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A Butcher zombie, with knives for arms, crouches and stares at the camera in Dead Island 2 Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

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Dead Island 2 is as mindless as its zombies

The zombie RPG has finally arrived, like an old friend who hasn’t changed

Dead Island 2 is a game lost in time. Over the course of a decade, its development has fallen to a trio of different studios, each attempting to shepherd a sequel to a moreish co-op zombie brawler from 2011. In the meantime, Dead Island’s original developer, Techland, has moved on to bigger and better things with its Dying Light series. The final result of this fraught process, delivered by Nottingham’s Dambuster Studios, can sometimes feel like an old friend.

Dead Island 2’s acerbic tone and dated systems summon a strange nostalgia for the silly, straightforward, but moreish first-person action games that dominated the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 era. It’s a relic that is rough around the edges, but its linearity feels refreshing, and the gore-heavy combat offers constant, visceral spectacle. Most importantly, it’s not another checklist death march. If, like me, you’ve acquired a taste for brevity in recent years, you’ll be pleased to hear that you can finish this game in a reasonable amount of time.

You play as one of six “slayers” who conveniently congregate on the last flight out of a quarantined Hell-A, Dambuster’s pulpy pastiche of Los Angeles. Alas, the infection spreads onboard, the plane crashes, and in the ensuing chaos, you discover that you’re immune. An insufferable movie star invites you to their McMansion in Beverly Hills to regroup, and you plot your way through the City of Angels to (hopefully) become part of the cure.

A character reaches his arm into a zombie’s stomach in Dead Island 2 Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

I picked Dani, a rockabilly mosher from Cork, Ireland whose cheesy quips kept me company throughout the predictable campaign. Each slayer has innate abilities and statistical differences, but you still follow the same story beats regardless of whom you choose. Dani’s explosive melee attacks sold me, though, as they pair nicely with Dead Island 2’s most remarkable feature: its disgustingly intricate procedural gore system.

Repeated attacks break through skin, muscle, fat, and bone, making zombie bodies feel like flesh piñatas, with accidental dismemberments aplenty. Eyeballs hang daintily out of sockets and jaws swing loose as undeterred zombies shamble toward you, their charred skin giving way to slimy blood. The sheer anatomical extravaganza of Dead Island 2 is a compelling reason to play, and its most forward-thinking feature. I just wish there was a better game to wrap it around.

The old-school approach to first-person melee combat feels both lethargic and frustrating here. I constantly felt like I was overextending my attacks and accounting for sluggish animations, the rigid right-stick camera quickly becoming the bane of my existence. This hurts when there’s so much joy to be had in finally landing a dropkick and punting a zombie’s head off of a garage door in slow-mo. The slapstick chaos of the controls feels like a step back compared to Dead Island’s nimble and articulate attack system, with which you could get into a murderous flow and defend yourself adequately.

The protagonist reloads an uzi in an outdoor sports store crawling with zombies in Dead Island 2 Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

Part of the problem is the new skill card system, which replaces Dead Island’s skill trees. The top row of slots makes you choose between abilities like dodging or blocking (which seems ridiculous, for such foundational mechanics), and the rest offer insignificant stat buffs that you can’t really ascertain in combat. As a result, it’s difficult to specialize in any meaningful way. This amounts to a pair of concrete boots as far as co-op is concerned.

One of my favorite things about Dead Island was the ability to have expertise in a specific field, like Firearms or Sharp Weapons. This created memorable moments where you could leverage the skills you had developed to fill the gaps in your teammates’ respective skill sets. Dead Island 2’s lackluster skill system strips away the character-building appeal that the first game so expertly established. When the credits rolled, I felt aimless, and unsure how to improve my character beyond playing “zombie slots” with its randomized loot system.

Luckily, the districts of this digital Los Angeles are home to some fun side quests that counter the more formulaic main missions, in which you race between cutscenes. One had me defeating zombified World’s Strongest Man competitors in Venice Beach, while another sent me to Santa Monica pier’s saltiest dives in chase of a delusional food critic. Unfortunately, many side quests end with the focal NPC obnoxiously turning into a zombie, as there aren’t many verbs beyond “kill” here.

But, if you can avoid the regular interruptions from its hulking, braindead brutes, you’ll find that Dead Island 2 does a lot with its small, linear spaces. I was often surprised by the environmental storytelling throughout. In the TV Station, a ‘breaking news’ ticker serves as an SOS, and at the movie studio, you fight through themed lots complete with costumed zombies and interactive traps. The playful paraphernalia of Hell-A adds to this strong sense of place. Protein bars, bottles of light beer, and framed slogans alluding to American exceptionalism litter the abandoned garages of Beverly Hills. A dilapidated hype house features neon streaming setups and an apology script that reads “CRY HERE FOR SYMPATHY.”

An explosion occurs in the street in Hell-A right in front of the protagonist in Dead Island 2 Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

The game’s writing is full of cynical jabs at this facetious future for humanity, but it’d be hard to call it good satire, as it doesn’t really imagine anything else. A rapid editing style, cutscene glitches, and muted facial animations can make Dead Island 2’s worst lines stick out, leading to some wooden reads and back-and-forth dialogue that often felt like it was stepping over itself. The game’s optional audio journals almost always feature some obnoxious denial of the apocalypse, which gets old quickly, as do the heavy handed internet culture references, which arrive at a mile a minute. “Slam that like button like bae when their parents aren’t home,” says one quest-giver, as you kill zombies in gratuitous ways to make a viral video.

There’s an overwhelming fakeness and irony to Dead Island 2 that, without any oppositional hope or sincerity, can eventually make the experience of playing it feel like kind of a downer, similar to the feeling you get after eating a load of junk food. My partner turned to me during one of my sessions late into the game and said it looked like I was on autopilot. Instead of meaningfully engaging with its systems, I was mindlessly pushing through the hordes in search of more complexity, or a satisfying narrative crescendo that never came. Dead Island 2’s nostalgic charms can transport you back to a simpler time, but there’s often a reason why you don’t see old friends anymore.

Dead Island 2 will be released on April 21 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Deep Silver. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.