As the one survivor seemingly immune to the zombie infection running rampant in its quarantined Los Angeles setting, Dead Island 2 lets you become the most pugilistic plastic surgeon in Hollywood, doling out blunt force facelifts to every valley ghoul and undead surfer dude staggering around its post-apocalyptic paradise setting. During my recent hands-on with the first five hours of this long awaited zombie-slaying sequel, I had a blood-splattered blast becoming the rotting flesh prince of Bel-Air and turning every floor in the city into a ghastly red carpet, even if it did feel at times like I’d curb-stomped a lot of these same skulls before.
After surviving a plane crash in its opening moments during an aborted attempt to escape the city, Dead Island 2 sent me on a search for fellow survivors from Bel-Air to Beverly Hills. The Los Angeles setting is not one big open world – rather 10 districts stitched together by loading screens – and despite the presence of countless abandoned vehicles, you’re forced to remain carbon neutral by roaming around entirely on foot at a speed that feels somewhat listless in the wake of Dying Light 2’s high-speed wall-runnings. Still, each section of the city I’ve seen so far is sizable and encourages exploration and return visits. Fuses bought from vendors can be used to open locked garages, allowing you to ransack them for rare items and weaponry, while certain other areas are guarded by overpowered zombies denoted by a skull symbol that killed me with one hit – clearly they’re intended to be avoided at first encounter, before eventually overcome later on once you’ve leveled up your character to be resilient enough to withstand their attacks.
Speaking of which, Dead Island 2 allows you to choose from six different slayers, each with their own base strengths and weaknesses. Amy is agile and athletic, able to regain stamina with each weapon throw and gains a damage boost when attacking isolated zombies, while stuntman Jacob has more health and his attacks grow more powerful when landed in quick succession. For my playthrough I opted for Ryan, the more tank-like member of Dead Island 2’s playable cast who regains health every time he knocks a zombie to the ground. Ryan is described as an exotic dancer and is dressed like a fireman on his way to a bachelorette party, but the closest he gets to a stripper’s pole is the steel pole he uses to strip the arms and legs off his undead assailants. I certainly appreciate the variety of playable leads, although a by-product of having to accommodate six separate vocal tracks in story cutscenes means the dialogue can come across as noticeably disjointed at times.
Building on each character’s base stats, Dead Island 2’s skill card system allows you to tailor your character traits to best suit your play style. It’s a refreshingly streamlined approach that contrasts with some of the more convoluted skill trees found in other modern action adventures, allowing you to choose between basic abilities like blocks and dodges and then layering on cards to further enhance them. For example, I chose to equip the Flying Kick card so that I could knock zombies into other zombies or off the edges of rooftops, and then stacked it with the Wrecking Ball card which weakened zombie defenses even further with each flying kick I landed. The bulk of the cards I unlocked as I progressed my character to level 10 during my hands-on were useful though not especially game changing, like gaining health from well-timed blocks or performing a war cry to receive a temporary toughness boost, but I’m assuming that some of the flashier super-powered abilities will come in the form of the top tier ‘Numen’ cards, which I’m unfortunately yet to come across this early on in the adventure.
You don’t need a poker face to handle Dead Island 2’s deck of cards, but you will need to poke a face, stab a torso, and lop off an arm or two during each and every encounter with LA’s population of meat puppets.
You don’t need a poker face to handle Dead Island 2’s deck of cards, but you will need to poke a face, stab a torso, and lop off an arm or two during each and every encounter with LA’s population of meat puppets. Thankfully you’re armed with a unique assortment of improvised utensils in order to tackle Dead Island 2’s all-you-can-beat buffet, from golf clubs to pipe wrenches to claymores, and many of them feel enjoyably distinct to use, from the satisfying way a heavy attack with a butchers knife temporarily lodges the blade in the bridge of an enemy’s nose, to the rapid blows of the brass knuckles that allow you to punch a zombie’s brain right out of the back of its skull like you’re pitting the world’s angriest olive.
Most of them can be upgraded with various mods and perks, and I souped-up the set of Wolverine-style claws with a Slaughter perk in order to enhance their damage to limbs, and covered a baseball bat with nails so that it inflicted persistent bleeding damage with every swing. There’s some strategy to weapon choice too – a fire-augmented axe is less effective against a zombie that’s already in flames, for example – so it’s good to load up with a set of smacking and slashing tools to suit all occasions. My deftness with the weapon wheel was tested during one side mission where a Gen Z influencer tasked me with dispatching waves of monsters in various specific ways in order to capture footage for her channel. By the end of it I’d bludgeoned, bisected, and barbecued enough undead assailants to fill her Twitch stream with a steady stream of twitching bodies, and had plenty of laughs while I was at it.
This was just one of a handful of memorable setpieces packed full of more rancid zombie varieties than you can shake a barbed wire-covered stick at. In the grounds of the Halperin Hotel I turned a pool party into a bloodbath, gleefully knocking swimsuited screamers to dissolve in puddles of toxic waste. When confronted with swarmer zombies that have an active beehive lodged in their solar plexus I kept my distance, lobbing car batteries at them to shock them into submission. When I was surrounded by soldier types I kicked the grenadiers into the crowd so that the volatile explosives strapped to their chests blew up harder than a TikTok dance. And when I found myself in a Hollywood backlot battling against a disgusting acid-spitting boss, I took advantage of the special effects consoles littered around the service station movie set to trigger pyrotechnic blasts from the petrol bowsers that melted the snarling hulk’s face off in a fiery blaze of gory glory.
In between these high points, though, there are early signs here that the decaying flesh hanging off its shuffling citizens might not be the only thing that could grow stale in Dead Island 2, and it could potentially become a fairly repetitive experience over the course of the adventure. Building interiors are noticeably reused, with the layout of one mansion I prowled through in Bel-Air virtually identical to another in Beverly Hills, and so are a number of mission objectives; I’ve had to replace the circuit breaker on an electronic gate to stop the advancing zombie hordes on more than one occasion already, which seems a little uninspired. In spite of the extensive weapon augmentation and skill buffs, combat in Dead Island 2’s opening hours too often boils down to just clumsily caving in zombie skulls with a bunch of blunt instruments, and once the horrifying thrill of seeing jaw bones knocked loose and eyeballs dislodged and left dangling by their stems has worn off, grinding through these garden variety ghouls does tend to feel about as challenging as bashing a piñata without a blindfold on.
Once the horrifying thrill of seeing jaw bones knocked loose and eyeballs dislodged and left dangling by their stems has worn off, grinding through these garden variety ghouls does tend to feel about as challenging as bashing a piñata without a blindfold on.
On that note, it was striking me as odd that I’d spent five hours in the land of the Second Amendment rummaging through the personal safes and panic rooms of the rich and famous without finding a single firearm, but right at the end of my hands-on I received a call on the walkie talkie from returning series character, Sam B, informing me that he had a lead on a gun and acquiring it was to become the next story objective. That was an enticing way to finish, since the promise of modifiable shotguns and assault rifles in combination with a few more weird and wonderful enemy types and the berzerker Fury mode hinted at in recent trailers, has me feeling optimistic that Dead Island 2’s combat will evolve enough to keep me on the hook throughout the course of its limb-lopping tour through La La Land. There’s certainly a strong foundation for flesh-flaying fun here, so here’s hoping that after a nine-year wait for Dead Island 2 to come out it ultimately proves to be beyond a mere shuffle-step forward for the series and more like a pulse-quickening lunge for your jugular.
Tristan Ogilvie is a video producer at IGN’s Sydney office. The closest he’s been to encountering zombies in LA is on the final day of E3. He rarely tweets, but when he does you can find him here.