Published on March 14th, 2023 | by Gareth Newnham
Dead Island 2 Preview
- To Bel-Air
This is a story all about how our life fgot flipped turned upside down when we played the first five hours of Damnbuster Studios Dead Island 2. Now I would like you to take a minute, just sit right there and let me tell you about how I became the zombie-slaying Princess of Bel-Air.
Somewhere in Ireland born and raised, fronting a punk band is where I spent most of my days. Chilling out maxing rocking all cool, Playing the Viper Rooms after school. Then a couple of zombies were up to no good, started making trouble in my neighbourhood. It started with one little bite and a lot of people got scared, so I snuck onto a plane to get out of LA.
I hid in an amp case and when it was clear, I jumped out into the cargo hold and asked another stowaway to hold my bear. I took a seat in row seven or eight when another passenger asked an actor, can I have a selfie, The guy was undead and was after their brain, not long after the military shot down the plane.
Escaping the wreckage I looked at my kingdom, I was finally there, to be the Zombie-slaying princess of Bel-Air.
Sorry I couldn’t help myself.
Anyway, recently, Plaion was kind enough to send over a preview code for Dead Island 2 on Xbox Series X.
The last time I played Dead Island 2 was back in 2014, now almost a decade, a console generation and several developers later we are just over a month away from launch and the one question that’s buzzing through my mind is, why did it take this long?
I know it is not quite final code, but the generous five-hour chunk of the game I got to play is a by-the-book sequel, that tweaks, streamlines and evolves the gameplay from the original 360-era games. From what I’ve played thus far of Dead Island 2, it feels both fresh and familiar. It seems that Damnbuster hass done a fine job of not only successfully extracting the core of what made Techland’s original games so compelling but improving it as well.
Dead Island 2 opens after a funky cut scene with the option to pick one of six fairly distinct characters, from tanky brawlers, like male stripper, Ryan, stealthy back-stabbers like gentleman thief, Bruno, and slippery dash heavy characters like Irish punk rocker Danni.
Since I have a love for punk, the Irish and Irish Punk Danni was the obvious choice. Nothing isn’t improved by the word feck, and Dead Island 2 is no exception.
Then one of the passengers turns bites a fan looking for a selfie, and all hell breaks loose. The plane crashes and our hero wakes up to find themselves alive and impaled on the wreckage.
The prelude tutorial then takes you a quick run through the basics as you heal up and crawl from the wreckage and meet up with a group of survivors including Movie star Emma Jaunt, her PA Michael, a poor bugger trapped under a very heavy part of the pane and his unconscious girlfriend.
A group of zombies soon turn up, so Emma and co. bugger off leaving you to defend the incapacitated passengers from a group of wanton brain munchers. But not before Emma scrawls her address on your arm, just in case you survive.
The fun, weighty, slap-happy zombie slaying that made the original Dead Island so fun remains, but it feels smoother, while defensive manoeuvres like dashing and blocking play a more vital role in helping you successfully turn the tide at times when you could easily be overwhelmed.
It’s also absolutely brutal. The way the zombies react to your blows on more than one occasion made me breathe through clenched teeth. Bones break, tendons are severed, and blood and viscera gush from bloody stumps.
After polishing off the shambling horde, the unconscious passenger wakes up, kills her boyfriend, and then the pair attack you. You get bitten, things get hazy, you drag yourself to Bel-Air, pass out and the game begins, proper.
There goes the neighbourhood
Awakening to bright blue skies and palatial mansions of Bel Air, My first task was to find a way to get to Emma’s house, while surviving the advances of her incredibly handsy neighbours.
After smacking about a few shamblers with a scaffold pole, I had gained enough XP to be introduced to Dead Island 2’s nifty upgrade and levelling system – the skill deck.
The Skill trees of old have been replaced with a deck of cards used to build and tweak your character’s skillset, buffs and basic abilities. New cards for the deck can be found in the environment or earned by levelling up. This allows you to create a character that suits your playstyle. But more importantly, it lets you adjust how they work on the fly.
There are several kinds of cards, each with a different function. Ability cards govern your basic defensive manoeuvres and include things like blocking, dashing, and drop-kicking zombies.
