Dead Island 2 Hands-On Preview

When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk Hell-A.

by Matthew Kevin Mitchell
Image: PLAION GmbH

After many setbacks and delays, Dead Island 2 will finally release in April 2023. This has caused a lot of frustration with its fanbase, and many are wondering if they should even care. After all, zombies across movies, television shows, and video games have been beaten to death; it’s a tired genre ripped of its flesh. Finally, however, I was lucky enough to play Dead Island 2 during a limited hands-on preview and conduct a short interview with the Creative Director of Dead Island 2, Dambuster Studio’s James Worrall.

I finished about 20% of the game, including the main story, side quests, challenges, and collectibles leading up to this point. I followed up my playthrough with an interview with Worrall, where I could ask any questions left unanswered by my preview. I may have only experienced 20%, but I am encouraged by what I saw and excited to see what the rest of the game offers.

The Story

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Dead Island 2 is set 16 or 17 years after the events of the first Dead Island game. You play as a survivor who paid for a ticket out of Los Angeles only to have an infected passenger cause the flight to crash land shortly after takeoff. During these events, you get bitten but are somehow immune to the infection. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of the story beyond this, but basically, you are working with a group of survivors, who were also on the plane, to find another way out of the city.

The entire game, including side quests, collectibles, and challenges, will take about 20 hours, depending on how much time you spend. While this short playtime may seem disappointing, it feels reasonable. The graphics and cutscenes are done exceptionally well, and I enjoyed every moment. The story hits hard, and I understand there will be much to consider after it ends.

Welcome to Hell-A

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Dead Island 2 takes the zombie apocalypse to the second most populated city in the United States, Los Angeles. In the game, the characters often refer to LA as Hell-A due to the ravaged, zombie apocalypse makeover. While this might seem like a strange setting for the Dead Island franchise (it does have the word “island” in the title), things were put into perspective soon after playing.

Los Angeles was chosen as the newest setting for Dead Island 2 because of the city’s great eccentrics and self-confidence. While Los Angeles isn’t an island, the apocalypse caused the city to quarantine, meaning no one can get in or out. In this case, the “island” was man-made.

Another burning question you probably have is how big the map of Hell-A is compared to the real LA and how it compares to maps of previous installments. According to Worral, some areas will be extensive open-world zones that you can explore endlessly, and others will be more linear that you will finish pretty quickly. Rest assured, though, some of LA’s most iconic landmarks and locations are discoverable, and you won’t feel locked into a small zone.

The Slayers

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There are six Slayers for you to choose from, including Jacob, Ryan, Dani, Carla, Bruno, and Amy. Each Slayer represents a different playstyle and will all have cards in the Skill Deck that are unique to them, which means other Slayers can’t use them. These two aspects of the Slayers are why you must restart the game to try out a different Slayer to see if they are better suited to your playstyle.

Dambuster Studios want each Slayer to offer a unique playthrough experience rather than allowing you to mix and match, which could make the Slayers feel less valuable. While I can understand their reasoning behind this, it is slightly disappointing. It doesn’t take much time to complete the game’s main story, but it still adds up if you want to play all six Slayers.

I picked Dani, a ’50s vixen pinup girl who oozes sass out of every pore on her body. She specializes in heavy attacks and destroying many zombies quickly to regain health. I enjoyed her sassy comments toward other survivors and her one-liners while obliterating zombies.

Outside the playable Slayers, you will see the return of other characters from previous installments, like Sam B, which is super exciting. Unfortunately, I couldn’t obtain more information about who we’ll see, and not having it spoiled is the primary reason the hands-on preview contained only the first 20% of the game.

The Zombies

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You’ll realize that Dead Island 2 only has zombies for enemies. While seeing the same enemy may seem tedious, it isn’t. One aspect of zombie television shows, movies, and video games that always ruin them is incorporating human behavior, straying away from zombies as the main antagonists. This isn’t the case with Dead Island 2. It’s all about zombies. There are a ton of different zombie variants based on the handy Zombpedia. Alpha variants of regular zombies require you to change your strategy when facing them, compared to their lesser variants, which helps keeps combat fresh.

