It’s almost impossible to talk to anyone about 2011's Dead Island without talking about that trailer. Playing out in reverse, it depicted a young family caught and torn apart in horrible circumstances. It was deeply moving, and heartbreaking, and everything that Dead Island – a roughshod action-RPG rife with cliché – was not. Rarely in the brief history of videogames has a trailer so poorly represented the product it was intended to promote.
Dead Island’s stunning cinematic trailer went on to win a coveted Cannes Lion while the game was met with perfunctory critical applause. In a rare act of role reversal, it appears that in the wake of the trailer the public relations campaign for Dead Island busied itself with controlling the blaze and lowering expectations.
But beneath all the kinks in the engine, and the almost offensive stereotypes in the cast, is a plucky and engaging open-world brawler that can be commended for achieving as much as it did given the many constraints it faced. Dead Island went on to sell more than five million copies, and in doing so secured its future as one of publisher Deep Silver’s most important intellectual properties.
Dead Island Riptide is its follow-up, and as with its predecessor it was announced with another touching, harrowing, and misleading cinematic trailer featuring a couple whose yacht washes up on the plagued Banoi archipelago.
Neither an expansion nor a true sequel, Riptide resumes where the original Dead Island left off. Having escaped the island of Banoi only to be shipwrecked on the nearby and equally infested island of Palanai, players will be able to import or start anew with one of the four survivors from the original game or choose a new character, John Morgan.
Riptide is more of the same, and it is unashamedly so. As the game settles into its rhythm, players will find quest hubs staffed by clichéd non-player survivors who all have menial fetch and gathering tasks for the group. Weapons are much more durable, but the combat is as hammy and gory as it ever was, and the greater enjoyment is still derived from finding new weapons and cooperating (or not) with friends in multiplayer.
As a setting, Palanai benefits greatly from several new additions in Riptide. Dynamic weather adds more variety, and waterways facilitate small boats with outboard motors as a new method of transport. Palanai appears to be lusher and more varied a setting than Banoi.
A new Horde mode also brings to Dead Island one of the zombie genre’s longest standing traditions. Players are able to fortify and build fences before triggering an event that summons waves of undead down on their position. The first – admittedly introductory – event in the game doesn’t deliver the same kind of frenetic gameplay found in some of Riptide’s more polished competitors. But it’s an early example, and there’s plenty of scope to ramp up the challenge in what we’re told is a lengthy campaign.
New types of special zombies, such as infected that explode when hit once, and ogres – a much tougher rare unit than the thugs of old – also bring some variety, but the experience is overwhelmingly familiar.
In the build shown to press, many of the same issues that plagued the original game surfaced. Edges are still often jaggy, zombie pathing and AI is suitably brain dead, and more than once, the physics engine will shrug nonchalantly as an object or corpse spins erratically. Player characters appear immobile above the waist when they’re not in combat, giving the eerie impression that the survivors are preparing to form an Irish dancing troupe when they return to civilisation.
But this is Dead Island, warts and all, and it’s clearly intended as service to existing fans. Three hours with the game suggests that those who felt Dead Island was an unfulfilled promise or a rough grind are unlikely to be won over by Riptide’s coarse charms.
However, those who loved the original game’s over-the-top melee combat and mindlessly indulgent busywork with friends look set to receive an expanded but equally unrefined experience in Riptide.
Dead Island Riptide is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC at the end of the month.