Dead Island 2 review: Dead-icated zombie slashing fun in the LA sun

By Tom West,

Dead Island 2 shambles onto Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One later this week, offering us a blood-soaked adventure in LA. Here are our thoughts on Dambuster Studios' reboot of the zombie-ridden series.

Headshots have long been the king of all killing blows. Whether it's a visceral decapitation on a medieval battlefield or a long-ranged shot from a high-powered rifle in a futuristic war, there are few other killing moves that can offer the excitement levels found from causing damage to your enemy's noggin. Dead Island 2, while sporting some wonderful ways to artistically remove zombie heads from zombie shoulders, has a gore system that makes almost all kills an exciting activity, and de-limbing the undead is as delightful as decapitating them — after obliterating over 7,000 walking corpses during my time with the game, there is a chance this article could border on the grotesque!

Dead Island 2: Hell-A gory and lots of fun

Set some time after the events of Dead Island and Riptide, which were unrealistically the subject of a cover-up, Dead Island 2 sees the zombie virus arrive in LA, sweeping across the population in a wave of reanimated corpses. In the same style as its predecessors, Dead Island 2 is set right at the beginning of the outbreak, so everything in LA, or Hell-A, is still functional, and aside from the bodies, blood, and battle-worn damage found throughout the city, much of the infrastructure is in good condition. While I love a good zombie game set in a post-apocalyptic, decaying world, Dead Island's focus on the carnage caused at the onset of a viral outbreak has always been a factor that has helped the series stand out from the crowd and grab my attention.

Whether you're strolling along sand-strewn beaches or wading through the putrid sewer system, LA looks amazing both at night and during the day. While it doesn't support a typical day-night cycle, the time of day is dependent on the main story so the scene can be set for whatever endeavour you find yourself embarking on. Once you unlock the fast travel maps, though, you can choose the time of day to load into an area, and with no noticeable difference in difficulty between the times, it's purely there for aesthetic reasons. Personally, I prefer exploring Venice Beach during the day, for obvious reasons, but travelling to Santa Monica Pier to see all of the attractions vibrantly glowing in the darkness makes the nighttime a delight.

dead island 2 review xbox

Our journey through Hell-A is spent in the shoes of one of six Slayers, survivors of the outbreak that are not only immune to the virus but also have a mutation that allows them to harness its power for a short time. Each Slayer has a number of attributes that determine their max health, stamina pool, and the like. The differences here are only slight, but their Innate Skills play a much more important role, providing additional benefits when you're fighting the undead. I went with the Brixton-born Slayer, Jacob, as his British sense of humour is perfectly optimised for my childish personality — a choice that I knew was perfect for me when he began calling Bursters "walking haemorrhages," and a few other comments that aren't quite suitable for this article. This level of dark humour plays a large role in Dead Island 2's comedic tones, so expect to hear whoever you decide to play as a lot. I personally enjoy it, and nothing is noticeably overused for the most part.

With Jacob selected, the story opens up with an evacuation plane's take-off coming down to a crashing end due to one of its passengers having hidden a bite and then deciding that their fellow passengers would make for a tasty in-flight snack. After surviving the flaming inferno, we meet up with a high-profile actress and her aid, using her Bel-Air mansion as a base of operations for our first endeavours through the story. Much like the events on the plane, Dead Island 2's story follows much of the same storyline we've seen told many times; a survivor attempts to locate a doctor who says their immunity will cure the world, the doctor turns out to be a bit of a scumbag, and a life-changing moment of realisation puts our fearless hero on a new path. The story takes around 20 hours or so to complete, with an additional ten to 15 hours of side content, seeing us travel from Bel-Air to Hollywood Boulevard, using the sewers, metro tunnels, and overland beauty spots as threat-filled routes.