The first boss you reach in Dead Island 2 is a jacked-up zombie bridezilla who is angry about the zombie apocalypse that ruined her wedding day. After that, each boss has its mechanics that you must learn to beat. These mechanics are much smaller than you would see while fighting raid bosses in an MMORPG.

After you beat a boss, you will learn one of the moves the boss used against you. For instance, the zombie bridezilla would slam on the ground, causing a shockwave that would damage and knock you over. This move does the same thing to zombies in a radius around you, which is extremely powerful when you find yourself swarmed.

The F.L.E.S.H. Engine

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The F.L.E.S.H. engine, Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids (try and say that five times fast), is one of the most intriguing aspects of Dead Island 2’s development. Dambuster Studios built it from scratch because it wanted zombie combat to feel realistic, satisfying, and over the top. With the F.L.E.S.H. engine, the developers could design the reaction of humanoid characters to a granular level so that all aspects, like their skin, fat, muscle, organs, and bones, are affected by external forces. You will also get different results based on your weapon type and how you use it. For example, the zombie’s body will react differently when you hit it with a rake than stab it with a katana.

This results in some gruesome, hilarious, and satisfying moments when killing zombies. For instance, when you hit a zombie in the face, its skin can be removed, revealing the muscle and bone below. You can then hit them again to watch the remaining bits explode. This is also true with a zombie’s body’s limbs and other parts. The F.L.E.S.H. engine is highly successful, and you can use it to your advantage when approaching combat.

Finally, the end goal with the F.L.E.S.H. engine is to make sure the game is as realistic as possible. Of course, you will get some funny moments, but Hell-A is genuinely a living and breathing world. Take the behavior of the non-zombie characters like NPCs and your Slayer, for example. The engine allows these characters to react in a highly realistic way that makes you feel exactly what they are feeling in the moment, adding to the realism.

The Skill Deck

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The Skill Deck is probably the most significant aspect of Dead Island 2 that Dambuster Studios is hyping, the game’s version of a skill tree. The Skill Deck is divided into four categories, all fully interchangeable, which allows you to create a highly customizable build based on your playstyle. The four categories include Abilities, Survivor, Slayer, and Numen. I could level my Slayer enough to equip cards in the first three categories. However, I could not use the Numen category, which is supposed to add much fun and power to your slayer.

Collectibles and Challenges

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Dead Island 2 features a lot of collectibles ranging from weapon blueprints, audio that gives more insight into the story, investigations that require you to search for clues, and hidden areas locked behind keys that you must find to unlock. There is a lot to uncover if you want that 100% completion or to unlock a powerful mod for your favorite weapon.

On top of lots of collectibles, there are challenges you can complete, which should motivate the player to change playstyles and approach the game differently outside of the normal hack-and-repeat. For instance, there are challenges for slaying zombies using specific weapons, finding collectibles, and much more.

Tim The Tool Man Taylor

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I could only use melee weapons during my hands-on preview, which was disappointing. However, this limitation gave me time to test the game’s wide range of toys which range from a rake to a katana to a pool cue. Dead Island 2 does an excellent job of allowing you to use the items you find spread throughout Hell-A as zombie-slaying apparatuses, just like you would if you were stuck in a zombie apocalypse.

For example, when I inserted a rake into the workbench and modified it, I felt like Tim Taylor from the ’90s TV show Home Improvement when he unnecessarily modified tools to make them even more powerful. He often asked his audience members, “When we need a job done right, and we want it done quickly, what do we need?” Queue audience answering in unison: “MORE POWER!”

You, too, can achieve more power by adding MODs and Perks to your weapons by using workbenches spread throughout Hell-A. For example, one Mod can turn your weapon into a giant taser that will stun zombies briefly, allowing you to attack them or escape unharmed. Perks allow you to change the overall profile of the weapon, like making it swing faster but hit for less damage.

You can also change a weapon’s MOD or Perk whenever you want, as long as you have the parts to do so. This allows for lots of experimenting to find a weapon that fits your specific playstyle or \to adjust the mods based on the zombie variant without sacrificing your weapon.


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An enjoyable aspect of Dead Island 2 is the Curveball system, which is the game’s version of secondary weapons like grenades. However, Dead Island 2 features a fun, unique twist by using items like Meat Bait which is animal meat stored in a glass container that explodes when thrown to distract enemies within the radius.

