Getting your pounds of FLESH…
I remember being in the room when Dead Island 2 was announced. It was in 2014, at the Sony E3 Press Conference. We were also privy to a preview, but at that point it really seemed like a proof of concept more than anything else. And that’s how it stayed for a long time. A change in developer, plenty of rumour and speculation, and then finally, after 9 years, the game was on my Xbox. It felt somewhat bizarre booting it up with all of that knowledge behind me, and with all of the history lurking in the shadows, I wondered if we had another Duke Nukem Forever on our hands.
Thankfully, from the 7 or so hours I’ve had with the game, it’s safe to say that is not the case at all. The first thing that struck me was just how technically solid the preview build was. What seemed like a solid 60fps greeted me, with tons of environment detail on display, and it didn’t let up throughout my time with it.
The game opens with a suitably chaotic scene. The apocalypse has broken out, the dead are rising and attempting to snack on anything with a pulse, and there are a bunch of characters on board a plane, which soon goes down, leaving barely any survivors. It’s here where you choose your character, and begin the journey. I opted for Dani in my first run, a punk rock fan with bright green hair and a thick Irish accent. Sure, there was more than an element of cliché about some of the character traits, but in the context of the game, it worked really well. Each of our heroes have their own unique abilities, as well as differing stats, so it might be worth either playing through the opening a few times to figure out your favourite, or indeed go through multiple playthroughs. After I was done with the preview areas, I went back and picked some of the other characters to run through the opening scenes again with, and there are definite differences between them, albeit quite subtle.
After clawing out of the wreckage, the first task is to meet up with the other survivors. The plane was filled with high profile individuals getting out of LA (and the heroes, who managed to sneak on board), and as such the first person you meet is a Hollywood actress, and her hangers-on. They hot-foot it back to her mansion and tell you to meet them there, and leave you to start battering the hordes of undead that begin to start chomping on anything in sight. After a brief scuffle, your hero gets bitten, and it’s here that the fun truly begins. You see, your character is immune, which not only points to bigger things down the line, but also helps the gameplay and the regenerative health aspect of the game.
In the preview, I only had access to melee combat weapons, which forces you to get up close and personal with the zombies. Fighting my way through Bel-Air, across an overrun hotel, and into a movie studio all fit perfectly into the “Hell-A” setting, with a bunch of weapons from steel pipes and knives all the way up to swords and Wolverine style claws that promised to do some hefty damage. And it’s here where the real star of Dead Island 2 rears its head. The FLESH system. FLESH stands for Fully Localised Evisceration System for Humans, which definitely smacks of “acronym first, meaning later”, but it’s genuinely the most impressive thing about the game from what I’ve seen so far. Instead of just having numbers pop up from the zombies’ heads, this really encourages you to target different areas and obliterate bits of zombies in some truly grotesque ways with procedurally generated damage. Getting attacked by runners? Use a bladed weapon to slice their legs off. Armoured enemies proving too hard to dismember? Target their weak spots with a blunt object until they can’t move any more. Bruising enemies with long arms? Smash the bones in their arms to the point they can’t hurt you any more. The system applies to every enemy in the game, meaning no one kill is ever the same as another. If you use bladed weapons, their clothing and skin gets sliced up as you attack. Blunt objects leave trauma marks, with bones sticking out of bodies. It elevates the combat from a fun time battering swathes of similar enemies to a real tactical fight at times, forcing you to work out the best tool for the job, while also adding a whole new layer of gruesome into the process. One of the standout features of FLESH is the reaction to fire. Dump a can of petrol on the floor, drop a spark on it and watch the flames engulf your foes, then marvel at how the skin and clothing react to the flames. I can’t wait to see what the community create with this system, as it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a game for a while. The zombies don’t just die, they get pulverised.
As mentioned previously, my time with the game so far has been spent exclusively with melee combat. It takes a bit of getting used to, as some of the zombies are pretty tough, but once you’ve got your head round it, you can chain together some really impressive kill combos. Abilities for your hero are assigned through a pretty neat card system, with dodging, health regeneration and other abilities being present for me. Each character has a few unique cards as well, such as dropkicks for Dani, allowing you to customise things to your taste. My style in a lot of games tends to be “kill first, ask questions later”, so health regen and dodging were key ones for me to go to. It leads to some tense moments, but there is rarely any permanent penalty for death. The game respawns you near to your point of demise, with the same weaponry available, and lets you get straight back into the action, which is something I really appreciated.
In addition to the standard weapons, you can also upgrade them. This is the usual trick of finding elements in the world, then heading to a workbench and crafting some bits to slap on to your weapon, which provide you with an elemental attack as well. As mentioned, my favourite is probably the fire mod, but as you make your way through the game you’ll be able to pick up a ton of new blueprints, allowing you to customise whatever it is you’ve gotten your hands on. It also allows you to create some traps for any zombies that may be blocking your way. For example, if you empty a water jug onto the floor, then throw a car battery at it, it’ll create an electrical trap which will frazzle any poor sod who walks into it (including you!). It’s a very cool system that gives you just enough toys to cause the maximum amount of chaos. One thing I did really appreciate with the crafting system was the “match level” option for the weapons. If you find something you like (such as my beloved Wolverine claws), you can keep them and upgrade them to your current level, meaning you’ll never lose your babies.
All these zombies, and I’ve not even gotten to the boss fights yet! Of course, there are some enormous enemies which you’ll encounter, two of which were here for me to grapple with. The first, in the hotel, was incredibly tough, and required a bit of lateral thinking to get past in such a tight space. The second, in a movie set, was in a much more open area, with a lot of environmental hazards to trap them, and their minions, inside. It’s already showing that there’s more than one way to skin a cat (or, in this case, mutilate a zombie), and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the game brings.
Overall, my time with Dead Island 2 so far has been thoroughly enjoyable. The build I got to play was remarkable stable, with very few bugs, which bodes well for the full release next month. The story has a distinctly Los Angeles twist on the regular undead theme, but the top billing on the poster really has to go to the hugely impressive FLESH system, which helps elevate the game from “just another zombie game” to another level. Almost nine years after its initial reveal, Dead Island 2 is showing all the signs that sometimes, good things come to those who wait.