dead island 2 review xbox

The main campaign, while familiar, provides a fun romp through the City of Angels and serves as a way for certain aspects of the game to naturally occur, such as the numerous Apex variants of zombies, such as Crushers, Butchers, Slobbers, and more, as well as firearms and the Fury Mode. The story's fairly balanced mix of comedic moments and horror-inspired sections make it really enjoyable, and aside from a strange moment where one character was bobbing around in the floor, it was a smooth and pleasurable ride. Some of the set pieces Dambuster chose for the story can offer a slightly unnerving experience. At one point, I was working my way through the metro system while attempting to find out about a creature lurking in the tunnels' shadows, and the general atmosphere blended with the sounds of something climbing over metal, screeching coming from further ahead, and the music kept me on the edge of my seat at times — I'd also say bravo, team, after listening to the churning and squeaking that comes from pier rides without the deafening sound of funfair music, I don't think I'll ever climb onto a Ferris wheel again!

Each of the ten zones act as semi-open world environments connected by loading screens, and it's clear Dambuster has put a lot of work into crafting them full of detail. Overturned buses blocking roads feature luggage and the odd corpse, gore can be seen where brutal slaughters took place, and the horizon is filled with smoke and flames as the recently bustling city is now a wreck of a place. The various environmental puzzles feel natural as well, like having to turn off electricity or water sources to safely get to a weapon box, or having to drown caustic acid with water to stop your feet from melting. I really enjoyed the ways Dambuster has implemented the puzzle elements, instead of having the tried and tested lockpicking functions. That detail extends to the general sounds as well, with screams being carried on the wind, crashing and banging coming from nearby buildings can be heard, and numerous alarms blend with the moans and groans from the zombies you're fending off. It's fantastic, but it also highlights some of the parts that don't quite meet the standards set by other parts of the game. Facial animations on many of the characters feel static, almost robotic, and the lack of any character reflections in mirrors is extremely noticeable in a city whose denizens love looking at themselves. The background scenes that feature hordes of zombies give them a cardboard cutout vibe, especially when the zombies at the forefront are so active... if you have time to take in the sights when not crushing skulls, slicing off limbs, and exploding dead things into giblets, that is.

dead island 2 review xbox

While the story is a ton of fun and the locations are pretty, Dead Island 2's crowning gem is its awesome combat, all thanks to Dambuster's proprietary FLESH engine. Honestly, I've never had more fun cutting through zombies, and I've killed over 7,000 of them in this game so far. The engine allows you to damage the part of a zombie you're targeting, so a machete cut across the stomach has a chance to drop their guts to the floor, an axe swing will take a limb off without issue, or a well-placed hammer strike snaps their jaw away. Combat sees pieces of flesh, bone, and blood fly through the air as you dismantle your opponent, and thanks to much better controls for firearms, guns also have the ability to wreak havoc as much as melee weapons, offering up slow-motion finishers that are a glorious display of gore. You can only carry a limited amount of ammo, but when you do wield an assault rifle, shotgun, bolt-action rifle, or even a nail gun, it's a satisfying experience. Guns come with standard attachments and there isn't any way to swap them at the moment, so that's something I'd like to see in future iterations, but I've had a ton of fun using them nonetheless, which is aided by the vast number of weapon upgrades you can apply.

Weapon upgrades can be added at Workbenches and include Mods and Perks that add damage types like fire, caustic, and electricity, as well as additional modifiers that increase the items' durability, damage, and more. You find the parts you need from exploring Hell-A and scrapping unwanted weapons, but the payoff is well worth it for the increased destruction you can achieve. Some zombies, such as firefighters, hazmats, and spikeys are immune to some damage types, so having a selection available in the eight-slot weapon wheel is necessary. You'll find additional Blueprints for the upgrades when working through the game, and later on, you're able to use mutation mods, which you craft from body parts from zombies and their Apex variants. These mods add even more carnage to your slaughter of the undead, causing zombies to explode when dying, clouds of caustic acid to begin melting your opponents, and more. It's satisfying, chaotic, and an absolute treat to witness, but when using weapons is too slow, there is always the Fury Mode.

dead island 2 review xbox

As I said at the beginning, in Dead Island 2 our Slayer is not only immune to the virus but can wield its power in short bursts via Fury Mode. Once you've unlocked the system, you're able to build up fury by killing and counter-attacking zombies, and once the gauge is full, you can activate Fury to explode into beast mode, slashing and bashing at your enemies during a few seconds of colourful, unfiltered rage. Keeping it topped up has saved my butt on a few occasions when I've been overwhelmed and is a great way to even the playing field when you're facing numerous Apex enemies. Upgrading the mode is all handled via the Skill Card system, which also provides your character with a host of other bonuses.

