Dead Island is a franchise with a history of being misrepresented by its own trailers. First there was Dead Island 1, a tooth-loosening gonzo splatfest whose trailer seemed to think it was an arty time manipulation infanticide game or something, and now we have Dead Island 2 whose announcement trailer in 2014 gave the false impression that it was actually being fucking worked on with any degree of expedience. Let’s do the usual thing and go down the list of stuff that lasted less time than the development of Dead Island 2. The Second World War. The NASA moon expedition. The average life expectancy of a St. Bernard. It’s gone through developers like a box of Curly Wurlies through dental enamel, too. The original devs, Techland, went off to do Dying Light instead, which was basically just Dead Island with bells on, then Yager had it for a while, the Spec Ops The Line lads, but I guess they had a PTSD flashback at some point and stopped responding to emails. Then it was given to jobbing developer Sumo Digital, the guys who made Crackdown 3, ouch, and finally ended up with Dambuster Studios, who made Homefront: The Revolution. Double ouch and a stubbed toe.
Of course, long development times tend to be forgiven by the eye of history. Everyone stopped complaining about how long Team Fortress 2 took when the free to play bullshit and the rampant cheaters became the much more interesting things to complain about. But importantly Team Fortress 2 was, at least initially, good. It needed the dev time for maximum polish. And Dead Island 2 doesn’t feel like something that’s been polished up for nine years. It feels like something that was hastily cobbled together from the work of fifteen different studios, one of whom made Homefront: The Revolution. It probably didn’t help that each of those studios was handed the build and told “Here’s a zombie survival gear crafter that’s basically just Dying Light with the bells taken off again, make it interesting. Somehow.” The one thing that did make it interesting for me was the announcement that it wasn’t open world like the last one. Open world fatigue has fully settled in for me, I’d be happy to see more developers re-learn how to make a structured, tightly designed experience, not rigidly linear but along the lines of the smaller mission design of games like Thief 2 or Hitman –
Then it turned out I was completely on the wrong page. I was on the page full of charitable takes and rainbow stickers and Dead Island 2 was on Also By The Same Author. It feels like it wanted to be an open world but time ran out and it had to string together whatever it had into a loose cluster of enclosed maps themed around having to maim your way through all the twattiest parts of Los Angeles, not that one needs the excuse. Los Angeles most emphatically NOT being an island, incidentally, unless you count in the, y’know, sociological sense. Anyway, you pick from one of six distinct playable characters all connected by being caught in the same plane crash and having absolutely no business surviving a zombie holocaust in any sane world. And as I started the game I was asked which character I felt had the stats that would suit my preferred playstyle, and I swiftly realised I didn’t have a fucking clue. I had no context for what any of the stats meant in gameplay. I mean, what’s the difference between Toughness and Resilience? I assume one of them refers to how much damage I take in combat, and the other to how appetizing I would be served with gravy and courgettes. Oh, and Sam B shows up. You know, from Dead Island 1. He’s an NPC now. And I reacted with all the excitement I have when I see my dental hygienist at the Safeway. Oh, hello person I know. Yes, I’m remembering to floss.
So you survive the plane crash and a mystifying sequence of events ensues where you start helping some fellow passengers but then a celebrity appears and says “I’m bored of this crash site, I’m going home. Here’s my home address, why don’t you drop by when you get bored of these injured losers and want to get with the in crowd.” And then they piss off. You fight some zombies, get bitten by one, and then decide that she was right, this crash site is pretty boring, so you mysteriously teleport to her house. It turns out you’re immune to the zombie virus, because how the zombie virus affects you seems to vary based on how important you are to the plot. Either that or your number of Instagram followers, because almost every survivor you meet is a celebrity of some kind. At least one of the several million developers involved apparently wanted to channel Dead Rising with the facetious tone and the undercurrent of satire aimed at modern culture, but Dead Rising was about grabbing a random gumball dispenser and going to town on a roomful of writhing flesh like a horny blacksmith with a naughty anvil. Whereas Dead Island 2 is about grabbing a duffle bag and going to town on a roomful of desk drawers and shelving units in the hope of gathering enough split pins and aluminium foil to ensure your weapons can still get adequate damage numbers on the ever-spongifying zombies and not bounce right off them like a toddler against a glass door.
So yeah, it’s a gear grinder, with precious little to help it stand out. There’s an emphasis on environmental combat in the Bioshock sense that you can electrify water puddles and set fire to oil, and for that reason the people of LA were having a fucking Bring Your Own Fossil Fuel party I guess and shit’s lying around everywhere. So there’s some catharsis in corralling a horde of dipshits into a high stakes oil wrestling contest, kicking escapees back into the inferno with the good old two-foot dropkick that livened up so many rooftop dining experiences in Dying Light 2, but the catharsis of smashing zomkins is limited by the fact that they infinitely and continuously respawn and after all that effort you’ve made zero progress and used up half the operational lifespan of the fancy weapons you just emptied out your entire wallet and junk drawer to manufacture. There’s also a painfully small enemy variety that does its damnedest to recycle what little it has. Every boss fight comes back as a regular threat to take the spongiest health bar contest to the fucking streets. And then after a fairly pedestrian plot covering all the usual notes – ooh conspiracy ooh military fuckup ooh how many times is the old “some asshole hides their bite wound” chestnut gonna play out before these safehouses enact a strip search policy –
The big baddie turns for reasons I wasn’t entirely clear on into a final boss monster that’s pretty much the same as the last but one boss monster but they took the gold at the damage sponge contest. While Dead Island 2 is functional – barring one incident when I had to repeat a sidequest because I backed off a little too far and the boss monster despawned, without giving me back any of the ammo or weapons I’d already used up on him because fuck me and my airs, I guess – I’m still offended by how little new it has to offer, to either the zombie or the action adventure genre. I can only assume it took a decade because that’s how long it took to find a developer with low enough self esteem to want to finally, apologetically sling the fucking thing out. We’ve done zombies. We’ve done the fuck out of zombies. You can’t get by on “zombies” by itself as a pitch anymore. You’ve got to have a second ingredient. Like how Dying Light was “zombies and parkour.” Or Last of Us was “zombies and mushrooms and parenthood.” Or Days Gone was “zombies and a twat.”