Dead Island 2 Isn’t Ridiculous Enough
For all its parodies and all of its gore, Dead Island 2 doesn't fully embrace its own ridiculousness in some of the areas that matter most.
Dead Island 2’s best moments are also its most ridiculous. Discovering that you can acquire superpowers. Setting your feet on fire and dropkicking a horde of zombies into a pile of gasoline cans. Finding an axe that’s basically a flame thrower and a pistol that’s actually a rocket launcher. These are the kinds of moments that make Dead Island 2 feel special.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Dead Island 2 functions best as an absurd game. Most of Dead Island 2’s marketing has centered on its parody humor, silly characters, and over-the-top gore. By the time you actually finish Dead Island 2, though, you may be surprised to find that the game just isn’t ridiculous enough. For all its obvious attempts at embracing chaos, the fact of the matter is that Dead Island 2 spends too much time trying to be a much more conventional game.
Specifically, Dead Island 2 too often feels like Dying Light. Again, that’s not a surprise. As we’ve previously discussed, the relationship between Dying Light and Dead Island 2 is obvious, yet complicated. Developer Techland made the original Dead Island but left the franchise to make the Dying Light series due to creative differences and commercial concerns. Yager Development was brought in by publisher Deep Silver to work on Dead Island 2, but they left the project in 2015 due to creative differences. Since then, Yager has filed for insolvency. Eventually, the job fell to Dambuster Studios, who delivered the final version of the game.
It’s a classic case of “development hell,” and it’s honestly a miracle that Dambuster delivered a version of Dead Island 2 that feels as complete as the final version of Dead Island 2 does. Yet, it’s hard not to get hung up on those commonly cited “creative differences.” The nature of those differences remains ambiguous, but it seems clear that there have been notable disagreements regarding what kind of game Dead Island 2 should be.
As you play Dead Island 2, though, it will soon become clear what kind of game Dead Island 2 shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be the game that constantly asks you to meticulously scrounge for the dull resources needed to make minor upgrades to breakable weapons. It shouldn’t be the game that constantly asks you to hunt down batteries, fuses, and keys. It shouldn’t be the game that makes you work to unlock its limited two-player mode as so many modern games often do for no real reason. It most certainly shouldn’t be the game that forces you to participate in hours of frustratingly slow melee combat before the fun really begins.
To be fair, some of those more traditional survival horror design elements are clearly working as intended. They exist to slow your progress, sell the threat of the zombies themselves, and make you feel a sense of progression as your character goes from “guy with a wrench and a dream” to a superhero zombie slayer. More importantly, many of those design elements were key components of the original Dead Island. If there was a time to go reinventing the series’ wheel, it was about three developers ago.
However, there are numerous horror games out there that better utilize similar survival horror concepts. Most notably, Dying Light 2 makes more out of a lot of the core mechanics it shares with Dead Island 2, largely because it feels like Techland genuinely wanted to make a game in that style. Dambuster was obviously dealt a bad hand with Dead Island 2’s development woes, but it sometimes feels like they played it safe when they should have been fishing for that ace.
Dead Island 2’s ace could have easily been the utter ridiculousness the game embraces when it’s parodying “Hell-A” and modern popular culture with half-hearted jokes, but too often ignores in its gameplay that sometimes feels scared to throw conventions out the window and just let things break.
Well, I say “Let things break.” Dead Island 2 should embrace the philosophy seen in the Just Cause franchise, Saints Row 3, or even the underrated Mercenaries series and its “Playground of Destruction” approach to open-world gameplay. Those are the games that extended the absurdity of their premises to the ridiculousness of their gameplay by giving players the keys to a kingdom of destructive possibilities, waving goodbye, and saying “Have fun.”
Forget balance, forget survival, and forget those loose car batteries that seem to outnumber even the undead. Embrace fiery dropkicks, finding ways to turn environmental hazards into elaborate death traps, and the kind of overpowered abilities the game lets you spend tragically little time with.
At present, Dead Island 2’s best moments are limited to the times when it lets you break free of the various ways it tries to hold you down. In those moments, the stars sometimes align and chaotic magic happens. Well, the wonderful thing about embracing chaos magic is that you don’t have to care if things work out perfectly.
So what if your character is overpowered? Make the challenges around them greater if you have to, or just let players have fun figuring out what kind of things they can make happen with their incredible abilities. So what if the physics break? Video game physics are often at their best when they’re breaking, and that’s especially true when those broken physics result in uppercutting a zombie into space.
Look, I can’t argue against Dead Island 2’s success. The game has reportedly sold over a million copies already, which is an impressive enough number on its own before you even take the game’s nightmarish development cycle into account. There is clearly a market for what Dead Island was and what Dead Island 2 offers, and history tells us that publishers don’t like messing with formulas as long as they’re keeping the lights on.
Even still, you can’t play Dead Island 2 and tell me the game is at its best when it’s holding you back. There is a wide-open market at the moment for true sandbox/playground experiences, and, against all the odds they had to face, Dambuster has shown that they can craft a pretty compelling version of such an experience.
Developer Dambuster Studios deserves to be commended for getting Dead Island 2 across the finish line in the ways that they did. In many ways, they over delivered. Yet, when it comes to delivering the absurd trip through sunny Hell-A filled with elaborate dismemberments that the title’s marketing focuses on, Dead Island 2 often skewers influencers with more frequency and enthusiasm than it regularly lets you freely skewer zombies.
Dambuster has earned the right to make Dead Island 3 and, when they do, I hope they no longer feel the need to let franchise and genre expectations get in the way of the ridiculous good time they’re clearly capable of delivering.