Other Curveballs include a Pipe Bomb that eviscerates large groups, a Stasis trap that subdues enemy movement, and much more that I was able to use in my short time playing. I enjoyed using Curveballs and found them super helpful. Curveballs can save you in a pinch or help you complete an objective, so don’t neglect them!


Image: PLAION GmbH

Recently, I was disappointed by Dead Space Remake’s version of the F.L.E.S.H. engine, which was supposed to let you strip the flesh and limbs off Necromorphs to make it easier to beat them. So I was skeptical about Dead Island 2’s attempt but was pleasantly surprised. Watching how the various parts of the zombie reacted to melee attacks was extremely fun. Not only did it feel very satisfying, but it also served a functional purpose.

My favorite example of why the F.L.E.S.H. system is so successful was the ability to chop a zombie’s leg, watch it fall over, and curb-stomp it to oblivion. After achieving these on one zombie, I realized it was a perfect way to approach the game, and I often found myself surrounded by a bunch of legless zombies crawling slowly after me. After that, I felt like the Do Your Part! scene from Starship Troopers as I repeatedly stomped the heads of all those zombies (the only good zombie is a dead zombie).

Outside of weapons, you can also perform fun moves like drop-kicking zombies, which will knock them back. I had a lot of fun kicking them off a roof of a building Spartan-style, so I didn’t have to waste energy and precious weapon durability by beating them to death.

Finally, a popular aspect of the other installments was the ability to perform Analog Fighting, which allowed you to control the direction of each swing of a melee weapon using the analog sticks of a controller. You can do so with Dead Island 2 because of its pre-built controller mapping profiles for popular controllers like Xbox, PlayStation, and Stadia.

Play With Your Friends, Sort Of

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A neat feature of Dead Island 2 is the ability to play your game in single-player mode or open it up to other Slayers via public or private games by simply toggling a button. This is pretty awesome because some games only allow you to play in single-player or multiplayer games, not both, and not as quickly as Dead Island 2.

However, Dambuster Studios tweeted that Dead Island 2 will not be cross-play at launch. So, unfortunately, you cannot play with your friends on different platforms. What about being able to play with your friends who haven’t updated to the latest-gen consoles? Stay tuned: I was told that Dambuster Studios would announce information about the possibility of Dead Island 2 being cross-gen within a few weeks.

What Now?

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Any video game’s replay value and end-game content are crucial, especially with the rising costs of video games. If you are like me, these are two of the main questions burning in your brain when deciding if purchasing Dead Island 2 is worth it. Unfortunately, there is good news and bad news.

The Bad News: As the game stands, currently, there is little reason to replay the game outside of playing as a different Slayer. Unfortunately, you must replay the game to experience what each Slayer brings to the zombie apocalypse. However, the only difference you will see is the character’s behavior, voice lines, and unique skill deck cards. Everything else will remain the same, resulting in a familiar playthrough experience.

The Good News: Even though there is not a New Game Plus, you can still free-roam Hell-A after completing the main story. This means you can finish any neglected side quests, complete your remaining challenges to obtain those rewards, and find any remaining collectibles to complete your collection.

Finally, Worrall could not go into specifics about future content. Still, he mentioned that Dambuster Studios plans to release additional content, like expanding the main story or adding additional Slayers to the game after Dead Island 2 launches.

It’s Pulp Fiction, Baby

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What sets Dead Island 2 apart from other installments in the franchise and other zombie games in the genre? The most significant difference is how Dambuster Studios shifted the game’s tone from overly serious and focusing too much on survival. Instead, Dead Island 2 is more of a pulp hero romp with comic relief. This is one of the reasons Dead Island 2 is so successful: the shift in tone compliments how the F.L.E.S.H. engine amps up the gore and violence by providing you with a much-needed morale boost and a break to your sanity.

If there is one aspect you should take away from this hands-on preview: Slayers are heroes who run toward danger and swagger down the middle of the street, egging the zombies on. Dead Island 2 isn’t about surviving but about thriving. Hence, it’s really about engaging with the combat engine, and even though it seems like a steep learning curve and can be challenging, it’s rewarding to roll up your sleeves and jump into the deep end.