Survivor cards provide buffs and bonuses for your character. Like damage boosts for quick kills, or let you regain health with well-timed dodge or block. Then there are Slayer cards that help you kill zombies.
This is an ace idea, because not only does it allow you to have much greater levels of customisation, encourages experimentation, and allows for the kind of tinkering that I always appreciate, and best of all you’re never stuck with an upgrade you don’t get on with. Don’t like it, simply swap it out and try something else.
Although you might think this would lead to characters feeling samey, this has been remedied by there being certain cards and abilities tied to certain characters as well as abilities being handed out to each character at different times to encourage players to play in different ways. For example, quick characters like Danni gain the dodge card to begin with, while tanks like Ryan are given block card. Although they both gain the same core abilities by the end of the game. The game gently nudges you towards a certain playstyle based on the cards you have available.
So off I went like the cleptomaniac host of the most screwed up episode of Cribs, braining the rich and the famous with their prized possessions until they snapped while pocketing anything that wasn’t nailed down.
Eventually, I ended up at Emma’s, and after dealing with some hungry trespassers, Sam B from the original Dead Island breaks in. Turns out he’s Emma’s ex, and he came to save her. She’s not impressed.
But on the plus side, he showed me how to modify my weapons at a workbench. Upgrading is a lot slicker than it was in the original as rather than having blueprints to make specific weapons, you instead collect blueprints to be able to add various mods and perks to any weapon that is rated uncommon or better.
Mods are mostly made up of the usual elemental buffs like electricity and fire for shocking results that really help you blaze a trail through the undead.
While perks boost one stat at the expense of another. For example, you can make a weapon stagger enemies easier but you can’t swing it as fast, or do more damage but break easier.
All tooled up I was sent to check out the nearby Halperin Hotel that was being used as an evacuation centre by the military.
On the way, I was introduced to probably my favourite expanded feature in Dead Island 2, environmental kills. Throughout the environment, there are all kinds of opportunities to turn your surroundings to your advantage. That group of zombies milling about in a swimming pool, toss a battery in there and watch them fry. Want to start a BBQ grab that jerry can of petrol pour it over a zombie, use your electronic machete to set them ablaze and then drop kick them into their friends and watch them all burn. Finding new and interesting ways to thin out the herd never ceases to be an absolute blast (Literally in the case of that fuel truck I sabotaged.)
You also get access to a number of gadgets that do a range of fun things from vials of meat you can use to lure zombies into that bonfire you just started, ninja stars that cut the shuffling hordes down to size or, simple pipe bombs that well, you know what a bomb does.
Along with the main quests I also tackled a couple of great little side missions on the way, including helping an elderly film star use his stair lift while fending off the hordes, including his good-for-nothing nephew, and helping a sociopathic streamer ‘raise awareness’ of the survivors plight in Hell A by killing zombies in entertaining ways.
Once I got to the hotel, unsurprisingly it was overrun by the undead and completely trashed. The only person left was the military commander in charge who had gone quite mad, and a zombie bride still determined to have their first dance.
There was also a fantastic set piece when you discover just how the military has been disposing of all the dead. Queue a bunch of zombies getting dropkicked into a swimming pool full of acid.
What impressed me about this whole episode is how Dead Island manages to mix moments of levity and horror as you wander the halls of the hotel, uncovering the toll this nightmare had on the people sent to ‘deal with it’ and then finish it with a ludicrous boss fights against a hulking zombie in tasteful bridalwear.
The final part of my five hours in Hall-A saw me take a jaunt to the Monarch movie studios to track down Emma’s PA Michael, who had run off in some misguided attempt to prove himself.
Filled with roided-up zombies and a whole load of extras that weren’t interested in what catering had to offer, bumbling my way through the sets for an adventure movie and using pyrotechnics, and rain machines in a way that the health and safety assessment specifically advised against. I eventually caught up with Michael and faced off against a new big bad with the help of a giant spider, before my time with Dead Island 2 came to a close.
From what I’ve seen so far Dead Island 2 looks set to be a solid sequel that builds on and refines the original’s best bits while telling a simple, compelling, character-driven story that like the best zombie fiction rides the fine line between horror and hilarity.
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next when Dead Island 2 hits Xbox Series X|S, PS5 and PC, on April 21.