Dead Island 2 Preview – On the boulevard of beating up zombies

Dead Island 2 Header Screenshot

The first Dead Island remains one of the all-time good-bad games. Despite the emotional promises of the original announcement trailer, it was a schlocky B-movie of a co-op zombie battler that didn’t have the polish and refinement that bigger budget games of the day had, but was undeniably fun when played with your buddies. Dead Island 2 absolutely has greater aspirations in terms of quality, but without sacrificing the oversaturated fun of smashing through zombie hordes with a wild array of weapons.

Dead Island 2 absolutely plays up to the Los Angeles setting, whether it’s starting off in the mansions of the rich and famous in Bel Air, hopping on over to the Beverly Hills neighbourhood, smashing through a wedding gone wrong at a hotel, or taking a self-run tour through a film studio lot and the sets for a Friends-like sitcom, monster movie and more. It’s all larger than real life, poking a little bit of fun, though we’ll see if it goes as far as GTA V’s lampooning of LA and Californian culture.

It definitely leans into the self-serving nature of its cast of characters, though. The opening cutscene shows all of the playable characters doing everything they can to cheat their way onto one of the last flights out of a zombie-infested LA, from stealing ticket QR codes, to sneaking into the wheel well of the plane. Of course, you know it’s not going to go smoothly for them – it’d be a pretty short game if they all make it out safely, wouldn’t it?

Long story short, as you pick from the six misfits, you don’t get out of LA, you end up bitten and, one feverish stumble across the city later, you discover that you’re immune to the zombie virus. You also manage to team up with a little group of other survivors – a Hollywood star, her PA, housekeeper and a couple other friends –  all desperate for a way out. Luckily for them, your chosen character will be keen to head out, try to find the military, other survivors or some other exit strategy, and knock some zombie heads together in the process.

Dead Island 2 Fire Machete

And it’s that fundamental melee combat that is really the main draw to this game. After starting off with scavenged pipes, impromptu wooden bats and the odd snooker cue, there’s a nice callback to the original games that introduces the series’ signature elemental weaponry to you. Oh yes, you’ll be scooping up every resource in sight so that you can create barmy electric machetes, exploding golf clubs and far, far more sensational weapons down the way.

Regardless of what’s in hand, there’s a nice and weighty feel to the combat, though there’s also plenty of differentiation between the weapons based on their underlying stats – the lightness of a golf club will struggle to knock zombies back, as will the fast stabbing of a knife, for example. Each weapon you can swipe away with standard attacks, but it’s the charged up heavy attacks that feel more effective and satisfying to use.

What’s really quite fun is starting to see how Dambuster has built the world for a more considered playstyle. There’s a surprising amount of crashed cars and trucks with water canisters on them, for example. Throw these at zombies and then follow that up by throwing an electric weapon or a car battery and you can electrocute any zombies shambling toward you, or maybe that swimming pool filled with acid would be good for drop-kicking zombies into? Add in what Dambuster call ‘curveballs’ – recharging items that include throwable meat bait, fire suppression bombs, shurikens and pipe bombs – and there’s a lot of fertile ground to start to approach situations a little more tactically.

Dead Island 2 Crusher Explosion

You’ll absolutely need to, because the initial basic and speedy zombies are soon augmented by tougher Crusher zombies that can soak up a lot of damage and will pound the ground with an area of effect attack, while others are actively electric or with grenades on combat vests. Yeah, you might want to use the environment to your advantage when fighting those!

All the way through, there’s a delightful excess to Dead Island 2’s FLESH system – the backronym for Dambuster’s dynamic damage system for combat. Repeated damage in specific areas will a zombie into a bloody mess, chunks can be blown off them to reveal rib cages, limbs rended, and (of course) heads smashed into a bloody explosion. It’s every ounce of gore that you would expect from a game looking back to classic zombie horror for inspiration, with the finishing moves you can trigger after a well-timed dodge being especially gruesome and weapon specific.

Each of the six starting characters has a pair of innate skills to start things off – Jaco is all DPS while Amy is more agile, and Dani is more into heavy attacks – but there’s a good amount of flexibility that starts to emerge through the card-based skill system. Broken down into a handful of distinct areas, you don’t have complete freedom to apply any and whatever skill card you unlock, but have a mixture of freedom and more specific options. You can have a dropkick that’s more damaging than the initial forceful kick that knocks zombies back, for example, a ground-pound slam to push nearby enemies away, and eventually more bombastic abilities. Other cards are more like stat boosts, or more specifically situation, such as triggering health regen after multiple zombie kills or increasing damage output when there’s multiple enemies nearby.

Dead Island 2 Skills Deck

We only really got to scratch the surface of this system, but it shows some promise and also allows you to switch things on the fly, which could be great for respeccing to find new card and ability synergies, or for more role-based play in co-op. In another quality of life nicety, you can very easily pay to repair a weapon you like or (less economically) pay to upgrade it to your character level, bringing an old favourite back into relevance.

From the opening few hours of Dead Island 2, the game is off to a pretty good start, showing some good promise through the storyline, the elemental and environmental combat, and the flexibility that you have. There’s just a few question marks really hanging over it, like how the co-op multiplayer will feel, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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