Dead Island 2 preview: zombie sequel with troubled history returns like nothing has happened

The leak was accurate: Dead Island 2 is back in the spotlight after a famously long and troubled development. And it’s not that far off from seeing the light of day, either. Deep Silver re-revealed the zombie survival sequel during Gamescom’s Opening Night Live, and confirmed it will be released on Feb. 3, 2023, on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.

It has taken Deep Silver a decade, and three developers, to get to this point. After Techland, maker of the original Dead Island and its stand-alone expansion Riptide, decided to follow its own path with the Dying Light series, Deep Silver started shopping for new studios to make a sequel. Germany’s Yager (Spec Ops: The Line) stepped up in 2012, and the game was announced in 2014 for a 2015 release, with a build even being shown to the public. But, in 2015, Yager was dropped by Deep Silver, apparently over creative differences.

In 2016, UK studio Sumo Digital (LittleBigPlanet 3, Crackdown 3) won the contract, and worked on Dead Island 2 in silence for two to three years. Then Sumo, too, was ditched. In 2019, Deep Silver announced that development had been switched to an internal team: Dambuster Studios (Homefront: The Revolution). There it stayed, and Dambuster’s is the version of this game that will be released, and that Polygon had the chance to play at an event in London earlier this month.

Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

So this game comes with a lot of luggage. But as far as the Dambuster team is concerned, Dead Island 2 has been a normal game development process (pandemic notwithstanding) that began at some point in 2018. The team, based in Nottingham in the English Midlands, took the Californian setting established by Yager, threw out everything else, and started building Dead Island 2 completely from scratch.

The result is a game that feels like something of a time warp. That’s not a value concept. There’s as much that’s refreshing about the straightforward approach Dambuster has taken as there is that seems simplistic or outdated about it. Barring its technical advances, Dead Island 2 picks up just where the series left off, and feels like it could well have come out in 2015, when it was initially supposed to. It’s a pulpy, wisecracking, ultraviolent, first-person action-RPG, with its sights firmly set on making killing zombies fun again.

Dead Island 2 offers six playable characters, and three-player online co-op. The characters are all infected with the zombie virus, but immune, and able to channel their mutation through bursts of a zombified rage mode, as well as through a skill tree that develops and personalizes their abilities. Tree is the wrong word for it, actually: Skills are presented as a deck of cards and can be swapped around at will once they’ve been unlocked, in a very free-form loadout-building process.

A first-person view of the player, holding a customized wrench, facing attacking zombies in a dark street

Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

Some skills will be perks; others will alter how various core moves work, like the flying kick, or the signature attack that’s triggered with both bumper buttons on a controller. On the character I tried, Amy, this signature attack could be switched between a defensive ground pound that repelled enemies, and an aggressive dash attack to swiftly bring Amy into melee range.

The flavor of Dead Island 2 comes from combining these skills with some useful ranged attacks—I used Molotov cocktails—and with the game’s large and varied range of craftable and customizable weapons. There are a few guns, which are a little underwhelming to use — deliberately so, presumably, in a melee-focused game. You might also wield a huge, slow sledgehammer which hits with devastating force; or an electrified machete with a serrated edge; or a swift katana that can slice and dice zombie limbs with precision. (Dambuster is very proud of its “procedural gore system” that allows for the undead to be mutilated in all sorts of creative and surprising ways.)

Like most first-person melee combat systems, it’s a little sloppy, but this isn’t entirely out of keeping for a game about bludgeoning walking corpses. It is also genuinely tactical and flexible. Rather than overwhelm the player with hordes of disposable enemies, Dead Island 2 introduce them in smaller numbers that hit pretty hard. The demo that I played was set on the Santa Monica pier, where fairly tight, confined environments with warrens of cover worked well with the heavy-hitting combat. I found I didn’t mind dying, as it meant a chance to experiment with different tactical approaches.

A hippy-looking dude and another character hanging out in a dim kitchen

Image: Dambuster Studios/Deep Silver

Back in 2014, Yager talked about taking its vision of a Californian zombie apocalypse to San Francisco and beyond, but Dambuster is limiting itself to swathes of a faithfully rendered Los Angeles, including Venice Beach, and the mansions of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills. Dead Island 2 is not an open-world game, instead moving between a number of distinct, large districts. There will be more expansive areas with side-quests to take on, but the main thrust of the game will be a linear push through LA, street by ravaged street.

It’s a far cry from the exhilarating, freewheeling, open-world traversal of Dying Light 2. But maybe that’s the point, and maybe it’s no bad thing. keeping Dead Island 2‘s feet on the ground and keeping it simple might be the best way to move on from its difficult past.

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