STAFF REVIEW of Dead Island 2 (Xbox One)

Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
by Chad Goodmurphy

Dead Island 2 Box art Sometimes developers begin projects with great ideas and good intentions, just to have things fall apart or into ‘development hell’ after a period of time. We see it in gaming from time to time, and it likely happens more than we ever hear about. After all, all we generally find out about are the big and controversial ones. Granted, while some of those games have fallen by the wayside and been cancelled indefinitely, like Donkey Kong Racing and Starcraft Ghost, others have eventually seen the light of day after a long time in the pipeline, like Duke Nukem Forever.

After nearly a decade filled with promise, excitement and lots of uncertainty, another title has joined Duke’s last outing, with that being Dead Island 2. The much talked-about sequel to 2011’s Dead Island and 2013’s Dead Island: Riptide expansion – both of the Xbox 360 era, though they’ve since been remastered for Xbox One – Dead Island 2 is something we weren’t sure we’d ever see. In fact, many had considered it to be dead to rights prior to news that development was going to be taken over by Dambuster Studios.

Now that we’ve finally been able to take the game for a gore-filled spin, the question that must be answered is whether the wait was worth it. Thankfully, the answer to that question is yes. Dead Island 2 isn’t a broken mess, nor is it something that isn’t enjoyable to play, but that’s putting it simply and saying the least. Let’s expand upon all of this.

Things begin with a haunting video, which plays before the user even begins his or her journey into a zombie-filled version of California. Thanks to a very unique and well-chosen piece of music, it viscerally and audibly sets the tone for what’s to come. That is, a game that begins with a bunch of survivors doing whatever they can to get aboard a plane destined for safety. A way out of Hell-A, as they call it, where the dead walk the streets with brains and other body parts on their simple minds. It’s a state in ruin, wherein some sort of plague or apocalypse has taken root, threatening millions of unsuspecting citizen forged documents and undiscovered infections doom the plane and its peer for good, sending them plummeting to the ground while those inside fight for their lives. It’s around this time where Dead Island 2 picks up, allowing the player to choose from one of several different characters, before casting them as the most able survivor of said plane crash. Choosing a character to play as is as easy as pressing a button or two, but the choice itself is pretty difficult, because each one has his or her pros and cons. I personally found it hard to choose between a few, but ended up going with Ryan – a former stripper wearing a firefighting outfit – because his stats seemed the most rounded and favoured health. It wasn’t something I ever ended up regretting, either, because this is a challenging game with only one difficulty option.

After attempting to help our fellow survivors, ‘we’ set out for a nearby residential area filled with ritzy Californian mansions, including that of Hollywood starlet Emma Jaunt. Why there? Well, Emma and her assistant, Michael, happen to be two of the other survivors of this doomed aerial escape, and her massive home is what offers the most safety at the time. After all, it’s closed in, has gates and is essentially a walled in complex like a lot of stars’ homes. There are also others there, including her housekeeper and that lady’s family, whom factor into the story somewhat.

The early part of Dead Island 2 involves working with these survivors, and making sure that they stay alive, including an unnecessary rescue mission after one decides to venture home for something trivial. Emma’s house works as a safehouse, but it’s not the only one you’ll find along your travels through Hell-A and its 10 or so different regions. In fact, there are a number of houses, rooms, sewers and the like wherein one can find a brief reprieve, as well as a workbench to repair weapons, add upgrades and enhancements to them or craft things like pistol ammo and medkits. The latter will depend on which blueprints you’ve discovered, so be one the lookout. Even though I took my time and scoured different areas, those were the only two craftable item blueprints I discovered, though I found quite a few ones relating to buffs and upgrades.

In order to do such things you’ll need different items and elements, so make sure to pick up everything you can. Metal parts are helpful for fixing damaged or broken weapons – provided you love them enough to do so, given that there are many within the game – while things like chemicals, fabric, aerosol and adhesive can be used to create other things, like medkits. Money also factors in here, but thankfully only when it comes to repairing or upgrading weapons – at least, that I noticed. Both can end up being pretty expensive, so keep an eye on your wallet when you’re at a workbench.

The good news is that there are tons of items scattered throughout the game world, which is comprised of numerous semi-open areas like Bel-Air, the Halperin Hotel, the Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, Hollywood Boulevard, a film lot and some sewers that connect certain ones. Dead Island 2 is not a fully open world game like some others, and is instead a combination of these areas, which are open but somewhat linear as well. It’s very possible to go off the beaten path and explore. In fact, that’s encouraged! However, those who want to just mainline the story can also do so, and will find that that part of the game is pretty linear. There’s also fast travel between these regions once you unlock it, which becomes helpful for later missions and mopping up side quests.

As far as the side quests go, I can’t say that I was a fan. I’m not inferring that I hated each and every side quest, but I am saying that I disliked how they were implemented. In most RPGs – like Borderlands, for instance – you’ll discover side quests as you play through the main missions, and will be rewarded with them for looking off the beaten path. Furthermore, completing these optional objectives will provide skill and experience boosts, which come in handy later on; sometimes allowing the player to be over-leveled. I have a good or bad habit of doing as many side quests as possible, and within reason, to make sure that I’m strong enough to do the later ones without issue. Dead Island 2 doesn’t really allow that, and it annoyed me. It’s why I’ve – so far – only completed 11/33 of its side quests.

