To be honest, I was feeling a little apprehensive about the roughly five-hour-long Dead Island 2 demo I recently got the chance to play. I enjoyed (but certainly didn’t love) the original Dead Island, and the sequel’s rocky development certainly raised a few red flags. Besides, we’re not exactly hurting for zombie games. I just couldn’t imagine how Dead Island 2 was going to separate itself from the horde.
As it turns out, the game almost instantly stood out by virtue of following the example set by one of my favorite zombie films ever: 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead.
Essentially an early meta-horror movie, Return of the Living Dead takes place in a world where the Night of the Living Dead film exists (its actual connections to that franchise are fascinating and complicated). One day, a worker at a medical supply warehouse is trying to impress a new hire by showing him a canister that apparently contains the remains of the “real” monster that inspired Night of the Living Dead. He accidentally causes the shoddily built barrel to leak, which not only unleashes the zombie inside but infects the pair of woefully ignorant employees. A series of truly bad decisions soon leads to all the corpses in a nearby graveyard being reanimated. The nearby employees and a group of ’80s punks just looking for a good time must now try to survive the night and battle some of the toughest and smartest undead ever put on film. Yes, I said smart. After all, this was the movie that established the trope that zombies crave brains.
Return of the Living Dead is a horror comedy in the truest sense of that term. That is to say that much of its comedy is found in its horror. It’s bleak, it’s scary, and it’s incredibly gory, but it celebrates the fun in all of those things (think Creepshow or Evil Dead 2). It’s obviously not the only zombie comedy, but its almost Looney Tunes-esque approach to that concept makes it my favorite. It’s like the goriest Charlie Chaplin movie that you’ve ever seen combined with an incredible soundtrack, all-time great ’80s punks, and some fantastic lines courtesy of Alien writer, Dan O’Bannon.
Dead Island 2 feels closer to Return of the Living Dead than any piece of zombie media in recent memory. Set in an apocalyptic version of L.A. (affectionately known as Hell-A), Dead Island 2 is as absurd as the real-life version of its chosen location can often be. The highlight of that absurdity is undoubtedly the game’s FLESH system.
Short for “Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids” (apparently), FLESH is a highly-detailed damage and dismemberment system. See, every zombie in the game features fairly anatomically correct structures that are designed to react to anything and everything. Hitting a zombie in the head with a baseball bat will produce a different splatter than if you swung at its ribs. Hitting a zombie in the ribs will be widely different from clawing at its face. Clawing at its face has nothing on setting it on fire and dropkicking it down a flight of stairs.
The FLESH system not only ensures that no two kills are ever the same but that the results of the game’s moment-to-moment combat are often quite surprising. You really have to see it in action to appreciate how wild it can be. Not since the Soldier of Fortune games have I seen a title so gleefully embrace the chaotic aftermath of combat. Dismemberments are one thing, but Dead Island 2 lets you turn a fully-formed zombie into a pile of discarded organs if you choose to do so and then mash those organs into a paste if the urge to do so strikes your twisted fancy.
Is it all a gimmick? Well…kind of, but it’s a gimmick that gives the game that personality it needed to stand apart. Much like Return of the Living Dead, Dead Island 2 finds exhilaration in evisceration. The game is gorier than most, but it dares to look at you with a sideway glance and celebrate that gore as many horror fans have long done even when they’re not supposed to. Horror can be fun while still being gory and unhinged, and Dead Island 2 understands that idea in ways that few zombie games in recent memory have.
More importantly, the FLESH system helps Dead Island 2 avoid that bullet sponge problem we recently talked about. The game’s enemies are inherently spongey, but being able to feel the impact that each of your strikes, shots, and stabs has on those enemies means that you don’t just feel like you’re hitting a button and waiting for a death animation to render. Not since the early days of the HAVOK physics system seen in games like Max Payne 2 and Half-Life 2 have I played something that embraces the joy of seeing what will happen to an enemy body after you’re done with them quite like this one does.
It’s not just the gore, though. Dead Island 2 also showcases its more playful side through customization options that start with your chosen character. Like the best horror movie survivors, each of Dead Island 2‘s selectable characters has their own personalities, backstories, and skills. The skills are obviously important out of the gate, but the character’s personalities shine in unexpected ways. There are a lot of jokes in this game, and the delivery, timing, and content of those jokes will often at least be somewhat dependent on which characters you’ve chosen.
Of course, you can further customize your character via the game’s skill card and gear systems. The skill card system essentially replaces the skill tree system from the previous game. Instead of choosing between sets of skills over time, you’ll instead build a small deck of interchangeable skill cards found throughout the game (think Back 4 Blood). Some cards seem to be much more powerful than others, but you’re often encouraged to mix and match complementary abilities to find the right set of cards. It’s a dynamic and enjoyable variation on the traditional “build” system, though there were times when I found myself wondering if it will feel a little more limited in the long run than a traditional skill tree system.
The game’s weapon customization system is a real gem, though. Not only are there tons of weapons in the game (everything from household objects to military hardware), but you can customize pretty much every weapon to some degree. It’s not quite a “make your own weapon” system, but it’s not far off either. Adding electricity to your metal claws at least makes them “feel” like new weapons. Besides, you’re meant to constantly experiment with not just new customization combos but environmental interactions and enemy weaknesses to find what can work best. Combined with the game’s FLESH system…well, it’s a lot of fun to see how what kind of havoc you can cause and how much of it you can generate.
Not everything is sunny in LA, though. Like its predecessor, Dead Island 2‘s combat and movement systems can sometimes feel clunky. The FLESH system helps keep the combat fresher than before, but until you get some better abilities and more exciting weapons, you may find yourself relying on a somewhat similar set of melee maneuvers. Because Dead Island 2 lacks something similar to Dying Light 2‘s parkour system, it can also sometimes feel like a bit of a slog to get from one objective to another. Things opened up a bit as I progressed (a trend I suspect the full version of the game will continue), but repetition did start to creep in. We’ll see if the final version of the game challenges you to be as creative as it sometimes allows you to be.
There’s also the potential issue of the game’s level design. Dead Island 2 uses “large spaces” rather than the original game’s open-world structure, which I’m theoretically fine with. The original game didn’t do a lot with its open-world design anyway. The problem is that the areas you get in this game (at least so far) are not only smaller but fairly similar. Is that just a commentary on the stagnant suburban design of the homes in the hills that this demo focused on? Perhaps, though a little more variety in key areas and the missions you can complete in them would have felt like a better match for the other areas of the game that offer so many creative options.
The game’s humor is another potential hurdle for many. Comedy is subjective, but Dead Island 2 features a ton of jokes. It’s unlikely that all of them will land for you, and those who just don’t mesh with the game’s sense of humor at all will likely be quickly worn down by it. It’s too early to tell if it’s going to reach Forspoken lows of comedy bludgeoning, but that’s certainly a possibility.
For all its potential downsides, though, Dead Island 2 often gave me more than I expected from it. It’s an utterly ridiculous zombie game that celebrates gory fun like so few other entries in that genre truly do. After all, the things that elevate movies like Return of the Living Dead after all these years aren’t just their standalone qualities but the ways they often feel like a breath of fresh air compared to everything else out there. While I wonder if Dead Island 2 will ultimately offer enough fresh content to justify its full price tag in the middle of a historically busy year for new releases, it certainly gave me something that I can’t seem to ever get enough of.
Dead Island 2 is scheduled to be released on April 21st for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Windows PC.