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Dead Island 2 is like a high school reunion – for better and for worse
★★★ | For the record, Los Angeles isn't an island
If you’re old enough to have gone to a high school reunion, you’ll recognize that one person who never outgrew their teenage years. At best, they’ve still got the same jokes and rough energy. At worst, they’re entirely unchanged, right down to their clothes and attitudes.
Dead Island came out in 2011, which, in gaming terms, is a whopping long time. Back then, it wasn’t the peak of originality, either. While generally liked for its tropical getaway setting, desperate survival horror, and cynical, but effective marketing campaign, Dead Island wasn’t exactly a modern classic.
So why, after a disastrous MOBA and numerous false starts, was it so important to bring the IP back some 12 years later? After all, developer Techland already struck gold elsewhere with their equally bananas zombie parkour title Dying Light. That evolution of the first-person survival madness took the genre in new - if equally frustrating - directions.
Having spent a couple of dozen hours with Dead Island 2, I can’t say what the reason for this resurrection is. Nothing about the sequel feels necessary, evolved, or even nostalgic. I think some of its endless story twists are callbacks to the series, but I couldn’t remember to who or what. Like its predecessor, Dead Island 2 is overwritten in expositions and underwritten everywhere else.
Tonally, it’s all over the place. There’s farce in the style of Dead Rising, a lot of Walking Dead riffs, slapstick, gore, and elements of body horror, but none of them fit together. Instead, they’re a cobbled-together mess, similar to the mutated zombies you pummel in the game. The lead heroes, of which there are plenty, are all jerks. It’s hard to root for any of them when you just want them to shut up for a change.
Los Angeles is a series of limited levels stitched together via transitional gates, much like in ye olden times, when consoles couldn’t handle open worlds just yet. Now, they feel artificial, or worse, like tedious slogs keeping you from the stuff that’s actually fun.
After the loopy open-world shenanigans of Dying Light, returning to a world where a knee-high fence or a flimsy wooden door is enough to keep your oddly inert character at bay, all feels like a major step back in game design.
That alone wouldn’t be a complete deal breaker if the other aspects felt even slightly more modern. But Dead Island 2 embraces its origins a little too happily. The menus, power-ups, stats, breaking weapons (ugh), and tedious fetch quests are all from another decade. They’ve aged as gracefully as the living dead.
The mission design is similarly oddly backward. In one mission, I had to find a runaway, who was last seen going through a rich neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills. One such house held a clue. The runaway was at the home of the producer of a notable film, which had been a hit years ago. The house itself was lined wall-to-wall with movie posters, each with readable credits.
Wow, I thought. This is clever. I have to find the poster, check out the producer’s name, and I’ll be able to find where they live after that.
Nope. The prompt on the screen directed me to a Rolodex on a coffee table. A single click revealed the next location.
This would repeat again, and again, and again over the course of my play-through. A series of unimaginative level and mission designs that felt stagnant. Like they were there because you have to have something to connect the zombie fights. They felt like nobody wanted to make them, and in turn, I didn’t want to sit through them.
But then, on the other hand, whenever I got to chew through hordes of zombies with a cleaver, I was mostly happy as a clam. That stuff never gets old. In fact, I’m happy to say that Dead Island 2 looks, sounds, and runs way better than it did when I played it last August at Gamescom. At times, it’s downright grotesquely beautiful. A vision of hell that’s as lurid and terrifying as anything put to screen.
There are even a couple of instances in that I found myself genuinely unnerved by the depiction of societal collapse. And that’s not an easy thing to do. When Dead Island 2 works, it slays.
But it’s a game that’s so tethered to a past that it really doesn’t need to be. It has all this baggage, and none of it does any good. The whole weapon system, with an arbitrary scale of good, legendary, and epic tiers was a dud back when Borderlands 3 came out. The crafting system, an endless tedium of nick knack collecting and number gazing, is just as uninteresting as ever.
Worst of all, smacking zombies over and over and watching a number scale drop marginally each time is dull. It’s the antithesis of a survival fantasy.
So, why 3 stars then? After all this complaining? Well, it’s mostly because Dead Island 2 is not a broken game. Certainly not as broken as I anticipated earlier this year. It looks great, runs fine, and there were a surprisingly low number of bugs that I encountered during my time with it. It’s a solid adventure that works as both a single-player experience and a multiplayer one if you want to.
But more than that, I never wanted to put it down and walk away in disgust. I was frustrated many, many times. I sighed so much that my pets got worried and came to check up on me. I may have even asked my TV “What in the hell is this shit?” at least a couple of times.
But I had fun. In spite of everything, I enjoyed myself. That’s the power of the illusion and the power fantasy that Dead Island 2 creates. It works like hell to hide all the good bits, and it does some spectacularly dumb things in the process, too. But when it works, it works, and those times are still way more important.
It’s not a perfect game. It’s not for everyone, either. But if you’ve got a hankering for some zombie horror, there are very few games out right now that will do the trick with the same level of visceral thrills as this one.
(Dead Island 2 is out now. Reviewed on the Xbox Series X. Game key received for review.)
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