Although I most definitely took my time as I ventured through Hell-A, I noticed that I wasn’t finding many side quests; especially during the first half of the game. It seemed odd and didn’t make a lot of sense, because I remembered them being somewhat plentiful in the original games. Sure, I found a couple here and there, but by the time I was maybe 70% through the campaign I’d only finished 3/33 which isn’t normal for me at all. This turned out to be due to the fact that Dead Island 2 promotes revisiting areas after you’ve ‘completed’ them, by mentioning that new missions have opened up in each. This is seen on the fast travel map, but you’ll also find radios asking you to go back to different regions to help others.

Needless to say, this wasn’t my favourite way to approach side quests, and didn’t feel very organic. I wanted to complete side quests as I made my way through the story, not have to consciously check the fast travel map and look to see if new quests had popped up in certain regions, then go back and look for their blue icons there. I mean, I didn’t mind going back – and did so for main quests and more – but there could’ve been a better way of implementing these. I’ve finished the game and still haven’t found 2/3 of them, meaning I’ve been going back and doing them post-campaign. In fact, my last hour or two with Dead Island 2 was spent doing this, because I felt like I hadn’t done enough of the side content despite looking all over the place.

The ones I’ve completed have involved putting a popular rock band out of its misery in order to collect a much cared for guitar, rescuing members of a group called the Bobcats, helping the Bobcats to test out improvised weapons, using caustic goo to dissolve zombies and aiding an annoying social media star by killing zombies in specific ways, for the ‘Gram. They’ve been fun, but nothing amazing. A third type of quest to be found herein, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t make mention of it. The developers call these Lost & Found, and they’re essentially noticeboard objectives. When you reach a certain safe space settlement you’ll discover that the people who are holed up there have placed missing posters on the wall. These are generally for missing people, but I noticed that some of the Lost & Found quests also involved weapons. Hell, a lot of the side quests reward you with special weapons for completing them. There are still more Lost & Found missions that I hope to do, but I completed a few of them to get the feel for how it all worked, and it usually devolved into me traveling somewhere, looking for a certain zombie and killing it.

Almost all of the quests scale to the player’s level, outside of some main quests, which can suggest a requirement above what the player currently is if he or she hasn’t done a lot of side content or killed a ton of zombies. This is both good and bad, but it means that one can’t take a break and go back and do an early side quest in order to level up without worrying about bringing their A-game. As I said before, Dead Island 2 is a surprisingly challenging game that only features one default difficulty mode, and its zombies hit hard. You’ll want to keep an eye out for energy bars, energy drinks and medkits, all of which can be used to heal. Thankfully there are quite a few of each to be found within this relatively large in-game world.

Being that this is a sequel to Dead Island, fans and newcomers can both expect lots of things to loot and weapons to discover. In homage to the previous games, Dead Island 2 features tons of suitcases to loot, in addition to its many safes, crates, containers, cabinets, etc. You’ll have to find special keys to unlock a lot of them, so be on the lookout. Even then, you’ll have to really search for such things and hope for the luck of the draw, because I got the impression that a lot of the keys were held by different zombies in other regions. I’d search the nearby area, high and low, but wouldn’t find anything.

Weapons range from the blunt (baseball bats, singed planks, rakes, police batons, golf clubs, wrenches, metal pipes, etc.) to the sharp (machetes, many different types of knives, shovels, axes, swords, etc.) to the projectile (numerous different shotguns, pistols, nail guns, assault rifles and machine pistol(s)). Each one has its pros and cons, but I found the sharp edged blades to be the most effective, outside of the powerful guns, which helped turn the tide during some challenging and sometimes campy boss battles. For instance, sharp weapons can maim enemies by cutting their limbs off and rendering them ineffective, while blunt weapons may be more powerful overall. Small knives aren’t as good as swords, either, because getting too close to zombies puts you in danger.

Every weapon – outside of guns, of course – breaks down over time, and some don’t last very long at all. Thus, it’s important to keep an eye on the durability of your favourites and even save them for a rainy day, so to speak. That is, unless you’re fine with spending a good amount of money to repair them, which was what I ended up doing later on. It depleted my bank account pretty well, but it was worth it because I kept being able to use my favourite and most useful weapons. Either way, there are tons of weapons to be found within Dead Island 2; so much so that you’ll always have a full inventory despite this one being oversized and allowing you to carry more than ever before.

The player’s weapons are added to by throwables, which I believe are called curveballs. These are things that you can discover while playing, and are kind of a collectible of sorts. Examples include meat bombs, which attract zombies to one area, pipe bombs, caustic bombs, ninja stars, electrical bombs, grenades and Molotov cocktails. These curveballs are very, very helpful, so don’t forget about them. After all, it doesn’t cost anything to use one, and they replenish pretty quickly. Plus, you can have two equipped at once!

