Getting stuck in development hell often doesn’t bode well for games. For every Final Fantasy VII Remake or The Last Guardian, there’s an Aliens: Colonial Marines or Duke Nukem Forever. Often, the final releases lack a compelling design identity, chasing trends that popped up over the years and feeling like a mishmash of multiple developers’ ideas of what the game should be. My biggest fear going into my hands-on demo with a near-final build of the oft-delayed Dead Island 2 was that it’d feel devoid of much creativity or lack a clear vision; thankfully, I was dead wrong.
It’s well known at this point that Dead Island 2 had an extremely troubled development cycle, suffering many release date delays and developer shifts. Despite that, Dambuster Studios’ final version of Dead Island 2 features some creative gameplay ideas, like the gory F.L.E.S.H. dismemberment system and environmental interactions, as well as inventive set pieces that lean hard into its comedic bougie apocalypse in Los Angeles premise. These moments could define Dead Island 2, reclaiming its troubled narrative come release day.
Dead Island 2 begins with the player surviving a plane crash after a rich person on a flight out of LA turned out to be infected and attacked everyone on board. After choosing a character and navigating through the wreckage, I found a rich actress Emma Jaunt and her manager. They ultimately abandon the player as they try to help others but tell them to come to Jaunt’s house in Bel-Air if they survive.
It’s here where players get the hang of Dead Island 2’s melee combat and degradable weapons as they fend off hordes of zombies. While I did eventually succeed, my character was bitten by one of the people they were trying to save. It turns out the player’s character is immune, so they eventually regroup with Emma Jaunt and her “friends” at her luxurious Bel-Air home and worth with them to escape LA. The first step is for the player to contact the government to inform them that they are immune.
Dead Island 2’s vibrant word design started to stick out as I trekked through Bel-Air to get to the Hallerpin Hotel, where the military had staged itself and asked survivors to come to. Houses in Bel-Air were overly extravagant, with large infinity pools and room for private events. Still, none of it was actually practical enough to protect these people as they were overrun with zombies. Dead Island 2 color palate is bright and vibrant, nicely contrasting with the horrific zombies and extreme gore I saw throughout the adventure.
I became even more impressed when I took a shortcut through another Bel-Air house, only to open a door and see a giant whiteboard with a video script written on it. “I’m alone in the house, it’s 1 a.m., and I just wanted to say sorry to all of my fans that I’ve disappointed but most importantly my sponsors — I’ll do better next time,” it read. “[CRY HERE FOR SYMPATHY] This isn’t scripted, this is from the heart. Please take the evacuation seriously, it was a mistake. I shouldn’t have joked about it — love you all.”
Oh god, I’m in an insufferable TikTok House, and someone here was making an apology video for joking about the zombie apocalypse.
Upon further inspection, I discovered that this place was called the “GOAT Pen” and was home to several influencers, only one of whom survived. I scavenged for supplies throughout this home, seeing sets built for all kinds of content creators, bongs and beer bottles strewn about everywhere, and even a giant game room with a bowling alley and arcade cabinets referencing Timesplitters and Homefront: The Revolution.
On top of being pretty funny, stumbling upon the GOAT Pen reinforced just how vapid LA culture was, even before the apocalypse. It also demonstrates a deeper effort on the developer’s part to make each place players explore distinct and not just a bunch of copy-and-pasted buildings. There’s a real spark of creativity here in Dead Island 2, and that was only affirmed as I experienced some of the main story’s set pieces.
Beyond the basics
Arriving at the Hallerpin Hotel, it was clear that something was off. Humans are nowhere to be seen, only body bags, zombies, and a pool filled with a deadly chemical. It quickly became apparent that anyone who came here was killed by the military or turned into a zombie. While this level’s premise could’ve stopped there, there was another twist: the military interrupted a wedding when they showed up at the hotel.
The overtly positive vibes and decor of a wedding ceremony and reception added an unexpected spin to this mission. I had to fight a zombified groom and best man at the altar, and after contacting a doctor over a radio left behind here, I had to fight a giant zombified bride in the hotel’s ballroom to the song that was probably supposed to be her first dance with her husband. It’s a video game boss fight that I’ll remember for quite a while.
After that, I returned to Emma Jaunt’s house, only to learn that her assistant had gone rogue to get supplies and prove his worth to Emma. I eventually arrived at Monarch Studios, full of complex sets filled with zombies instead of actors and crew. While searching for Emma’s assistant, I had to fight through various film and TV show sets. Standouts for me were fighting hordes of enemies in the multicam set of a sitcom called Friends Without Benefits and exploring the fake marshes of Rise of the God-Spider, where I fought zombies in costumes of questionable cultural sensitivity.
The Monarch Studios set pieces emphasized some of Dead Island 2’s visual and gameplay strengths. It sports an impressive amount of variety in zombie designs, which I noticed more than before as I moved from set to set in this movie studio, and the looks of the zombies changed accordingly. Meanwhile, these sets were of environmental interactions that allowed me to electrocute zombies, set them on fire, or slowly kill them with acid. These elemental effects, weapon customization, and a detailed melee combat system that chips off skin and flesh depending on where you hit an enemy add much more player agency than expected to gameplay.
This all came to a head in the Monarch Studios boss fight. It was against a bloated zombie that could spit acid — not a new concept in this genre — but a giant mechanical God-Spider loomed over the area, and I could interact with various control panels to cause different elemental effects on the area to chip away damage on the boss and other regular zombies that spawned. Once again, the developers turned what could’ve been a boring boss fight into a memorable setpiece tailored specifically to Dead Island 2’s unique gameplay systems.
These novel ideas all help Dead Island 2 stand out from the countless zombie games and AAA open-world titles I’ve played. By going beyond basic level ideas and adding lots of character to many of the game’s set pieces, the Dambuster Studios team that brought Dead Island 2 to the finish line is asserting itself as creative and passionate. It could have been a lackluster and uninspired game, and I honestly would’ve understood and accepted that, given its tough development cycle.
Instead, this first chunk of the game I went hands-on with has convinced me to play more when it launches so I can see what other wacky ideas it has in store. Even if the final version of the game isn’t amazing, the fact that Dambuster Studios managed to give the released version of Dead Island 2 such a distinctly polished and cohesive identity should be appreciated.
Dead Island 2 launches on April 21 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.