A breath of FLESH air…
Dead Island 2 got revealed at Sony’s E3 2014 Press Conference. That’s nearly 9 years ago now, and in that time rumours have swirled about switches in developers, project reboots, and several suggested that it was outright cancelled. Thankfully, the latter proved not to be accurate, and it’s now finally time to get your hands on Dambuster Studio’s latest release, as you hack and slash your way through the infected streets of LA. Or Hell-A, as it’s been re-christened.
You can choose from a set of characters during the game’s frantic opening scenes, each coming equipped with their own boosts to stats, and a couple of unique abilities to boot. Outside of these boosts, there’s not a huge amount of difference between the characters from the time I’ve had with them, but your mileage may vary. For clarity, I spent most of my time with Dani, the loud mouthed Irish punk rocker, and I had a damn good time doing so.
In terms of the story, it’s fairly standard zombie fare. I never finished the first game, but it is referenced quite early on. There’s been a new zombie infestation in Los Angeles, which is now being quarantined from the rest of the planet. A group of characters hop on board a plane out, but (surprise surprise) it’s found its way into the plane, which shortly goes down. A few survivors band together, hole up somewhere, and you then set off to find a way out, while figuring out just why you’re so valuable to the CDC. It’s a solid, enjoyable story, even if it’s not going to dethrone the likes of God of War Ragnarok in terms of narrative awards.
Onto the gameplay then, and this is where Dambuster have outdone themselves. As mentioned in our preview, there’s a phenomenal system that’s been deployed here, and that’s the FLESH system. The “Fully Localised Evisceration System for Humans” is definitely an “Acronym first” name, but it does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s a procedurally generated damage system, that will mark, and damage, each hit individually. This provides some incredible opportunities to players, such as fully dismembering an approaching zombie, or just lopping one leg off, and watching your foe helplessly crawl toward their doom as you wield a sledgehammer over their head. It’s suitably gruesome, and the damage is exacerbated by the elemental effects you can assign to the weapons as well. If you’ve got a fire-infused weapon, you’ll start to notice the flesh being singed from the undead horde. Electrical weapons will have a similar effect. Caustic weapons will start to melt the flesh from their bodies, and the “impactor” mods will add more grunt to your strikes, making for eye-watering viewing as you watch an arm bone snap under the skin. It’s honestly some of the most fun I’ve had smacking zombies about in a game, and it’s a huge upgrade from just seeing splodges from gunfire hit them until they eventually fall over. In addition to these, you can craft traps for groups of enemies by doing things such as drenching the floor in water and throwing a car battery into the resulting puddle, or setting fire to a petrol can that you’ve poured all over the floor, resulting in a lovely fireball that will burn them to a crisp.
Gruesome kills aside, the general gameplay loop of DI2 is pretty straightforward. Get an objective, go to it, kill some brain-hungry ex-humans, then return to a safe house before doing it all again. Some of the missions in here are a bunch of fun though, and I rarely found myself thinking “Not again” as I picked up a new quest. There are, of course, some side quests to take on and further expand your skillset (Do not sleep on the Lost and Found ones, by the way, some of the rewards are superb), and you’re not bombarded with icons on the map like an Assassin’s Creed style open world.
In fact, calling this game an open world is doing it a bit of a disservice. I’m at a stage in my gaming life now where I prefer to have a more linear story put in front of me, that I can just crack on with and get through. Dead Island 2 merges a linear story with open areas really well here. If you want to go exploring, you can do without any penalty (save for your weapons getting a bit battered). When you’re ready, the quests are there to jump back into without needing to go and reset anything. For the most part, I was mainlining the story, but I did stop and go through some of the side objectives, which are all equally as entertaining as the main game. Throughout these, you’ll find Skill Cards, which can be added to your character in order to give you an edge in combat, new weapons, and a ton of journal entries which flesh out the rest of the story if you’re into the lore of it.
Talking of the Skill Cards, there’s a lot to dig into here. There are five separate areas that you can upgrade, and you unlock slots to put them in as you gain XP throughout the game. It’s a really good system, which allows you to completely customise your character to suit your play style. There are some abilities later on which I won’t spoil, but can very quickly turn the tables on an encroaching swarm, especially if you have some bigger boys coming at you. In terms of moment to moment gameplay, there’s a lot of crafting available, which can be done at the numerous workbenches around the world, as well as finding weapons randomly strewn across the environments. One thing I really appreciated was the ability to match your weapon’s level to your character’s. This means that if you become attached to a weapon (my beloved slaughtering claws as an example), you can keep them through the entire game, and bring their damage stats up to par, meaning you don’t have to scrap or sell them. It’s a very cool mechanic, which even though a little pricey, can certainly help you get through some pretty gnarly fights.
Graphically, the game looks really nice. I’m not sure on the native resolution (I played on the Series X) but for the most part, the frame rate definitely holds up. It did start to get a little bit chunky when I entered one much more open area than others (and I’m sure we’ll have a performance video up once the day one patch is here), but in single player, it’s relatively stable throughout the entire game. I did notice it really start to get a bit jittery during gameplay in co-op, but we’ll hopefully be able to cover that a bit more once that patch has hit. Hell-A feels like it’s been suitably renamed here. Everything feels like it’s just gone to, er, hell. Cars lie crashed in the street with bodies under their wheels, electrical cables dangle from pylons, and the blood. Oh good lord, the blood. It’s everywhere. Imagine if you gave a toddler an open tin of red paint and told them to run around your house. I imagine that’s pretty close to the amount of claret on show here. The environment is pitched perfectly, with certain areas of LA recognisable from just the feel of it alone. Of course, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously either, coming off as more “Shaun” than “Dawn”, and it’s all the better for it. There is one moment early on where you have to navigate through a YouTuber house, and it’s so on the nose, it’s hilarious.
Wrapping up then, Dead Island 2 is a very, very fun video game. There are a few jump scares here and there (as you’d expect from a zombie game), but on the whole it’s definitely not a horror game. At least, not in the purest sense. The combat is sublime, thanks to that FLESH system, and by the time I’d unlocked the guns, I was genuinely torn whether to use them, such is the satisfaction of watching limbs and bits of zombie fly off them all. If you do succumb to them, respawning is quick and doesn’t result in any lack of progress, so you can get back into the mauling. There are some fantastic set pieces in here as well, with some of the boss fights proving pretty difficult. I had fears that this game was going to be another Duke Nukem Forever, but I think it’s safe to say this is definitely not the case, and you shouldn’t sleep on it.