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Dead Island 2 review: dead in the water

Dead Island 2 underwhelms, even if it is an improvement on some other recent zombie games
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Dead Island 2 opens with an over-the-top montage of all the possible player characters scrambling to board an evacuation flight out of Los Angeles. That scene oozes personality and excitement, setting the scene for a bombastic, exciting story. Or at least it would, if it followed through on that vibe for even a single moment after the plane crashes and the opening cutscene ends.

The story we get, instead, is about as full of life as the reanimated corpses clawing at your eyes. There’s a hotshot celebrity who wants to escape the zombie-filled LA, surrounded by an unlikely gang consisting of a yes-man, a cleaner, and a handyman. Throw an ex-boyfriend into the mix, and you’ve got… nothing. It’s a boring cast of main characters, even if one of those characters is a returning star from previous games.

It’s hard to overstate exactly how dull they are, and how little is done with it. I could envision a game in which this scrappy crew has conflict and drama among them, but the closest you get is the sycophantic yes-man not entirely approving of the ex-boyfriend, and there’s zero depth to that dynamic beyond some optional flavor text.

Dead Island 2 (6)

I think at least part of that comes down to how dialogue is handled across different characters. Because there are half a dozen different playable characters, each with their own personalities and their own reactions to the world, creating unique NPC dialogue for each character would be a gargantuan task. Instead, there’s just one set of recorded dialogue per conversation, and your character fills in the gaps on their end.

There are two major problems with this approach. The first, as previously alluded to, is that it massively limits the amount of depth NPC characters can have. Would Emma Jaunt, the socialite celebrity actor, react exactly the same to a sympathetic woman as she does a gruff, no-nonsense man? Probably not. But because of how dialogue is handled, she doesn’t have a choice.

The second major problem is that it makes a significant amount of the conversations you have completely nonsensical. One character I played as quietly comforted an NPC while they were having a difficult time, while another decided to crack jokes. The player dialogue doesn’t change how NPCs react, so both approaches were met with the exact same response, making the joke-cracking variant of the conversation seem completely unhinged.

Dead Island 2 is better than Dying Light 2

Look, they’re not directly comparable, but they’re both first-person games with crafting elements and zombies. Dying Light 2 was disappointing and forgettable on just about every level, and it was made even worse by following up on a game that was genuinely great. Dead Island 2 doesn’t beat it out by much, but it is, on the whole, a little bit more enjoyable.

Dead Island 2 is worse than Dead Island

I’m not going to sit here and tell you the original Dead Island was an amazing game by any means, but it was at least fresh, exciting, and somewhat original at the time of its release. Unfortunately, Dead Island 2 doesn’t capture that same feeling, instead feeling like a retread of a dozen games that came before it. 

That dialogue issue rears its head in other ways too, where player characters don’t engage with conversations that are happening around them. One conversation had me as Jacob talking to an old movie star, and confessing that his mum was a big fan of the star’s movies. I’m guessing that dialogue changes pretty significantly between characters, since the old star went on talking as if I hadn’t said a word.

It’s a shame, really, because the player characters have a lot of personality, and each one feels unique and well-rounded. They just exist in a world that acts as if they don’t exist, and no amount of characterisation can fix a bad approach to dialogue and storytelling.

As for the rest of the story, it’s pretty subdued for the first half of the game. You’re stuck in LA, find out you’re immune to the zombie virus, and then spend a few hours traveling to different areas of the city trying to secure an evacuation route. I won’t spoil what happens in the second half of the game, but folks, it’s quite bad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game nosedive its story quite as hard as Dead Island 2 does, as it quickly devolves into a nonsensical mess with no follow-through on what the first half of the game seems to be setting up.

Dead Island 2 (2)

Funnily enough, the gameplay has the opposite problem — it’s dreadful in the first half, and genuinely enjoyable in the second. That’s because the first half of the game is almost entirely focused on melee combat, and melee combat in this game feels half-baked at best.

