Publisher: Deep Silver
Dead Island was the centre or a perfect storm. That trailer. The hype. Our inexplicable love of shambling undead. The fact that it was an undeniably enjoyable romp, despite not even attempting to live up to the emotional heights of its debut, also didn't hurt. In many ways, then, the sequel has a tough act to follow, not least because we know what to expect from the franchise.
Escalation is the name of the game, and Riptide wants to make the perfect storm a very literal part of the gameplay. Enormous typhoons have drowned the Banoi archipelago, turning the tropical paradise into a dank swamp where every floating corpse could be a ravenous predator. The heightened stakes match the weather, with the military desperate to contain the situation by any means necessary. Techland have instigated several changes to the formula, both large and subtle (by Dead Island standards, at least), in an effort to give fans a tighter and more visceral experience.
Though as I found out during half an hour of contact time, you'll likely be too busy messing about with your mates to notice.
Everything remains broadly where you left it, even down to your original Dead Island characters. Purna, Xian Mei, Logan Carter and Sam B all make a return, along with newcomer John Morgan, whose dreams of becoming a martial arts superstar lend him some flashy melee moves and a spiked gauntlet that surely would have been contraband during his day job as a chef aboard an Australian naval vessel. Veterans will be able to import their existing heroes, complete with skill points, or start afresh.
Regardless of your choice, players will start out in a singleplayer prologue (aptly named the Sea Of Fog) aboard a doomed ship caught in a devastating storm. Seawater floods the lower decks, bogging down movement and leaving you much more vulnerable to the more agile drowned zombies, while a full-scale monsoon batters the brave marines clinging to survival up top. This howling gale aptly demonstrates the new dynamic weather system, which will see visibility cut to a near minimum when sunny skies suddenly give way to a torrential deluge without warning. A small crew of allied marines also gave us a first look at the new NPC combatants, who'll back you up with unique abilities and weapons of their own if you can keep them alive long enough. You'll frequently be accompanied by an AI companion during the campaign, or joined by several during major set pieces.
Sooner or later, you'll end up back on the islands, and let loose for another few hours of killing, looting and levelling.
Mechanically, things have been smartened up substantially. Responding to player feedback, Techland have improved firearms handling and ballistics, making it easier to target specific body parts and beefing up the damage modelling. Firearms now pack much more of a punch, and can be relied upon as a valid playstyle (at least until their ammunition runs dry). Melee combat is still the beating heart of the Dead Island experience, though, and we'll now have some more flashy tricks to brutalise the hordes. John Morgan's trademark sprinting kick can knock zombies back several feet, potentially splitting them into fleshy kibbles on impact, potentially rendering other characters insanely envious until they try out the new 'death from above' jump attack that's bound to become a multiplayer favourite.
After teaming up with a few fellow journalists (hilariously, we'd all chosen to play as Morgan, leading to a small army of orange-clad power-kicking clones rampaging around the island), I slaughtered my way to a makeshift shelter under heavy undead attack. Cleaning it out was relatively simple, but checking in with the defenders lead us into one of the new Hub Defence sections. Much like a traditional horde or survival mode, these set pieces give players a short time to erect makeshift defences using fence panels and jury-rigged traps, before an entire army of zombies descends with your meat on their mind. Things play out much like one of Black Ops' zombie maps, only with exponentially more face kicking. Several waves under our belt, we were tasked with ending the siege by detonating the access bridge using a flare gun. It's clear that these moments are designed around giving players another reason to team up, and opportunities to show off their skills in some inventive ways. After all, it would be a shame to waste all those flares...
The grim defenders had some more story missions for us to undertake, but this being a Dead Island game, we opted to just jump into some jeeps and race around the island in the time we had left; running over zombies, setting as many on fire as possible with the flare gun and attempting to play a game of zombie tennis with the power kick. Brainless, silly, unscripted stuff, but tremendous fun nonetheless.
Since much of the island is now waterlogged, boats are now a key new way of getting from A to B (via C, whether a survivor with an optional objective or a flooded basement that promises some rare loot), which present a neat cooperative challenge of their own. Agile Drowner zombies will swarm towards your engine noise and attempt to drag players down into the depths, meaning that erstwhile sailors will need to keep them at bay with whatever's to hand. Whether this will be a massive hassle in singleplayer remains to be seen, however.
In fact, you could ask that about Dead Island: Riptide in general. It's clear that multiplayer has been a key focus for Techland, since numerous water cooler moments helped to define the first title for many players. Connecting into a game in progress has been streamlined significantly, while friends of different levels can now play together since Riptide looks to dynamically set its zombies at a considerate middle ground. Drop-outs result in instantly continuing your story in singleplayer (something I encountered when my two companions sadly came to the end of their allocated time). Playing with friends will be much easier, but whether the sweary unlikeable characters can support another solo campaign remains to be seen. Not to mention that the purported 'Military-Scale Disaster' doesn't seem to match up with that dismembered bikini torso Deep Silver shamefully tried to peddle to players with more money than decency.
Techland hopes that lightning can strike twice, and though Riptide doesn't attempt to reinvent the wheel (beyond hot-gluing some nails to it), fans of the series can probably expect some more tub-thumping cooperative anecdotes to discuss over the figurative water cooler. We'll find out whether Riptide sinks or swims this April.