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Dead Island 2 review: a HELL-A zany take on the co-op zombie shooter

Drop the poker face, because Dead Island 2 is here, showing the co-op zombie-slaughtering genre how it's done in 2023.

Dead Island 2 starts in the sun-soaked and blood-drenched City of Angels, but there are no angels here. Brain-dead, ravenous zombies govern this city, now casually called HELL-A. You awaken aboard an aeroplane that has succumbed to the plague of zombies, and with merely the clothes on your back and an immunity to the undead’s slavering bites, you need to escape from HELL-A. Even if you have to become every other survivor’s middle man in the process.

As you trek across HELL-A, you explore mansions galore, approach the surprisingly well-maintained sewers with the utmost intrepidity, and even get to make your mark on Hollywood Boulevard. In spite of its flaws and quirks (and there are so, so many), Dead Island 2 does exactly what it needed to do just under a decade ago when it was first announced, and what it needed to do now, at launch: it provides mindless, zombie-slaying fun in an environment seething with life, vibrancy, and eccentric charm. Incredibly life-like warts and all.

Dead Island 2 has the same fundamentals as its predecessor - visceral disfigurement, brainless hard-as-nails zombies, and a Tarantino-like obsession with gore - and dresses them up in a package that feels fit for 2023. The setting you find yourself adventuring across is stunning, dialogue is cringe albeit well-grounded, and yes, there are a few glitches here and there. I expected nothing more, and nothing less, and ultimately finished Dead Island 2 satisfied with my experience.

The player stands in a lounge area full of slaughtered zombies while wielding a katana in Dead Island 2
The amount of chaos and destruction you can cause using Dead Island 2's FLESH system is endless.

Starting out in HELL-A does feel like a drag, though. Once the thrill of all that visceral zombie slaughtering wears off, bashing in the brains of the undead in the luxurious homes of movie stars and influencers gets dull, fast., The first portion of the game is where Dead Island 2 is at its worst; everything, from combat, to story progression, to the setting, constantly improves from here on out. The HELL-A jet-lag is really something.

As the city opens up, so to do your opportunities to have a little fun. Tackling hordes of the undead across a movie set? Use the set’s SFX equipment for some blockbuster set pieces. Sanitising a bunch of zombies in the sewers? Utilise your electric weapons and watch them all crackle. Sick of zombies screaming in your face? Scream right back, and give them a taste of their own medicine. Dead Island 2 shines when it comes to diversifying your combat; different strokes for different hordes, and ultimately, you’ll find yourself changing up your play style constantly to suit different challenges. This is where the fun really lies.

In the initial stages of the game, build customisation is minimal; you’ve very few cards in your Skill Deck, even fewer upgrades for your weapons, and, well, your weapons aren’t all that great, either. As you leave Bel-Air for more diverse pastures, your Skill Deck fills out, and your weapons pack more of a punch. Fighting zombie after zombie no longer feels tiring as you customise your build and learn to make efficient use of your environment.

Dead Island 2’s ‘eat the rich’ narrative isn’t half as cringeworthy as it first appears, either. What I first thought were going to be endless, generic jokes about content creators and the 1% being entitled and arrogant actually had some soul to it. Even the most outlandish and infuriating of characters have their redeemable qualities, and for every irksome thing they say, there is another comment grounded in a reality we can all relate to. Even in this hazy hellscape. Of course, we’re not amidst an unfolding apocalypse of Dead Island 2’s intensity, but real life certainly hasn’t felt far from one over the past couple of years.

The player looks at Ricky in his home in Dead Island 2
Even Ricky, one of Dead Island 2's more 'deadbeat' characters, has his charm.

Dead Island 2 shines in co-op; after all, explosive fights are all the more fun with friends on board. However, only the host experiences story progression, so you need to do the whole grind together, or have two saves on the go, which isn’t all that convenient. On top of that, the co-op experience is certainly more bug-ridden than solo play. What was a relatively issue-free experience solo (bar the occasional spike in lag on PC), was quite the opposite in co-op: getting caught on a door meant restarting my game, fellow players would be in permanent animation loops, HUD pop-ups telling me to rejoin my team would be ever-present despite, quite literally, being stood with my fellow slayers.

Co-op is still good fun when it works well, and game-breaking bugs are few and far between - they’re not great, but they’re not going to ultimately dampen your experience on the whole. Accessibility in Dead Island 2, however, might do just that. Controller and KBM schemes are provided, and near enough every button can be rebound to suit you. There are adjustable subtitles, and a highly-customisable HUD - this is great. Though, there are little to no options for colour-blind players, or those who are hard-of-hearing; there are no options for changing contrast, colour schemes, text-to-speech, or sound visualisers. There is a hazardous threat indicator, at least, so that’s something. In a game that champions diversity in its array of playable characters, I somewhat expected more in terms of accessibility for players.

Dead Island 2 is every bit the head-stomping blast that it promised to be. There are a few creases that Dambuster ought to iron out over the coming weeks, but if you’re hoping for mindless chaos and exceptional entertainment across the grindhouse slaughterhouse that is HELL-A, you’ve got it in spades right here.

Dead Island 2's standard edition will retail at £59.99 / $59.99 on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC via Epic Games Store on April 21.

This review is based on a press build of the game for PC, provided by the publisher.

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