In a game where a repeating joke is an award called “The Romero”, you’d hope the writing is up to snuff with being satirical of the world around it. George A. Romero introduced and perfected the use of the zombie film as a satirical vehicle in Dawn of the Dead to make a commentary on consumerism and capitalism. Now, while I don’t think Dead Island 2 is at that level of satire, I found myself laughing often with how it uses the zombie narrative for the same reasons. I was surprised at how well written a lot of the exchanges were. Even when it is a very funny game, there are still some pretty solid jump scares and sequences throughout with very fun gameplay mechanics. The game also feels like a much tighter linear experience than an open world sandbox which benefits the game greatly. Dead Island 2 delivers an overall fantastic experience that anyone who loves melee combat and zombies is going to love.
Before I talk about what the premise of Dead Island 2 is or anything review centric, I do want to be clear that the wait time for the release of this game is not factored into my review at all. When I started the game, the opening cinematic graphics felt super out of date and I rolled my eyes. But then I had to stop myself and reevaluate to come at this from a fresh approach. Lots of games take a long time to come out and I would much rather wait for another installment of a franchise I enjoy rather than knowing the devs were forced to crunch. One of the studios working on the title, Dambuster Studios parent company Embracer Group has released statements about practicing healthy work life balance in order to not indulge an industry where crunch happens rampantly. I do not care how important you believe your game is, the well being and health of your employees is more important. So I commend them on that so nothing about the long development plays into my thoughts on the game itself other than positively knowing people didn’t sleep under their desks for a month prior to get it on shelves.
Dead Island 2 takes place in a zombie-infested Los Angeles which is quarantined and essentially left to rot by the military. Now you may be saying to yourself “Los Angeles isn’t an island!?” but when you are cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by flesh-eating monsters, it can truly feel like it is.
At the start of Dead Island 2, you chose out of a few different characters to play as from a motley crüe that includes a firefighter who is actually an exotic dancer in a costume, a Hollywood stuntman, and many more colorful characters. I chose the Irish rockabilly badass called Dani because I could not turn down stomping on zombie skulls in spiked cheetah print loafers as she says “feck”. Each has their own unique stats and related skills to their character as well. Luckily for me, Dani was one of the heavy hitter type builds who promotes up close and personal combat. When I play games of this nature, I tend to lean hard into wanting to being a monster of dishing out the most damage possible.
What I didn’t think was that each character was going to have a ton of original dialogue and reactions to the situations that they were put into. I found myself giggling often at Dani’s reactions, and I could feel her eyes rolling when she was faced with the stupidity of the world around her. Typically in first person open world games, the character doesn’t feel like they are there because you are meant to step into their shoes. In some RPG games, that works to have a flavorless protagonist but in a world as colorful and as in-your-face as LA is, the amount of detail put into the zombie slayers was a nice touch that kept me wanting to explore more of the side quests to see how Dani would react.
Dead Island 2’s character skills and development are done in a card system which an increasing amount of slots as you progress. This actually wasn’t something I liked at first, as I was forced to pick a limited amount of cards, but it grew on me as the game progressed because I could customize my character with what worked best for me. I don’t want to spoil any of the special moves you get as you progress, but I do want to comment upon where my mind shifted on the card system as a mechanic. Early in the game, you get the ability to dodge strafe, which is a quick button press to quickly jump back from an attack. As I described earlier, that isn’t my play style. I am way too aggressive to want to get away from the action. I eventually unlocked the option to switch it out for a block move, which I loved. Having the option to change one of my core moves to better fit my play style was a really nice to have. Especially because another player may love to dip and dodge the zombie horde while I am diving in head-first.
The variety of melee weapons is pretty vast in Dead Island 2, but what I found more impressive is the impact they had on my enemies. After the remake of Dead Space, I am now hyper-fixated on weapon damage on enemies. This game sells it big time with battle damage on the zombies. For example, if you slam a mace across a zombies face, then that bad boy’s jaw is coming clean off. But if you slice at their stomachs with a machete, it’s going to look like Tom Savini did the special effects with how the guts pour out from them. I tried all of my weapons in different ways just to see how the game models would react. Slashing directions and so much more is taken into account, which may be a small thing to most people, but to a gore hound like me, it just made me so excited to see how well the horror elements of the game were done.
Something that has bothered me about so much of the horror that has come out in video games recently is how seriously they take themselves. Even Resident Evil has shied away from the goofiness of the games they are remaking. Not all horror needs to be doom and gloom, especially now with how dark everything is. Dead Island 2 can often be scary for the average player, but for me, I found myself smiling most of the time I was playing it. One of the biggest reasons is because the games writing team takes full advantage of the shallowness of Hollywood and different modern tropes.
Without going into spoilers for the actual story, there is a terrific side-quest that captures why I loved this game as much as I did. On your way back from a mission, you pass through an influencer hype house you cleared earlier in the game. But something has changed as you start to hear someone making a whole bunch of ruckus from the roof. One of the influencers has survived, and so starts a side quest where you are legitimately putting your life in danger to create content for them. I ended up almost getting swarmed by zombies and cursing under my breath about the whole situation. It was incredibly fun because I could see Mr. Beast doing some outrageous video in a situation like this before being eaten alive by the undead. But it was just a small bite-sized mission that has stuck with me since I played it, which is something the game is full of.
Dead Island 2 is branded as an open world, but it feels a lot more linear in the first 5+ hours in the best way possible. Each of the story missions feel like you are on a path to completing them with a lot of fun set pieces on the way to destinations. A huge problem of open-world sandbox games in modern gaming is you are dropped into this vast world that is copy and paste missions without really anything to do. A lot of sandbox games feel more like a chore list than an exciting adventure. Dead Island 2 skirts around that by having story missions take place in big set pieces like a movie studios, hotels, and other places that feel distinct. You can stumble upon side missions and other things along the way to the story missions, which feels natural rather than having to climb a tower to look for markers on a map. Even if you don’t get a huge open world to explore, it is open enough where even after 10+ hours of gameplay, I was never bored.
Dead Island 2 stands out as a horror title that wants to make you laugh at the things going on in the world, and if you linger on it long enough, it may even make you think a bit about it all. I found myself trying out different combos of cards to increase my abilities as I swung all sorts of weapons through crowds of the undead. The game is bursting with personality with its personalizable mechanics, witty writing, and characters you just want to spend more time with after every mission. It really has earned its ability to use the Romero name as an award that I would give the game. 5 Romero’s out of 5.