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Dead Island 2 Hands-On Preview: Surviving HELL-A

A bloody thrilling zombie-slaying experience - a must-play for all horror fans!
Dead Island 2 Hands-On Preview: Surviving HELL-A

Dead Island 2 is a highly anticipated action RPG that had been in development for years. But now, after years of waiting, it's finally on its way! For those unfamiliar, the game was first announced in 2014 as the third entry to the acclaimed 2011 Dead Island video game series, set several months after the events on the island of Banoi. While initially slated for release in the second quarter of 2015, Dead Island 2 was subject to multiple delays, having changed hands with different developers three times due to creative differences.

Nevertheless, despite years of waiting, zombie Slayers alike can revel in knowing that Dead Island 2 is everything (and more) that they might expect. Having now played at least 8 hours of the Dead Island 2 preview, I can confidently say that the developers at Dambuster Studios have more than delivered on their promise of bringing a "unique formula of horror, dark humor, and over-the-top zombie-slaying" action to the market. Set in a hellish version of California's Los Angeles, aptly dubbed "HELL-A," Dead Island 2 is quite simply a must-play for all horror game fans. 

Dead Island 2 Preview: What A HELL-A Good Time!

In my preview of Dead Island 2, I played as Amy, one of the game's six playable characters (otherwise referred to as "Slayers"). Amy is described as a quick-witted Paralympian who takes down zombies as a new thrill in life -- a character I quickly jumped into the shoes of. Throughout my 8-hour gameplay, I completed nine of the main story quests, up to "Michael Anders and the Holy Grail." The game's gripping story saw me crash-landing after attempting to escape HELL-A, a dystopian version of Los Angeles now overrun by the undead. With the city under strict quarantine, I found myself bitten and infected by a zombie while attempting to rescue a fellow survivor.

dead island 2 gameplay screenshot: hell-a

From there on, my mission was clear - find a way out of the locked-down city and uncover the truth about my immunity to the contagion and the origins of the outbreak. Without spoiling the plot, the story quests saw me engaging with various characters, each with their own backstory and motivations, while exploring the luxurious Bel-Air and Beverly Hills area of HELL-A. Of course, no zombie game would be complete without a fair share of flesh-eating encounters, and Dead Island 2 delivered in spades, pitting me against different types of undead, including Infected, Variant, and Apex zombies, and even throwing in a surprise zombie boss or two (more on that later).

Gameplay & Graphics: Blood, Brains, and Zombie Mash! 

The open-world aspect of Dead Island 2 offers players the freedom to explore various locations in HELL-A, although it does have a clear path that players need to follow for the main storyline. While this may be limiting for some players, the game still offers plenty of opportunities for exploration and discovery, and the setting is a welcomed change from the fictional island setting of Banoi from Dead Island 1. Still, it's anything but the typical sun-kissed streets of California; with tons of the undead running the muck, it truly is a place between paradise and pure hell.

dead island 2 zombie smash face in gameplay footage

When it comes to gameplay and graphics, Dead Island 2 knocks it out of the park. The game boasts detailed graphics and combat mechanics that let players side-step and counter zombie attacks. But that's not all. The game's unique F.L.E.S.H. (Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids) combat system takes things to a whole new level by allowing players to procedurally cut through the zombies' flesh and tissue through to the bone during attacks. It's both stunning and gruesomely realistic, a sensation that players will quickly become accustomed to as they navigate the blood-soaked streets of HELL-A.

Picture this: a zombie is stumbling towards you, arms outstretched and moaning. With a quick flick of your wrist, you can slice off its arm, causing it to stumble and falter. Then, with a swift kick, you can send it tumbling to the ground. But it doesn't end there. With Dead Island 2, players can continue to dismember and decapitate zombies in a variety of gruesome ways. Want to hack off a zombie's head with a machete? You got it. Want to squash a zombie's head to bits and pieces with your foot? You can do that too. It's enough to make your skin crawl, and I don't think there's anything quite like it.

Dead Island 2's Weapon Arsenal: I'll Be Hack!

dead island 2 combat gameplay zombies

Speaking of which -- there are a variety of different tools you can use to help with all the zombie-mashing action because Dead Island 2 is not short on weapons. Players won't need to rely on their fists or get their hands dirty with zombie brains. HELL-A is filled with different types of weapons that players can acquire through looting chests, ransacking houses, or exploring the area to find garden tools to use in combat. Some of these tools include sledgehammers, knives, swords, hammers, and even bear claws. While there are guns available in the game, including handguns, shotguns, and rifles, Dead Island 2 truly shines in its gory and gruesome melee combat.

