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Dead Island 2 subverts its genre to make horror fun again

 Dead Island 2 - slaying hordes of zombies
Dead Island 2 - slaying hordes of zombies

Dead Island 2 stands out from the shambling hordes as being a horror game that actually wants me to have the time of my sick little life while playing it. Horror is all about atmosphere, but this isn't your run-of-the-mill terror train á la Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It's extremely action-focused, with fast-paced melee combat being your only means of survival as you slice and dice your way through zombified Hell-A.

Whether you're chucking caustic bombs at groups of bikini-clad corpses or drop-kicking a Burster straight into them, the game is straight-up sadistic fun – and unabashedly so. It's inspired by the goriest, most ridiculous 80s horror movies, but what makes Dead Island 2 a true win for the horror genre is how it subverts all expectations of how horror should make us feel. It uses our knowledge of similar titles against us, this time encouraging us to have fun with it while steadily finessing the ebb and flow of emotion. All of this is down to one crucial atmospheric element: music.

Evolving the nightmare

Dead Island 2 preview
Dead Island 2 preview

Remake rumble

Leon and Claire in Resident Evil 2 Remake
Leon and Claire in Resident Evil 2 Remake

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Music is your emotional conductor in Dead Island 2. It knows when to amp us up, when to heighten the tension, and when to make your stomach sink as you whisper sharp expletives under your breath. All of this is down to its impeccable use of music, and it helps chart your progression from fearful survivor to brazen, skull-stomping Zombie Slayer.

The first 10 or so main missions are when you're still finding your feet. Starting off with charred planks of wood as your only real weaponry is a humbling experience, and, dialing into that vulnerability, there's very little in the way of non-diegetic sound involved. You hear every moan and groan, every wet thud of a zombie's bodyweight as it drops down to greet you from atop a parked car. I'll admit I got jump-scared the first few times I opened a door to find a zombie ready to grab me, but you (mostly) learn quickly from instances like that.

Before long, the game's stacked soundtrack kicks in as more than a scene-setter. Dead Island 2 uses music to influence the attitude we bring to it, revving us up for carnage or softening the mood to make those first run-ins with tougher Apex variants less daunting.

Dead Island 2
Dead Island 2

Our first taste of tongue-in-cheek musical slayage comes during the '#Clickbait' sidequest. Blasting music from atop the swanky GOAT Pen mansion in Bel-Air, you take your chances as a social media superstar, punting zombies off the roof and slashing their limbs off at the request of influencer Amanda and her adoring livestream viewers.

Another gleefully fun early-game moment is 'Room Service for Major Booker', a main mission quest that pits you against a rampaging bride-turned-beefy Crusher. Swerving to avoid her punishing ground-pound attacks and whacking her with an electrified rake is all the better when you're doing so to the tune of the aptly-named ballad, 'Sad Wedding'. It's a deft balancing act that few horror games dare to attempt, but Dead Island 2 proves that there's plenty of fun to be had when you stray from the path and refute the rigidity of genre.

Eat your heart out, Hannah Montana

Dead Island 2
Dead Island 2

I've played a lot of horror, from AAA masterpieces to indie nasties that had me clenching my jaw anxiously the whole time. But when it comes to the best zombie games, there is a lot in the way of genre-defining semiotics that we might expect in terms of building the quintessential zombie-horror atmosphere. True, a Dead Island game would never go for the bleak emotional turbulence of The Last of Us Part 1, but Dead Island 2 bridges the gap between the first game's silliness and more serious examples of zombie horror by leaning into the best of both worlds.

Even compared to its closely-related sibling Dying Light 2, developed by the studio that brought us the original Dead Island back in 2011, Dead Island 2 shows stark evolution when it comes to letting music set the score. Both are first-person melee horror games, but both Dying Light titles want to keep you scared for the most part.

Playing the first Dying Light, I remember dreading every single mission that required me to be outside at night. I remember creeping along rooftops, listening to the stumbling footfall of the undead crowding the streets below, already scanning the minimap for a safehouse in case a Volatile suddenly spotted me. Even with a host of powerful weapons, defeating a Volatile is no joke, and I felt my pulse race every time I stepped out into the dark

Dying Light wants you to feel often powerless against the enemy. Dead Island 2, on the other hand, wants you to hack its stupid head off.

Dead Island 2 screenshot
Dead Island 2 screenshot

Dying Light wants you to feel often powerless against the enemy. Dead Island 2, on the other hand, wants you to hack its stupid head off.

We see this no more clearly than in Venice Beach, where faced with an army of geared-up undead soldiers, we fight our way through them with rock music underscoring it all. It's the dead of night, the zombies seem to come in a never-ending pyroclastic flow of flames and toxic fumes, but the music never lets you feel overwhelmed. By this point in the game you'll have unlocked Fury mode, and ripping zombies apart with my bare hands as a song called 'Right On, Frankenstein' eggs me on is right up there as the pinnacle of fun in my book.

Music is just one tool used in Dead Island 2 to evolve the experience of horror as you know it. You're not only given free reign to have fun coming up with creative ways to kill stuff, but actively encouraged to do so; why else would Dambuster make flesh-melting Caustic X Bombs such a grisly delight?

If you're a horror purist who hates their beloved genre being tainted by the merriment and frivolity of comedy, action, or a fine blend of all three, it might not be the game for you. But if you've always loved that one scene in Shaun of the Dead where the gang beats the crap out of the zombified pub owner with makeshift weapons, Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' booming from the jukebox, you're in for a treat.

Our picks of the best horror games are a varied bunch, from deeply unsettling Mortuary Assistant to revamped classics like Dead Space.