To say that Dead Island 2 is the definition of development hell is almost an understatement. It has moved around between different developers like some sort of unwanted trophy, with Techland (who made the original in 2011) not being trusted to make the sequel, as Yager Development got the opportunity instead.
However, the development apparently did not go well and it was instead Sumo Digital who had to take over. But that didn't go well either, so the development was moved to Dambuster in 2019. Throughout this time, there has been near silence around the project and the only thing we have had to go on is the lovely trailer released in 2014, which showed a sunny zombie adventure in Los Angeles. So how much of this has actually survived to the final game?
The answer is quite a lot actually, which is clear from early on in the adventure. The Californian zombie apocalypse quickly unfolds in a presentation video that illustrates that seriousness is not what they are aiming for. After a brief introduction, I get the chance to escape the apparently doomed city of Los Angeles (referred to as Hell-A) in an aeroplane as one of six playable characters, each with their own pros and cons. These include the Paralympian Amy, an Asian lady who is very fast, the street-smart Bruno who looks as alternative as he possibly can, and stunt driver Carla who acts as a typical tank. I decided to play as Ryan, dressed in a fireman's outfit and seemingly ready for anything. However, he is a male stripper rather than someone professionally trained for disasters, but still functions as a tank.
But it wouldn't be much of a game if I actually escaped the disaster and got to live in some safe place while waiting for the world to return to normal. So the plane won't get far and the adventure can begin. My first mission is to get to a celebrity in Bel-Air that I met on the plane. The only problem is that I've been bitten and am about to become a zombie, only it doesn't seem to be happening. It turns out Ryan is immune.
Already early in the game I feel like I have complete knowledge over everything that happens as the controls are set up exactly according to the standard template. I can jump, duck, hit things, throw things, turn on a flashlight, and everything is intuitively on the buttons I expect. One could certainly argue that things that aren't broken shouldn't be fixed, and change just for the sake of it is often unnecessary.
But unfortunately, that's not the only area where I get the feeling that Dambuster doesn't really have the capacity to do enough new stuff, but is falling into old habits. It's been a long time since I've played the original Dead Island, but it's easy to feel that this is a bit too much like a straight and beautiful (because this is a great looking game, don't think otherwise) successor to a game from 2011. Now of course it IS a sequel to a game from twelve years ago, but it's 2023 and more should have happened in terms of gameplay.
Some examples of what I mean are that you often get missions that simply involve clearing an area of advancing zombies before any new event can be triggered. And already in the preview version I played, I had a little too many doors that lacked batteries (who ran around and ripped out all the batteries during the apocalypse?) of which I had to find to progress. The setup simply feels a bit too old-fashioned, the events in the story need to offer a more dynamic and surprising setup than just plodding along with what is basically exactly the same model as the first Resident Evil established in the 90s.
Besides, running around with a massive crowbar that needs repairing on a workbench after I hit two spongy zombies in the head feels a bit silly. Nor am I keen on having to collect tons of raw materials to have enough to fix the pool cue I use to kill enemies. It slows down the pace, and this is amplified when I'm not able to pick up the piece of cloth that is right in front of me because I'm not standing in exactly the right place.
Fortunately, Dead Island 2 has other things going for it. First of all, we have the repair system, which also includes improvements. As long as you have enough raw materials, you can both fix your tools so that your heavy iron pipe might be enough to kill another handful of zombies before it breaks again - and upgrade them. The latter can provide things like more damage, or electrocuting your victims but also other advantages. I look forward to exploring more of this in the finished adventure.
There is also a card system that the developers are really proud of. Basically, it works like a level tree where you continuously replace cards so that you always have the perks you want. Even though this preview version (which was a few hours long) didn't give me a lot of stuff to try, I was able to equip myself with cards that make the enemy take damage when I use health packs and another one that leads to successful combos making me more durable. This is a potentially very interesting system that I have high hopes for.
Something that has also been talked about a lot is the fact that in Dead Island 2 you can really smash your opponents to pieces. A well-aimed hit to a zombie's jaw makes it dangle awkwardly from the face, while a good stab to the torso exposes the intestinal tract, and so on. Personally, I found it very effective to work the enemy's legs. Kneecapping them makes it much more convenient to deal with the undead bastards. While the system of clearly visible wounds where I do my damage is purely graphical, I really like being able to get instant visual feedback on the results of my weapons and attacks. There's also a stamina meter to consider that determines which attacks are most viable at the moment, as well as a parry system that not only saves lives but helps you perform Mortal Kombat-inspired counterattacks.
The weight of the battles isn't quite perfect though. If I drive a golf club into someone's skull with all of Ryan's power, I want it to feel more damaging than it does here, which is more like hitting something with a Styrofoam bat. That said, the game controls are still good and it's fun to try out the advantages of different weapons in battle. In addition, it is sometimes possible to use the environments to my advantage in different ways, even though these in the demo were quite predictable, such as electrifying wet zombies, pushing them off edges or setting them on fire if they are standing in oil.
I had hoped for something a little more modern gameplay wise from Dead Island 2. Much of it feels a little too familiar, and not infrequently, downright old. At the same time, there is a lot of promising stuff, just take such a thing as an adventure in the sunshine, seemingly in paradise. The battles may lack some punch, but they're still hectic and fun, and it's certainly possible to tailor your fighter to your liking. In addition, Hell-A feels like an entertaining and incredibly beautiful place to explore, and you can often get a sense of what happened in an abandoned house when disaster struck, as a kind of fun detail to set the theme. In short, I'm looking forward to the finished game, because with a little more creativity and surprises, there is potential for something really good.