It should be noted that these weapons can break and must be replaced. But don't worry. Players can also repair and modify these weapons at the Workbench (provided they have collected the required upgrade materials). The Electrocuter mod is one such customization that I paired with my machete to deal shock damage and electrocute zombies. One of the most impressive features of Dead Island 2 is the level of interactability with the game environment, including the ability to break alarms to silence them, explode oil tankers to take out large groups of zombies, set oil on fire, or electrocute groups of zombies by throwing a charged battery into a puddle of water.

workbench dead island 2 weapon upgrades

But that's not all. The game also offers players the chance to throw Curveballs, which are throwable items such as shurikens and grenades that deal damage or can be used as bait to lure or distract zombies. However, be careful not to get too trigger happy with these items, as they have a cooldown -- you don't want to be caught off guard without any weapons. There's also a stamina system in Dead Island 2, which depletes as you hack your way through zombies or run away from them. So, ensure that you conserve your stamina and catch your breath, or you might just end up being zombie chow.

Building Your Slayer: Skill Cards And Replayability

In addition to the wide variety of weapons available, Dead Island 2's unique Card Deck system allows players to create custom builds for their Slayers. Unlike traditional linear skill trees, the Skill Card system adds an extra layer of customization and strategy to the gameplay. For instance, players can mix and match different skills and abilities to create the ultimate zombie-slaying machine that suits their playstyle. Plus, if you feel like shaking things up, you can shuffle your Skill Cards at any point in the game to adapt to different situations.

dead island 2 di2 card deck system skill cards explained

Dead Island 2 also boasts a high degree of replayability, as players can experiment with different skill combinations to find what works best for them. With six unique Slayers to choose from, each with their own abilities and combat styles, players can experience the game in an entirely new way with each playthrough. This feature adds an impressive replayability factor to the game, allowing players to experiment with different Skill Card combinations and Slayers to find the perfect match.

Slaying Dead Island's Zombies Is Tough But Rewarding

Another aspect of Dead Island 2 that I appreciated was the variety of enemies. While there are certainly some classic zombie types, like the Shambler or Walker, there are also Variants like the Inferno Crusher that run at you while on fire and the Screamers that emit ear-piercing screams. Each of these undead has its own strengths and weaknesses, which you'll have fun learning through trial and error. That said, the Apex Zombies are especially dangerous, with deadly special abilities like spitting corrosive acid or just hitting like a truck. These powerful foes will require careful strategy and preparation to take down, adding an extra layer of challenge to the game.

di2 dead island 2 bridezilla

While the variety of enemies in Dead Island 2 is impressive, I must admit that the difficulty of the zombie hordes did somewhat detract from my enjoyment of the game's narrative. The sheer frustration of trying to take down boss zombies or progress through an area can be overwhelming at times, and the lack of a difficulty option (just like its predecessors) may be a problem for some players who would rather simply enjoy the game's storyline. That being said, the added layer of challenge presented by unique enemies are a welcome addition for those seeking a tougher gameplay experience. Just be warned, if you're not accustomed to thinking outside of the box, have not optimized your Skill Cards, or are not making use of the environment, you will probably die.

Overall Thoughts & Impressions

I think that Dead Island 2 is far from being just another competent but unoriginal zombie game. The F.L.E.S.H. melee combat sandbox and the Card Deck system are unique additions that set it apart from other zombie games on the market. The availability of weapons, weapon perks, and enhancements, as well as the interactability with the game environment, add to the realism and promote greater immersion with the game. While there were several technical limitations acknowledged in the developer's preview notes, there wasn't anything striking that I noticed in the game (with the exception of some minor rendering issues on close-ups to frame drops and tearing). However, these issues were so few and far between that everything else in the game could easily make up for this.

di2 dead island 2 zombie flesh melee combat sandbox

In terms of the crafting system, while it offers plenty of customization options for weapons, I did find it a bit confusing at times. For example, I didn't realize that I could upgrade my weapons after leveling up my character, which resulted in me fighting powerful zombies with weak weapons. Additionally, while the game boasts a wide variety of weapons, I had a difficult time finding guns, even after looting extensively (the developers later cleared this up by noting that ranged weapons are available later in the game). Some clearer instructions or prompts on how to use the crafting system and locate weapons would be helpful.

All in all, my time with Dead Island 2 left me impressed with its unique combat mechanics, sheer gore and brutality, immersive open-world setting, and engaging storyline. The game offers a variety of customization options and unique enemies that make it stand out in the crowded zombie game market. That said, I'm excited to see how players will respond to the game's unique features and how they will use the card Skill Cards system to create their own unique playstyles. While there are some performance issues and frustrations with the difficulty of progression, these are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things. I highly recommend Dead Island 2 to fans of the zombie game genre, as well as anyone looking for a challenging and immersive gaming experience.

Editor's PC System Specifications (Ultra Settings)

  • Operating System: Windows 11 Pro 64-bit
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-10870H at 2.20GHz (16 CPUs)
  • Memory: 32 GB RAM
  • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce RTX3060 (Laptop GPU) with 6GB VRAM
  • DirectX: Version 12 (Shader Model 5.1)
  • Storage Required: 46 GB (Preview)

Dead Island 2 will release on 21 April 2023 and is currently available to pre-order for PlayStation 4|5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. For a more detailed look at the gameplay before its release, check out our preview and commentary in the video below.

All images are courtesy of Deep Silver / Dead Island 2.