‘Dead Island 2’ preview: fun combat, no brains

Dead Island 2 starts big. Los Angeles is fucked (zombies, what can you do) and everyone who is anyone is desperately trying to get to the evacuation planes. It’s that, or get added to the growing horde of undead that is now chewing through the city.

The city of angels, now dubbed Hell-A for reasons I don’t understand but hate, is no longer the place to be. As a result, the opening sees each of your potential playable characters making their way to an evacuation plane before you choose which you would like to play as they sprawl in their seats.

For a game set in the unfolding LA zombie apocalypse, flying away may not seem like the best start to the story but this plane ends up going to shit and crashing (zombies, what can you do) before your character awakens bloody, bruised and still eager to avoid getting murdered by the feral undead. It’s a phenomenal opening and sets expectations and stakes immediately. Soon after you get bitten while fighting the game’s zombies for the first time and, eager to avoid your eventual transformation into a zombie, you venture to the home of a celebrity you rescued in the moments after the plane crash.

Dead Island 2 starts strong. Brawling through mansions in Bel Air looking for loot like a violence-addicted truffle pig feels immediately natural, no doubt thanks to the several parkour and zombies titles that are currently on the market. Still, there’s a relentless optimism running through Dead Island 2 that makes it far less exhausting and much sillier than some of its zombie-slaying stablemates. even as you adventure on side-quests to find young teenagers that you’ll find chewed up by zombies or listen to audio logs of many character’s final moments, one telling the tale of a guitarist in their panic room as they try to play just one last track before giving in to the endless hunger for flesh (zombies, what can you do.) When it turns out, after a big sleep handcuffed to a bed, that you are not just a born zombie killer but you’re also immune to the virus itself, the stage is set for you to plow through and save everyone around you.

I don’t have any worries about the game’s setting. Dropping players into LA opens the door for a lot of satire and a variety of different scenarios and I’m eager to see the full game and where it might take players.

My biggest Dead Island 2 worry is that the characters in the game’s story don’t feel particularly fleshed out. Broad stereotypes are fine for a zombie movie, but while characters on the big screen are often reduced to their component parts and gently chewed by the 90-minute mark, an open-world adventure could see you dealing with the same old faces for up to 40 hours. Every character here felt grating immediately and I hope the full game gives each of them a little more to do than sit around the place like a series of future escort quests.

Dead Island 2
Dead Island 2. Credit: Deep Silver

A fellow zombie-killer (and returning Dead Island character) Sam B shows up early into the game and promises a bit more than moping in safety, but he’s really just a big tough exposition delivery device and a nod back to fans who played the original game all the way back in 2011. Dead Island 2 is going to need a big narrative reason to pull players through the entire game, and it currently feels like this area is lacking.

For the preview though, the setting and combat alone made it a joy. Weaponry in these early stages largely involves twatting a zed upside the head with a 2×4, pipe-wrench or a wall-mounted katana belonging to a C-list celebrity, and even with these base weapons it’s easy to see one of Dead Island 2’s stand-out features: body deformation. Batter a zombie with a blunt object and you’ll see the jaw come off, limbs breaking under the blows and maybe even an eyeball bursting after a good whack. Flesh sloughs off under a frenzy of attacks, while a bladed weapon might even cut off a zombie’s leg and dump it onto the floor, while a displaced arm will make it unable to grab or swing for you. This is disgusting, but for fans of a little zombie slaughter, gore-splattered carnage will likely be part of the fun.

As you adventure to the home of actress Emma Jaunt, you’ll be hoovering up loot with no clear purpose, but you’ll clear out mansions and pool houses and enjoy the simple thrill of the movement and combat. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but it nails the fundamentals.

‘Dead Island 2’. CREDIT: Dambuster Studios

The same can’t be said for its PC performance. While playing, we saw substantial frame drops in some areas that could only be resolved by restarting the game. Keep an eye on reviews of the game at launch to see if this has been resolved – it’s common for early builds of any game to struggle solely due to the many many different configurations of PCs on the market – but outside of the restarts it didn’t do much to hamper my enjoyment.

Play a little longer and you’ll start to see more of the game’s bigger features. Environmental damage isn’t a new idea, but turning on a portable generator to cook a swimming pool full of zombies or pouring a circle of oil to create a burning barrier of safety is always going to be a lot of fun, while there’s a slapstick quality to lobbing a barrel full of water at a shambling foe before hitting him in the face with a car battery for an electrifying, if not necessarily realistic, finale. Later during the hands on you’ll come across a pool filled with acid. While you definitely don’t want to be hopping in for a swim, there are plenty of enemies that you can dropkick into the pool, and it’s a memorable, grody, sequence.

Soon enough, you’ll get unleashed on the game’s crafting system, which lets you turn some of the weapons on offer into godless killing machines. Weapons have different rareties here. Most of these early zombie slaying tools are common, but you might find an uncommon or even rare weapon hiding about and then you’re able to take it to a crafting bench and modify the thing, MacGyvering in a little electricity generator for arcing lightning or somehow making a blunt weapon able to deliver a corrosive acidic smackdown that will quite literally melt the flesh of your enemies.

As the game starts to unfold, Dead Island 2 starts to feel like something that can deliver on the promise of Big Dumb Fun, even if it might lack much for players looking for something more cerebral. As with many of these games, the co-op – which we didn’t get to try during our preview – will likely operate as a multiplier for the fun times but currently Dead Island 2 currently feels more like an Army of the Dead-esque splatter-’em-up than a masterpiece. It’s bloody good fun though.

Dead Island 2 releases on April 21 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series and PC. NME previewed the game on PC.

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