When I loaded up my copy of Dead Island 2 for a hands-on preview, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little cautious. Creating the sequel to one of the best zombie games ever is no easy task, and after years of false starts, it seemed smart to manage my expectations. All I really wanted was the bread-and-butter of first-person melee combat: blood, craftables, and hulking hordes of dead things to carve up.
But as I ready my knuckle-dusters to punch a hole clean through yet another zombie's head, I stand corrected. I expertly swerve to avoid the slack-jawed maw of another shambling corpse, skewering it from spleen to sinus with the tip of my pool cue. Viscera glistens on my fists as I swap to a modified machete, introduce it to a zombie's shoulder, and watch as the electrical surge cooks its flesh with a satisfying sizzle. Once I've hacked it to appropriately-sized chunks and taken a moment to breathe, the ground starts to rumble. It's a pair of Crushers – the unofficial Chad of all apex zombies – and though I wish I had a minimap to keep track of all my enemies, it's official: Dead Island 2 is the most fun a girl can have without taking a zombie's head off. I can't wait to play the rest.
Sun's out, guts out
Dead Island 2 takes place in zombified LA, but developer studio Dambuster is based across the pond in Nottingham, England. "[LA] is such an iconic location, and it is a real melting pot of different cultures, ideas, personality types, and subcultures," game director David Stenton tells GamesRadar+ in an interview. "We've just tried to present that sort of international version, almost the outsider's version of what most people would believe LA to be like."
With the whole city condemned by the government, the game starts with your evacuation plane getting shot out of the sky. You'll then get to choose to play as one of six Slayers, pick your way through the fiery wreckage, and begin your fight for survival. As you explore Bel-Air, you quickly discover that the upper elite are just as human as the rest of us. In fact, it's surprising how much a zombie apocalypse suits the plush residential neighborhoods of the uber-rich. The maps aren't sprawling open world terrain, but still there is no shortage of trashed and bloodied mega-mansions to loot for cash, treasure, and unique weapons. I took a moment to admire the sunset over Beverly Hills, watching the strawberry ice cream skies dip into deep blood reds before continuing my mission, because wow. Dambuster really did its homework on what makes a stunning LA cityscape really pop.
These smaller maps and zones are a departure from the original game's setting, which favors more open world exploration. Don't be disheartened though, it's not a one-size-fits-all deal. "We've really just sort of arrived at what we call districts, and they really vary in size," says Stenton of the decision to go non-open world, "And it's just there to suit the needs of where we are in the story, [and] where we are on that sort of power and progression curve from survivor to Zombie Slayer".
He's referring to, of course, the narrative of the story itself. The first handful of missions are fairly straightforward, and the more controlled map size lends itself well to the linear requirements of these opening scenes. "The game is all about up-close-and-personal fighting," Stenton explains. "So if we create districts that are vast, huge expanses, it kind of detracts from fighting the zombies." These seem most inclined toward the multiplayer aspects of the game, with a feature that lets you huddle with team mates so you can leave each zone together.
In short, smaller districts allow Dambuster to "tailor the environments to really provide the best combat sandbox" for players. I can imagine this as a great feature for co-op gameplay, even if loading screens can feel a little immersion-breaking at times. But really, in a game about smashing up zombies, chucking oil over them, and setting the world ablaze, you're still going to have a glorious time.
Hit the deck
I was instructed to only play the first 14 or so main and side missions of the test build, but it didn't take long for me to realize that one of the coolest new things in Dead Island 2 is its deck-building feature. As you play the game and level up your character, you will unlock or find more skill cards to be swapped into your hand.
By pairing up complementary cards, you can create tailored skill builds that enhance your chosen playstyle, as well as remedy any handicaps your Slayer might suffer from. "Strategy is a big part of Dead Island 2, [as is] choosing the right tool for the right situation," Stenton says of the decision to opt for a skill deck rather than a skill tree. "I think the combat really comes into its own, where you've got what I call that kind of symphony of the combat sandbox."
According to Stenton, it's all about choice. "We try to offer the player many, many different ways to succeed. And the skill deck really just enables that," he says. Gone are the days of elusive skill points, unredeemable once invested and taxing to keep track of in the heat of battle.
Not only do the cards look brilliant from a stylistic perspective, all pulpy and garish like an old-school comic book, but the deck building mechanic itself makes combat far more memorable and engaging. You can edit your deck anytime, encouraging a trial-and-error approach where you can check back to reshuffle your cards as often as you like to test out the different buff combos. This allows you to make far more considered, specialized combat choices than you might ordinarily have; you'll want to match up your Block cards to ensure that perfect parries give you a health and toughness boost, while honing your War Cry to destabilize your foes as well as getting rid of any damaging status effects like burning, toxicity, or electrocution.
What's more, your selection of skill cards will depend on which character you selected to play as. In my first playthrough I opted for Carla, the jacked motorcycle stunt driver, but who is David Stenton's Slayer of choice? "I think probably my go-to Slayer is Amy," he says, referencing the laid-back Paralympian queen you can find featured in the Dead Island 2 merch store (opens in new tab). "I really like Amy because she's got quite an agile set of initial skills, quite an agile sort of play style."
In the FLESH
When it comes to realistic blood and guts, Dambuster has it down to an absolute science with the FLESH system – the grisly graphics that allow you to land blow after blow of anatomically-correct blunt-force trauma. "It was something that we really began almost on day one of the inception of the project," Stenton says. "We knew that for Dead Island 2, we wanted to get back to zombies being at the absolute core of the game. We wanted to be the absolute best in class, first-person combat."
Judging from the few hours I spent in the game, I think it's safe to say that the studio succeeded in putting the gore in gorgeous. As David Stenton says himself, "Dead Island 2 is just all about allowing people to engage in areas that they find most fun." For me, that's literally punching the teeth out of a Runner before backing them into a puddle and whacking them in the shins with an electrified machete. Dead Island 2 might be a month away from release, but it's already in excellent shape to welcome you on April 21st, 2023.
For more of this year's hottest releases, check out our list of new games 2023.