Dead Island 2 (Xbox Series X) Review

Back From The Undead

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Dead Island 2

Brutalist Review Style (Version 2)

It’s no secret that for the past decade, publisher Deep Silver’s action role-playing game Dead Island 2 has shambled along a slow and wayward path toward release. Moreover, it was so slow that there were many times during the game’s development that pundits and franchise fans alike, looking from the outside in, were convinced that the title had been cancelled (despite Deep Silver’s repeated claims to the contrary).

Infamously, the long-anticipated sequel to the original Techland-developed Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide saw its reins change hands from its initial developer Yager (of Spec Ops: The Line fame) to Sumo Digital in 2016, only for that effort to be mothballed once again and the IP moved internally to be worked on by Deep Silver’s own Dambuster Studios in 2019.

Thankfully, the third time has indeed proven the charm for Dead Island 2, as Dambuster has not only managed to get the game past the finish line finally but has also delivered a highly polished, well-crafted and delightfully grotesque follow-up to the original games with production values well-befitting its fictional Hollywood setting.

In Dead Island 2, players assume the role of one of six survivors of a viral zombie outbreak in Los Angeles), all of whom manage to live through a horrific plane crash only to be bitten by an infected passenger. Apart from sharing ill-fated flight tickets, an immunity to the virus, and a bizarre, unhealthy zeal for killing zombies, the look, vibe and personality of each playable character are surprisingly as diverse as one can expect in a first-person RPG brawler.

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There are no weak links in the roster, either. Whether they’re a male exotic dancer, a gangbanger, a former rockstar turned stuntman, a stuntwoman turned thrill-seeker or a full-contact roller-derby queen, each one of these characters is a unique version of a zombie-slaying badass and is colloquially referred to as a “Slayer” in the game.

Mind you, there is actually only one story, and as such, players can only choose one Slayer to embody for the entirety of the solo campaign. The game’s opening cinematic intro had me torn at first as all six Slayers seemed appeared to be quite interesting, but ultimately I went with Amy, a young Paralympian-in-training who is determined to let nothing stand in her way of making the finals. What can I say? Her cheeky, uber-confident, never-say-die attitude and her ballsyness in using her prosthetic running blade as a curb-stomping tool completely sold me.

“The look, vibe, and personality of each playable character are surprisingly as diverse as one can expect in a first-person RPG brawler.”

Regardless of which slayer you choose, the primary objective in Dead Island 2 is naturally to get out of “HELL-A” alive and escape the “zompocalypse.” However, it won’t take players long to realize that the game is far less intended to be a desperate, pathos-drenched struggle for survival than it is a pulpy, tongue-in-cheek, satirical “what-if” romp through the City of Angels and its surrounding neighbourhoods.

Dead Island 2 takes place in the immediate aftermath of the zombie infestation that has taken hold. Rather than overwhelming players with a large, sprawling open world map replete with side missions, quest givers and a fog of war to gradually uncover, Dead Island 2 presents its playable areas as an interconnected network of sightseeing spots. Each comes with its own themed tourist map that players will learn and memorize backwards and forwards so that they can quickly navigate across each zone to reach new areas once they have been unlocked.

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Eventually, players will be able to use fast-travel maps (often found at safehouses or near workbenches) to jump between the game’s eight main zones conveniently. However, they will still need to get familiar with each district to reach mission objectives, find side-quests when they come up, and backtrack to uncover the game’s copious amounts of hidden loot and other hidden goodies.

As discussed earlier, it’s been quite some time since the last Dead Island game washed ashore, and gamers’ tastes in control schemes have long since evolved in the interim. Thankfully, Dambuster Studios has addressed this by adopting a more modern control scheme that auspiciously borrows elements from Call of Duty and Dying Light to provide a responsive gameplay experience that is better suited to its close-quarters style of combat.

“I’m relieved to say that Dead Island 2’s Skill Cards are nowhere near as tedious or complex.”

Veterans of the latter series, in particular, will find themselves evading, sprinting, jumping and delivering powerful flying kicks like a pro within only minutes of unlocking the ability to do so. Most players familiar with FPS action titles should also easily hit the ground running.

Leading up to this review, my biggest concern with Dead Island 2 was that the recently unveiled Skill Card mechanic would complicate and bog down the flow of gameplay, similar to how Back 4 Blood’s Playing Card decks all but killed that game’s momentum between rounds with its constant min-maxing and multiple deck-building shenanigans. Having played the finished game extensively since launch, however, I’m relieved to say that Dead Island 2’s Skill Cards are nowhere near as tedious or complex.

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While many Skill Cards can be collected (acquired through levelling up, completing certain missions, scavenging fallen zombies, or simply exploring LA), players effectively have only one deck to concern themselves with: their skill tree (a.k.a. the Skill Deck). Skill Cards are akin to modular branches of the tree that can be swapped out for or combined with other active cards to tailor the abilities of one’s slayer to their desired playstyle, not to mention turn the odds against the undead in their favour.

There’s no Back 4 Blood randomness here; when a Skill Card ability is enabled and active in the Skill Deck, it is always in effect (with some exceptions), and players can dive into their Skill Deck to make changes and adapt to the situation at any time.

The only downsides to consider are that some Skill Cards may require a pre-requisite card to also be active in order to have an effect (e.g. a “Wrecking Ball” flying kick can’t be activated without the base “Flying Kick” ability being enabled first), or may be incompatible with other cards from the same category (the base “Dodge” and Block ability are both Defense skills and cannot be enabled at the same time for instance; so you’re either sticking or moving).

