Welcome to Paradise
Dead Island Riptide is a massive, massive game. We sat down with a near-final preview version ahead of the game's release date of April 23 and, after hours of hacking limbs and removing undead heads, we were only a measly 10% through the game. However, we got a great sense of what to expect from the finished version, and if we were to sum it up in a sentence it would be: more of the same.
Actually, that understates it. This is much, much more of the same. Lashings of slashings inside in island paradise that's absolutely brimming with things to see, do and maim. Here's everything we discovered while chopping through the Xbox 360 version.
Actually, welcome to hell...
The ending of the original Dead Island, for those persistent enough to push through the myriad bugs, saw your team of survivors escape the bloody island of Banoi via helicopter. Sadly for them, Riptide pulls them back into zombie hell when the military ship they land on gets forced ashore by a combination of viral infection, and good old stormy weather.
The nearest place to land is Palanai, a small island in the Banoi archipelago, and its similarly stuffed with the walking dead. Its here that the bulk of Riptides action takes place. The islands capital, Henderson, provides the more urban section of Riptides colossal map, while the remainder is a mixture of beach, jungle and water-logged villages. Theres a great variety of places, although the trade off is jaggy visuals and textures that fall well below the high water-mark set by Far Cry 3.
Fresh meat for the grinder
The original four survivors return for Riptide, and they bring a new boy called Morgan. His specialties are hand-to-hand combat and swearing, and he comes with some savage-looking spiked knuckledusters. Each character starts with a pre-set bunch of skills that play to their combat strength, and you can tinker with your abilities when you begin a new game. If you want to import your character from the original Dead Island thats fine too. In fact, itll give you a big advantage at the start.
Starting a new game is still slightly awkward. Dead Island Riptide defaults to co-op, so if you want to play solo you need to press X (on Xbox) to access the lobby, choose to play offline, then back out and start a new save file. Given that Dead Island has mass market appeal, thanks to its emotional CGI trailers, we expected the ability to actually start the game to be a little more streamlined.
Combat is even more brutal
While combat hasnt changed much, it does seem to be much bloodier than the original. Hack away at a zombie with a sharp instrument, like a cleaver, and youll remove pieces of them while theyre still attacking you. We even shattered a few undead skulls, leaving a cloud of gore and skull fragments. Yummy. Its satisfying to lop the head off an oncoming zombie, before booting another to the ground where you can finish them off with a heavy blow. Careful, though - they can knock you down, especially if they whack you from behind.
Throwing weapons and shooting remains largely the same. Even if you pick a character who specialises in melee, you can still wield a hand-gun - you just wont inflict as much pain. And youll need to inflict plenty of pain: this island seems to have plenty more zombies on it than Banoi, and youre constantly battling away. Sadly, we did notice a few areas when enemies seemed to be infinitely respawning, forcing us to just run away.
There's no 'I' in 'team'
Theres a much greater emphasis on working as a team in this game, even if youre playing alone. One of the first things we did was help a bunch of survivors to barricade a small resort, before fending off a wave of zombie attackers. We built fences by stretching lengths of steel wire over entrances, and we smashed zombies off our friends backs whenever they were being attacked. Once one of them died, though, it was Game Over.
There will be a decent mixture of traditional Dead Island roaming/murdering, mixed in with these Horde mode style sections. Youre still free to explore the map, but just expect your wandering to be punctuated by these more scripted sections. In terms of accepting and completing missions, the structure remains largely the same - speak to a character, do something insanely dangerous and stupid for that character, get a reward that never quite seems substantial enough.
The zombies are wild and wonderful
The zombies themselves are either existing enemies from the first game, or new creatures plundered mercilessly from other survival horrors. Theres a Suicider, which slowly shambles towards you and explodes - very much like a Flood carrier from Halo: Combat Evolved. Thugs are essentially Tanks from Left 4 Dead, and we saw several zombies that did a great impression of Boomers from the same game.
As with the original, each zombie has a health bar and - helpfully - a little glowing sign over their head that indicates their type and level. Dead Island veterans will be pleased to hear that a swift kick to the crotch followed by a frenzy of chopping and hacking is enough to bring most foes down. However, if you keep getting pulled apart by a specific zombie you can always consult Dr Kesslers Casebook in the pause menu to learn more about your adversary.
As deep as it is wide
Dead Island is just as much an RPG as it is an adventure game, and Riptide brings substantially more detail than the original. While the character skill-trees are only mildly confusing, the weapon-crafting and trading system feels more like spreadsheet work than enjoyable gaming. Good news if you like depth and tinkering with your weaponry; bad news if you just want to show up and slice zombies.
We played for a couple of hours, and although our preview version started us off at level 18, we gained three levels in that time. We did spend time upgrading several weapons, and that had a noticeable effect on combat. To keep things balanced, youre fined a percentage of your total cash every time you die, so if you tackle too many dangerous missions you may end up with little cash for upgrades and weapon repairs.
Help your friends, save yourself
To reiterate - this game is designed to be played in co-op. Playing alone will likely overwhelm you, and leave you a little sad as youre hacked to the floor again and again by groups of undead. Go down in single player, and you wait to respawn (mercifully, the game autosaves regularly, so youre rarely more than a few seconds away from where you died) whereas co-op offers the prospect of revival.
It can be tricky to help friends in the middle of a zombie onslaught because the combat gets overwhelming fast. Co-op is more effective in Riptide when youre planning attacks on larger groups of enemies, or scavenging specific items that you know your friends will be able to make better use of. Weve not had chance to test online co-op, although we recommend setting your expectations to buggy, given the way the game struggles to stay solid in single player.
There's more stuff
Fans of stuff and things are well catered for by Riptide. The whole island is jammed with bits and pieces to pick up, carry around, and eventually discard and sell (when you realise that you may never find out exactly what half of it is used for). Good news for compulsive collectors of junk, looking for something to fill that swag-shaped hole in their lives left by Fallout New Vegas.
In addition to stuff, Riptide is jammed with collectables like postcards and guide maps, and it constantly pats you on the back for playing the game. Killed 50 enemies? Have some XP. Severed 100 limbs? Have some more XP. Like we said, this is very much an RPG / action game hybrid, and one that likes to keep you up to date with your own brutal stats.
Slaughter in the water
Is it any good, though? Well, its more of the same. While there have been subtle changes to combat, the introduction of a new character, and a change of scenery, this feels very much like the original. Warts and all. The whole game feels slapdash, especially after Far Cry 3 did island combat so effectively, and the story assumes that you already have stacks of knowledge about the original game.
We spent most of our hands-on time wandering around killing things and to be fair the combat is satisfying, especially with the enhanced dismemberment. However, much of the game feels a little aimless and random - characters appear to hate or love you for no particular reason, and most missions are simple fetch-and-carry quests. Riptide does so much right -- the scale and depth is impressive, as is the violence - but it seems to have learned few lessons from its original outing.
Still got a hunger for human flesh?
Then you should see a doctor about that. No really. While we're impressed by the sheer scale of it all, we remain unconvinced that Riptide is the killer zombie game its CGI trailers always want it to be. Check back in a few weeks for our review. In the meantime, let us know about the things you're most looking forward to in this brain-scoffing game via the comments below.
While you're here, why not check out some of our other undead-centric features. There's our terrifyingly compelling Walking Dead: Survival Instinct preview, or -- if you prefer -- our latest preview of post-apocalyptic PS3 adventure The Last of Us. It's got zombies. Kind of...