The basic premise is that you’ll pick up a weapon in the world, mash the attack button while vaguely aiming at a zombie’s head, and press the dodge button every now and then if you’re getting hit too much. There are skills and perks that change small things, giving you a little bit of health when you time a dodge well or dealing more damage if you get a critical hit, but none of it changes the combat loop of aiming at a zombie’s head and going to town on the attack button.

That said, there is one saving grace to early/mid-game combat, and that’s curveballs. Curveballs are infinite throwable items, like bombs and throwing stars, that you can use to spice up combat in interesting ways. At first they’re not too exciting – one throws some rotten meat on the ground that draws zombies to it, the next simply does a bit of ranged damage – but as your arsenal expands you’ll find new and interesting ways to combine these curveballs.

For example, that meat bomb you get early on normally acts as a distraction, letting you have a moment of reprieve when faced with a large group of zombies. But then you unlock pipe bombs, and suddenly you can get zombies to gather around a single point, then throw a pipe bomb into that grouping to deal with a dozen zombies at once. Or you can chuck a water bomb to douse enemies in water, then follow it up with an electric throwing star to deal big electric damage.

The entire flow of the combat changes once you reach roughly halfway through the game, because you’re finally given access to guns. The gunplay in Dead Island 2 isn’t anything special, but after a dozen hours of slow, dull melee combat, it’s a saving grace that almost makes combat encounters enjoyable.

Dead Island 2 (4)

Ammo is fairly plentiful and easily craftable, and by the time you unlock guns you have the resources to craft as much as you need to get you through to the end of the game. It’s frankly astonishing that guns aren’t available from the get-go, as they’re far and away the best way to engage with the game’s many enemy types, while also making the most of the grisly and brutal gore system. Dead Island 2 would be a much better game if it dropped the melee aspect altogether.

All that aside, there are some positives to speak of too. There’s no denying that Dead Island 2 is a pretty game, with gorgeous world design and art direction. It’s a game that borders on realism, but it presents LA as the fantasy land that many who’ve seen it in film and TV imagine it as.

It’s a little bit foreign, a little bit magical, and exploring every nook and cranny has a certain charm to it that I think stems largely from the fact that LA is only recently taken by zombies. Where most zombie games seem to be set in ruined wastelands of once great cities, Dead Island 2 shows LA almost as it was before the zombies rose from the dead.

After a decade of troubled development, Dead Island 2 fails to offer anything new or substantive. Its middling melee combat, nonsensical story, and awkward dialogue choices all make playing it a slog, and even at its very best, it fails to rise above being merely inoffensive. It may be pretty, but that's not enough to save it from being a dull experience from start to finish.

Dead Island 2 (5)

Dead Island 2 technical breakdown

There’s really little to complain about on a technical level, and in my 20 or so hours with the game I only experienced a few very minor bugs. Those bugs didn’t affect gameplay, as they mostly just involved ragdolls doing silly things, and I am more than willing to be forgiving of inconsequential bugs that make me laugh.

Even on the Xbox Series S, I didn’t notice any frame drops or stutters, and the gameplay and visuals were smooth, clear, and consistent throughout. There are some strange issues with the audio though, where some ambient sounds like zombie screeching and footsteps were significantly louder than any other sound in the game, which could be disorienting at times.

Score: 5/10

  • Story and narrative: 3/10
  • Technical performance: 9/10
  • Art: 8/10
  • Audio and music: 5/10
  • Mechanics and systems: 4/10

Version tested: Xbox Series S

About the author

Oliver Brandt has been a keen fan of zombie games for close to two decades, and has fond, if fuzzy, memories of Dead Island and its sequel Riptide. They’re a regular contributor to Aussie sites Vooks and Maxi-Geek, and have written hundreds of reviews across a dozen different websites. Not every game clicks with them, but if it has zombies, interesting combat, and an exciting environment to explore, they’re willing to give it a try.