back what people love about Dead Island – surviving while smashing zombies to pieces. Pieces being the operative word here: zombies don’t just take damage and die, each of their limbs takes damage individually. Keep hitting a zombie’s arm, and eventually, the flesh and viscera will pop and burst away from the bone – or the limb will come away from its torso entirely. Weapons have a Force stat, and more Force gives you more of a chance to knock a zombie over, stagger them, or splatter them to pieces entirely. You can even test this fun limb damage mechanic by punching away at a corpse on the floor, seeing as the limbs, torso, and bones come to pieces.

It’s a fun mechanic. It makes combat feel dynamic as you literally disarm enemies. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe taking out some legs and then maintaining distance will give you the edge you need in a fight. Make no mistake: smashing away at a shambling corpse as it comes apart at the seams feels great – as long as it lasts.

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But Dead Island 2 is a fair bit different from its predecessor, and many other games in the zombie-action genre. That counts as a genre, right? For one, it’s not open world (nor does it take place on an island), instead presenting the player with expansive stages with multiple routes and plenty of optional things to discover, connected to one another through loading screens. Progressing through a stage for the first time feels great. Everything is perfectly paced, with zombies popping up at just the right times to keep combat feeling interesting. Backtracking through a stage to return to your home base is never as fun, mind.

Your home base throughout the preview period that we played is the home of Emma Jaunt, a Hollywood actor. You’ll meet a variety of survivors out in the open world and you can have them return to Emma’s house, where you’ll gather quite the gang of freaks. The cast isn’t immediately loveable by any means, but the performances for these over-the-top caricatures are great, and I found myself to be a particular fan of the British Slayer, Jacob.

There are multiple playable Slayers in the game, each with their own personality – though, one you see cutscenes from the perspectives of two different Slayers, you start to see the cracks form. Each Slayer has a distinct personality and their own voice lines, but every other character in the room will follow the same script as ever, as if they only hear what they want to hear. Though it really does manage to be convincing enough if you play with just one character. Each Slayer also has unique abilities in battle, like doing more damage in a lengthy combo, or extra defense.

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Slayers can be customized further to match your playstyle, as Skill Cards offer bonuses for dodging, countering, using projectiles, and more. If you want to nail down a playstyle that allows you to do maximum damage, then building a complementary Slayer with a specific selection of Skill Cards will allow you to do that.

It all feeds back into that core combat system which sees you tearing zombies limb from limb. As long as those zombies are relatively weak, it feels genuinely great, and when you’re up against a crowd, it’s time to think about elemental solutions. Elemental forces are everywhere in the game world, from pools filled with poison to malfunctioning electronics ready to provide a spark at any time.

Sometimes you can improvise elemental attacks, but tossing a water can at a group of zombies near an electrical outlet, or you can use pre-set traps in the environment, like a film set equipped with sprinklers and overhead electric lights that you can drop with a switch. Pulling off a big elemental attack is always satisfying, and is sure to give you the advantage in battle. Similarly, you can combine “curveball” projectile attacks, like a meat bomb to lure zombies together, along with a pipe bomb to blow them apart.

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Taking out weaker zombies by themselves or in crowds is great fun, but things come apart slightly when you’re up against tougher creatures. When you’re up against a boss with a stack of HP, you’ll find those swipes that bowled over crowds of the undead previously now barely scratches a tough foe.

This is partially an RPG, and the usual trappings are here. Weapons have individual levels, your character level needs to be appropriate, and if you’ve been just cruising through main areas without exploring and completing optional objectives, you probably won’t be powerful enough for the bigger, meaner enemies up ahead.

You can upgrade the levels of your weapons at a workbench, but it’s an expensive process, meaning you won’t be able to apply it to your entire inventory. This is usually an incentive to run off elsewhere and level up before returning, but the abandonment of the usual open world formula means this is a bit more difficult than it is in other RPG hybrids.

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It’s a sour note to leave off on, but Dead Island 2 does so much right that we’re excited to see how things pan out in the full game. The environments look gorgeous, and the level-based structure feels refreshing after dozens of similar post-apocalyptic open world games we’ve seen over the years. Fingers crossed Dead Island 2 sticks the landing and becomes a real contender in 2023.