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The Skill Deck holds 15 Skill Cards across four categories: Abilities, Survivor, Slayer and the mysterious late-game Numen powers. The slots gradually unlock as players progress through the campaign. In addition, each of the six Slayers possesses two innate, non-customizable cards specific to their character that further enhance their playstyle.

In the case of my chosen Slayer, Amy regains stamina when hitting a zombie with a thrown weapon and gets a minor damage boost when attacking isolated zombies. This makes the Paralympian the ideal character for players who like to divide and conquer, using a trap or throwable distraction like the “Meat Bait” canister to lure undead crowds away so that they can focus on taking down a stronger enemy one on one.

Much like the pair of Dead Island games before it, Dead Island 2 brings back the deep weapon customization and crafting that the franchise has always been known for, including the ability to create elemental weapons built to rend, break, skewer, burn, fry, electrocute, melt, explode and perforate the undead with extreme prejudice.

Weapons can be broken, but they can always be repaired or levelled up at a workbench if you have enough cash, and just in case you don’t, traders that you come across are always willing to purchase your old gear in addition to selling you new weapons, ammo, blueprints, throwable Curveball items and crafting materials. There’s no stopping Dead Island 2’s DIY train.

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Nonetheless, with over two console generations having passed since 2013’s Dead Island: Riptide and the power of modern consoles and PCs surpassing the technology of that game’s era by leaps and bounds, Dambuster has let their sick and twisted imaginations run wild to create a revolutionary procedural zombie damage system appropriately named FLESH, which is unequivocally the new star of the entire show.

The Dead Island 2 FLESH System allows players to inflict damage on any part of a zombie in the game using any weapon available and witness the damage being realistically portrayed on the affected zombie in real time. This damage is not merely cosmetic, nor is the dismemberment or disintegration of the zombie pre-determined. For instance, slashing a zombie across the chest with a sword will create an accurate wound corresponding to the angle of the slash, revealing the bone, muscle, and organs beneath.

“Additionally, the game offers one of the most realistic and visually appealing portrayals of Los Angeles I’ve ever seen in a video game, second only to Grand Theft Auto V.”

A subsequent slash in the same area will cause the muscle to peel away, exposing the ribcage, while an equivalent attack with a blunt object, such as a sledgehammer, will shatter that part of the zombie’s chest, causing the organs previously held in place by the ribs to spill out. Elemental damage is also applicable; impaling a zombie under the chin with an electrified pitchfork will electrocute and eventually incinerate the zombie until all facial features are charred away. Similarly, shooting a zombie’s knees with corrosive bullets will dissolve its lower legs, forcing it to crawl towards you to continue its attack.

It’s incredibly gruesome, yet I can’t get enough of it. However, not just the zombies in this game look amazing. Dead Island 2‘s production values have significantly improved compared to previous installments in the franchise. In-game cutscenes showcase highly detailed, well-motion-captured characters, excellent voice acting, and an abundance of humorous writing that often hits the mark. The story is also decent, though somewhat predictable.

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The game’s visuals, audio, and overall feel are impressive when playing. Combat is visceral, focused on dodging/blocking and counter-attacking, and effectively utilizes the Xbox controller’s rumble motors to immerse players in the on-screen action. While Dead Island 2 doesn’t feature any sophisticated ray tracing or reflections on the Xbox Series X, the precise shadows for characters and zombies are sharp, accurate, and fluid. This allows players to notice the silhouette of a zombie approaching from behind, which I found particularly striking once I recovered from the initial scare.

“Dead Island 2 excels at creating stunning visual effects.”

The alpha and volumetric effects for elements like fire, electricity, corrosive gas, and smoke are exceptional. Equally impressive are the random ways in which water, oil, and caustic liquids flow and accumulate from containers, leaking barrels, and similar objects. Moreover, when these elements combine and ignite through various means (usually instigated by the player) to create large, slow-motion, screen-filling, and headphone-rumbling explosions, it becomes apparent that Dead Island 2 excels at creating stunning visual effects.

Additionally, the game offers one of the most realistic and visually appealing portrayals of Los Angeles I’ve ever seen in a video game, second only to Grand Theft Auto V. It might even rank first if not for the abundance of dead bodies, roaming zombies, blood splatters, and human entrails scattered throughout the city.

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I would be remiss not to mention Dead Island 2’s online multiplayer and Amazon Alexa Game Control integration in this review. A few nights ago, I joined an online game and easily found a session with two other players at the same stage as I was. Together, we successfully progressed through three campaign missions, collected loot, and advanced the story without any noticeable issues. Our experience could have been even smoother if my fellow Slayers had used their microphones or any of us had accessed the convenient Emote wheel by pressing left on the D-pad, but that’s a minor detail.

Regarding sometimes awkward communication, Alexa Game Control is a seemingly simplified version of Alexa integrated into Dead Island 2. Once authorized by the player, it can be used to issue game-related voice commands to the AI assistant, such as setting a waypoint to the nearest workbench, switching to the most powerful weapon, or activating Fury Mode. While most of these voice commands are not more efficient than using a controller, the ability to lure a zombie towards you (or away from another player) with taunts like “Hey ugly, over here” is undeniably cool and quite practical from a gameplay perspective.

If you’re a fan of the Dead Island or Dying Light franchises or simply crave a zombie game that allows you to get up close and personal enough to drive an electrified pool cue through a zombie’s skull, Dead Island 2‘s FLESH system will amaze you. I recommend playing the campaign solo first to enjoy the game at your own pace. Then, team up with a few online friends, select a new Slayer, and dive back in for the sheer fun of it. Dead Island 2 is the epitome of zombie comfort food.

Final Thoughts

Khari Taylor
Khari Taylor

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