Another neat thing about this game is how it uses the elements to both the player’s advantage and to their detriment. Downed power lines, raging fires and caustic ooze can all be found in different parts of the game world, and will often block one’s path. The key is avoiding them and/or using them to your advantage. While caustic ooze can kill zombies, it can also be washed away with one of the many jugs of water placed around Hell-A. Meanwhile, that same water can be used to continue currents or stop fires, whereas gasoline can be spilled to do the opposite. Trails and puddles can be made, and zombies can be lured inside to their elemental doom. On top of this, batteries can also be picked up and thrown at enemies, in order to electrocute them.

Now, you may be wondering how skills factor into Dead Island 2, and that’s a good question. This time around, it’s all handled through a card system, which allows you to equip different cards that you’ve discovered. It’s another collectible system, of sorts, and one that benefits those who look everywhere. Simply put, though, you assign different cards into different categories and can swap them at will. One may give you more damage against downed enemies, whereas another will change whether you dash out of the way of damage or try to block enemies, both of which have their pros and cons, like being able to counter afterwards. Some are even character specific.

I always tried to equip the best cards possible, and ones that suited my play style well, but I never did feel truly connected with the mechanic. It was kind of overwhelming, and I simply did the best that I could with it. I found a lot of cards, checked them from time to time, and chose the ones that sounded best. It was fine, overall, but I would’ve preferred a regular skill tree.

As you play and progress through the story, you’ll unlock more card categories. One even relates to your zombie mode, which comes into play from time to time. It does this whenever triggered, after you’ve filled your rage meter by killing zombies and being a general badass, which can also involve pressing R3 to kick or drop kick zombies. I did that a lot, especially early on, and enjoyed breaking into swanky houses by drop kicking through their windows. Rage mode essentially turns you into a super powerful zombie for a very limited time. Everything goes red, the character drops his weapon and you see claws come out through what is (always) a first-person perspective. Then, you get to rip zombies apart until the meter drains, though each kill refills it a certain amount. The goal is to kill as many zombies as possible while you’re part super-zombie, and it’s helpful if you do it around a large group because the consecutive kills will keep things going.

I found that particularly helpful later on, especially against some of the special zombie types. You see, there are the regular zombies (of which there are many skins and variants befitting Southern California stereotypes), large, hulking brutes, fat guys who spit goo or fire, screamers (which draw zombies to them), and some who explode when they get close to you. Then, there’s another special kind that thankfully rarely appears, because it stays low and seems to have claws that cause a lot of damage. Meanwhile, even the regular zombies can be made more challenging by riot gear, all of which eventually breaks after a certain amount of hits. It’s important to target where they’re vulnerable, though, so if an enemy is covered up top make sure to hack its legs off.

Overall, I’d say that Dead Island 2 has taken about twenty hours to complete, with a half-decent amount of side quests completed. That said, I didn’t use a stopwatch or time things on my phone, and am just ballparking it. I’m level 25, and remember seeing level 30 mentioned in an achievement. Maybe it’s a level cap? Then again, maybe not. Either way, I definitely took my time to the best of my abilities. The side quest system kind of handcuffed me, but I plan to go back.

This game may have been in development for close to a decade, but it doesn’t show. The first thing I noticed when I started its campaign was how beautiful and detailed Dead Island 2 is. It truly looks ‘next-gen,’ and is one of the better looking games I’ve played; especially when you consider that it’s semi-open world. The zombies, themselves, are very detailed and will show the damage that you inflict on them, be it chopped off legs, slices along their bodies, ripped clothing or deterioration. Then again, they look pretty gnarly to begin with.

In my twenty some odd hours spent with this game, I didn’t have many issues and was very pleasantly surprised by how things ran almost perfectly. Sure, there was a very slight framerate hiccup while running at full speed in Venice Beach, as well as a couple of glitches, but that was it. What were the glitches? Well, during the side quest where I had to find the guitar I killed a zombie and took its key, just to see that the game asked me to do it again. The other occurred during a story-related cutscene, in which it looked like two NPCs didn’t have legs. They did, but their legs and feet were under the floor. That’s all. Otherwise, Dead Island 2 ran perfectly on Xbox Series X. It was impressive, especially given how beautiful the game is.

The audio is also quite good. It’s not as remarkable, and doesn’t stand out as much as the visuals do, but there’s also nothing to complain about. Quality sound design allows you to audibly hear and feel each hit, slice or impact, explosions are loud and boisterous and the zombies sound both creepy and campy. The voice acting is also rather good, albeit not exceptional, bringing good life to some great character models. Then again, it all fits the story, which is slightly campy but takes itself seriously. It’s decently well written, but the general plot points aren’t all that original when compared to other zombie games and movies. You’re immune, think you may be able to help others, etc.

With all that being said, I must admit that close to a decade doesn’t look bad on Dead Island 2. Dambuster Studios has delivered a fun, immersive and very polished game that fans should really appreciate and enjoy. Thus, the wait was most definitely worth it!

*Please note: Dead Island 2 features Alexa voice controls, which can be used to do things like call to zombies and ask your character to bring up a different weapon. However, we were unable to test it out.*

**Dead Island 2 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.6 / 10
Gameplay: 8.6 / 10
Visuals: 9.4 / 10
Sound: 8.1 / 10


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