“Dead Island 2,” the upcoming first-person zombie action extravaganza with more flying body parts than lines of dialogue, is for hardcore undead-heads only. It’s a messy game; I don’t just mean bloodshed. The physics are often frustratingly weird in a game that relies heavily on melee combat, and a lot of the game feels clunky and unrefined, especially around the edges. It’s best approached as more of an arcade experience like “House of the Dead” than a film-inspired one like “The Last of Us, Part 1” or “Resident Evil 4.” Want to smash zombie heads with a hammer? Light them on fire? Shock them with electricity? Burn them with acid? Well, I’ve got a game for you, as long as you don’t mind the inherent silliness leading to some inherent laziness in storytelling, mission design, and repetitive settings. “Dead Island 2” is an undeniably, intentionally goofy game, and that’s a double-edged sword in that it works when approached as shallow, explosive escapism but falls apart like a zombie shedding its limbs under the slightest scrutiny.
The game opens with the selection of a Slayer (I went with Jacob), which you will be tied to for the rest of the game—instantly a frustrating choice because I wish I could expand on how all of the options differ in terms of play, but my suspicion is that the differences are relatively minimal (a bit more strength, a bit more stamina, etc.) “Dead Island 2” constantly gives the gamer at least the impression of choice. You pick a slayer; you pick your weapons; you pick from a variety of Skill cards found throughout the game that give you different strengths and weaknesses. Like most action-based games, it promises an experience that can be customized to your style of play. However, many of these customizable options barely differ, giving an illusion of choice when the game will play out largely the same for most who play it. It’s not like there are options that make stealth or strategy legitimate choices. It’s all based on the carnage.
That carnage unfolds in a version of Los Angeles called “HELL-A,” a place filled with what are largely fetch quests through a zombie-strewn landscape. Most of the missions consist of finding someone or something and then returning to a safe home base to repair or upgrade the weapons you found along the way. The game is driven by smashing zombies with your favorite tool. For hours, it’s purely melee-based, meaning you’ll watch weapons like axes, knives, hammers, and even street poles impale themselves into zombie heads. The game will eventually give you firepower, and that really opens the game up to a bit of strategy because ammo is relatively limited in this world. You’ll learn what sharp weapon to use on minor, easily defeated enemies and when to switch to your upgraded shotgun for the tough guys. (I vastly preferred weapons with a little reach, like my trusty pitchfork, because anything more close-combat, like a knife, allows the enemies too much proximity.) You will also have two very-handy, rechargeable consumables to swap out as you find new toys. A grenade and a nail bomb became my best friends.
Weapons in “Dead Island 2” degrade with use and will eventually stop being functional until you can get to a safe space to repair them. These workbenches become the key to the game, allowing for repair and breaking down weapons you don’t use for parts, fabricating consumable items, and upgrading the weapons you have with dozens of mods. The “scavenger” aspect of “DI2” is its most strategy driven. If you use parts to upgrade one weapon, you won’t have them for the next cool thing you find. However, like many loot-based RPGs, it all starts to blend to a certain degree. For the most part, you’ll constantly be scrapping or selling old weapons to make space for the new ones you found on the last mission.
As you level up in “Dead Island 2” or through the many side quests, you will find skill cards in four categories—Abilities, Survivor, Slayer, and Numen. You will eventually have 15 slots open, plus two cards tied to your slayer choice at the beginning. There’s some fun to be had in swapping out cards and making choices as you do so. Are you willing to sacrifice some stamina for more power? When you enable Fury Mode, do you want to scream or spit acid? Again, some of these choices feel purely cosmetic, but that’s not uncommon in RPG games like this one. It’s just another “Dead Island 2” element that’s cool in theory but could have been developed into something richer. The Skill Cards could have made for entirely different experiences, but it feels like they barely tweak the core gameplay everyone will encounter.
“Dead Island 2” dips its toe into cinematic zombie culture, but it’s mostly just through references to iconic genre creators. For example, you’ll hole up in a building named Serling (as in Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone”), and it’s hard to miss the red-carpet set-up for something called the “Romeros” (as in George A. Romero, the king of the genre). There’s a version of this game that incorporates what Romero did into more than just a name-drop, but this isn’t ambitious enough to be that. And it doesn’t help that the settings are sometimes incomplete, especially some mid-game underground ones that really show off the relatively dated graphics. Sometimes, “Dead Island 2” doesn’t look like a current-gen game.
Having said that, I enjoyed playing “Dead Island 2”—completing the whole story and about half the side missions as of this writing—even as I found its lack of ambition frustrating. So much of what’s around the action in this game is half-developed, but that allows for the gamer to focus purely on the action, and there’s something inherently fun about becoming the baddest zombie slayer on the West Coast for a few hours. Could “Dead Island 2” have been more? For sure. I genuinely think it could have found a balance between something more complex/ambitious and the “ARGH” B-movie approach of the final product. Maybe that will happen in “Dead Island 3.” But the truth is that I’ll probably enjoy that one, too, even if it doesn’t.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. "Dead Island 2" releases Friday, April 21st.