I’ve played Dead Island 2. That’s an odd sentence to write in 2022. First announced back in 2014 with its now-infamous trailer featuring a zombified runner, we’ve seen next to nothing of the game since. The almost decade-long radio silence likely had most people believing that Dead Island 2 was, well, dead.
Until now. I’ve played Dead Island 2. A whole 20 minutes of it. It’s real. It’s genuinely planned to be released in 2023. And, from what I can tell, I think it’s got the potential to please a lot of Dead Island fans.
Despite a long absence, Dead Island 2 is still what it originally set out to be: an open-world, co-op, California-set sequel to Techland’s well-received (if incredibly shonky) original. While that vision was first put together by Yager Development, and then passed onto Sackboy: A Big Adventure creator Sumo Digital, Dead Island 2 is now in the hands of Dambuster Studios, the folks behind Homefront: The Revolution. Rather than continuing its predecessors’ work, Dambuster has built a new version of Dead Island 2 entirely from scratch. Despite all this, that sun-soaked, humorous, pulpy vision from the original trailer remains. In fact, much of what I’ve played looks reasonably similar to the gameplay we saw of the original version, but with a few modern upgrades.
The short demonstration puts me in control of Amy, one of six different playable characters. The final version will support three-player co-op, for now I’m stuck solo in what Dambuster affectionately calls ‘Hell A’; a bright and bizarre Los Angeles that’s been devastated by a recent zombie outbreak. At this mid-point in the campaign, I’m on a beach searching for a laptop containing a ‘Blood Drive’ for plot reasons that I’m sure will make more sense once I’ve played the preceding hours. But for now, the only thing to care about is butchering zombies in increasingly horrific ways.
While guns are an occasionally valid option, brutally gory melee combat is Damnbuster’s big focus for Dead Island 2. Flesh slices open, guts spill out, and limbs fly off bodies. Flames char skin and melt muscle, leaving just blackened skeletons behind. You can even tear the undead apart with your bare hands courtesy of Fury mode, an Ultimate-like ability powered by the zombie infection that slowly floods your veins over the course of the story.
Fuelling all this splatter is a bespoke system Dambuster calls ‘FLESH’ (Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids), which procedurally shreds zombies with each strike. It was definitely worth the development time and effort; at least in the short term, the copious amounts of wet, chunky gore proves incredibly entertaining. On more than a couple of occasions I have to pause just to laugh off a new, ridiculous mess I’ve made.
That gore is all well and good, but the combat that leads to that bloodshed needs to be just as accomplished. Thankfully my search for the Blood Drive brings me to Santa Monica Pier, and the line for the ferris wheel is full of undead ready to be crash-test dummies. Twenty or so dead zeds later, I find that – while it does still have a bit of that ‘waving a stick around’ feel a lot of first-person melee falls foul of – Dead Island 2 has got a few good ideas powering its battles.
The combat system encourages constant movement, with dodges, kicks, and jumps all integral parts. Throwable weapons known as Curveballs (grenades, shurikens, bait bombs and the like) can also be weaved into the usual whirlwind of hacks and slashes. Being able to strike, dodge out of the way of a grab, and then immediately hurl a molotov in quick succession is a pretty fun rhythm. And it’s the fact that Dead Island 2 seems to keep up that rhythm that has me impressed. While there is a stamina system, it’s incredibly generous. You can freely experiment with a variety of different techniques without being forced to stop for breath every ten seconds.
The ferris wheel on the pier is powered down so I need to reboot the electricity. That requires – you guessed it – getting through a building filled with even more zombies. It’s a chance to toy around with the more systemic layer of Dead Island 2’s combat: a dynamic elemental system that calls to mind BioShock. Oil can be set ablaze with flames, and water can douse those flames. But water also conducts electricity, turning harmless puddles into death traps when combined with a battery. An impressive variety of zombie types helps tie this together; among the colourful hordes are corpses with gas canisters and water bottles, and you need only target them to add some elemental fun to a fight. Hopefully the wider world of LA provides a healthy supply of enemy and environmental opportunities to ensure these elements are a constant feature in battles.
With the building cleared of enemies I’m able to power up the ferris wheel and move on to my next challenge: an encounter with the absolutely disgusting Butcho, a decomposing clown. He’s the best example in the demo of Dambuster’s genuinely great zombie design. While many of the corpses I’ve seen so far stick overly close to the classic playbook (a few definitely owe a debt to Left4Dead), they’re still admirably and gruesomely detailed. Butcho’s unique design aspect is his arm bones, which have been filed down into twin spears that he uses to pin me to the ground. He’s also hungry, and the boss arena is littered with corpses he can feed on to regenerate his health. I have to keep up with his skittering movements to ensure he’s punted off each body before he gains back too much HP.
It’s here that I test out more of the weapons, which – as the series DNA dictates – can be upgraded at workbenches with a variety of bonkers add-ons. My fire axe, for instance, is fitted with blowtorches that scorch away at flesh with each strike. A pair of Wolverine-like claws are wreathed in electricity, the sparks of which stun Butcho. Nothing in my sample inventory would feel out of place in the original Dead Island, which rejected gritty realism in favour of over the top mayhem. Dambuster certainly seems determined to stick to that MO.
As well as weapon customisation, you can also tinker with your character build. But rather than an ability tree that’s gradually unlocked by levelling up, Dead Island 2 opts for a set of collectable cards (a ‘Skill Deck’) that represent different traits, buffs, and abilities. Assigning cards maps these aspects to your character, and you need only reshuffle the deck to change up your character build. The short demo session gives me barely any time to browse the small sample deck, but hopefully the system results in an RPG layer that offers more flexibility than the rigid branches of a skill tree.
With Butcho dead and the Blood Drive secured, the demo is over. And, thanks to this little ocean-side showing, it’s obvious that Dead Island 2 isn’t just alive, but kicking, too. While it may have risen from the grave, though, it still has a lot to prove. Dambuster has made a solid first impression, but it comes coupled with a distinct sense of familiarity. Dead Island 2 appears to share a huge amount of common ground with not just the original Dead Island, but also its step-sibling, Dying Light. For long term fans this may be exactly the news they want to hear, but even at this early stage, I’m already struck with the sense of having played this all before. The gory combat, the weird weapons, the crafting, the odd-ball humour; after one Dead Island game, an expansion, and two Dying Lights, it’s all feeling a bit parts of the same corpse.
So is Dead Island 2 just the walking dead, or will it be something genuinely surprising? The streets of Los Angeles beyond Santa Monica Pier will hold the answer. There’s so much I’ve not seen. What is the open world like? What twists will the story take? What kind of wild characters can I build with the Skill Deck? How varied is the mission design? How good are the jokes? It’s all this that will determine if Dambusters’ efforts are a gory good time, or just a sequel that’s arrived a decade too late.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.