There are 64 Skill Cards to collect when working through the game, and you can have a mix-and-match of 15 active at a time, although they are bundled into different categories. The base cards give can give you new abilities like drop-kicking, ground-pounding, and the like, as well as buffs for health regeneration, ways to apply status effects to your enemies, and more. Others, though, affect your Autophage bar, which is connected to the Fury Mode. Autophage skills are pretty powerful modifiers, but with the caveat that they also include negative effects, so weighing up the pros and cons is important when choosing them. On top of that, your Autophage bar increases through three different stages when you equip the related cards, and while each stage adds huge Fury Mode bonuses to its regeneration and duration, the permanent nerfs to your health and stamina mean that your human form can feel a little squidgy. I don't really use the Autophage stuff, but there is a ton of opportunity for you to create a Slayer that is unique.

dead island 2 review xbox

That uniqueness quickly becomes apparent when playing in co-op with up to three friends. I spent quite a bit of time slaughtering the undead in co-op, and despite a few frame issues and crashes, the experience was very smooth, even weeks before the game's launch. Jumping in with friends also increases the strength of enemies and causes even more Deadly Zombies to spawn, which are robust, hard-hitting versions of basic zombies and can take some work to get them down. I didn't use it when in co-op, but the Alexa functionality would probably make for some interesting fun, as you can call zombies to you, or pull off various emotes. The function, while very gimmicky, is fun to use in a single-player and only requires you to hook up your headset and have an Amazon account, no Alexa device necessary.

As for the Dead Island 2 achievements, the list is a relatively painless affair to work through, with a huge portion of them being linked to completing all of the main and side missions. The miscellaneous ones for completing the first tier of every challenge type will come naturally, and after completing the game I've completed 68 of the available 84, so you won't need to worry about them. I love a game that offers a list that pushes you to try everything but not spend hours upon hours grinding to unlock all of the achievements. I've finished Dead Island 2 with a willingness to return, not drained from the grind, which is a feeling I wish I could say about other games. I will say, though, that there is a chance the Stack the Deck achievement for unlocking 30 Skill Cards has bugged for me, but I won't know until the list goes live. Fingers crossed I've just missed the unlock!

dead island 2 review xbox


Was Dead Island 2 worth the wait? Hell yes! The sheer carnage you can cause on the streets of LA is marvellous to witness, and with Dambuster's attention to detail, uncovering hidden caches of weapons, meeting the colourful variety of survivors around the city, and hanging with friends is a ton of fun. My main concern is that there isn't quite enough endgame content to really appreciate the power you unlock with a fully-upgraded character, so my hope is that future DLC allows us to enjoy it more. While a few visual aspects could certainly do with being remedied, there is no doubt that Dambuster Studios was the right developer for the job, and I'll be looking forward to seeing where the team takes the franchise in the future.
8 / 10
* Tom played around 40 hours of Dead Island 2 on Xbox Series X, unlocking 45 achievements in the process. A key for the game was provided by Plaion for this review.
Tom West
Written by Tom West
Tom has been playing video games since he was old enough to hold a controller, experimenting with a number of systems until he eventually fell in love with Xbox. With a passion for the platform, he decided to make a career out of it, and now happily spends his days writing about that which he loves. If he’s not hunting for Xbox achievements, you’ll likely find him somewhere in The Elder Scrolls Online or fighting for survival in Battlefield.
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