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Dead Island Riptide preview: Undead again

Techland's follow-up sets its sights low, but that shouldn't stop it from being another success.

Dead Island wasn't a masterpiece. It wasn't technically assured, it wasn't particularly well produced and it certainly wasn't that smart. At one infamous point before the game's release, it wasn't even sure what exactly it was.

"It was a shock when the marketing guys came in and said here's the trailer, come and look at it," producer Sebastian Reichart says of the CG short that would propel Dead Island into the headlines. "And I was confused. That thing makes me sad. They said yeah, it's awesome. But I don't know: do people who want to play zombie games want to feel sad after seeing our trailer? They said yep - and that's the reason I'm not working in marketing, I guess. We released it, and then overnight it was like, 'Dead Island. You have to know it.'"

Get to know it people did, although if there's one label you can slap on the game, it's divisive. Some found its lo-fi, glitchy combat and edges rougher than a rotting zombie's skin off-putting. Critically, it got a lukewarm response and Reichart admits to having had the broad, generous smile he's been wearing all day wiped off.

"We have to admit that the initial launch was horrible. We have to admit that. There was things that shouldn't happen," he says, his expression becoming momentarily more serious. "In terms of feedback from the critics - I can't imagine that you're happy when I tell you this is the game, it's buggy as hell and I'll patch it afterwards. And you'd be like, what can I do? I can't review the game from promises. So that might have cost some points. And the patches - well, they worked fine in the end."

There's no word on the pricing, although Techland's murmurings suggest it'll be less than full price.

"The critics weren't that far away," Reichart admits. "There are some things in there that are required that might seem like, how should I say, low quality. And I have to admit I'm happy when I get high ratings, and I'm happy when I get low ratings. But the stuff in the middle - I cannot understand. Because in the end, you love this game or you hate it. It's very strictly divisive. If you expect the ultimate story experience, I guess you will hate it. If you expect a fun zombie experience with lots of zombie hacking, then you'll love it."

Dead Island's status as one of 2011's most successful new IPs would prove that despite its critical reception, there was love out there - and a fair amount of it.

Which brings us, barely a year after the first game's release, to Riptide. It's not a sequel - by Techland's own admission, there's not enough that's really new to warrant the number two - but it's not an add-on either, with a campaign that goes well above the 5-10 hours that tag would usually imply. "It's definitely much, much more," insists Reichart. "We're in this grey-zone - like Fallout: New Vegas wasn't the next Fallout."

Unlike New Vegas, though, this isn't a new perspective, or a new voice for the disenchanted of the zombie apocalypse. Riptide is being developed by the same core Dead Island team, and it's unashamedly more of the same. A lot more of the same. Not that the millions who were enamoured by the original will be complaining.

It's a straight-up continuation of the first game - you can import your old character, who retains their level and is free to pile on more and more perks and skills. There's new stuff, of course - the four main characters of the original return, joined by a fifth more physical one inspired by the Fist of the Dead Star fan video, and they'll all find themselves in the same tropical archipelago as before.

But instead of Banoi it's now Palanai that's the backdrop - it's a much soggier paradise, for sure. There's malicious weather, which means swamplands and flooded areas, and it all seems a little more verdant than its predecessor. It also provides the frame for the one brief set-piece that's being shown in Riptide's debut proper.

You're holed up in an exposed temple, the tunnels that are your one point of escape flooded with water. It can be pumped out, but there's one problem: the sound of the water being extracted attracts the horde, and so you've got to construct defences, battening down the hatches and erecting barbed wire barricades in preparation for the incoming swarm of undead.

It's a loop that's indebted to classic zombie lore: it's Night of the Living Dead's countryside siege, or Leon's housebound blockade in Resident Evil 4. And so it's a succession of laying mines, constructing fences, occasionally punctuated by a quick session on a turret. It's nothing new - although it is to Dead Island - but it fits neatly into the pulpy world of the undead.

A handful of new enemy types join the fray - there's the grenadier and the scar, for example, two tough variants on your average zombie.

And it's all quite cute when delivered with Techland's schlocky schtick - characters seem to be fighting the physics as much as they are fending off the undead, the melee combat still looks like a fist fight between two four-year-olds, and there's a sloppy slapstick element to the whole thing. This is still very much the Dead Island that you know and love - or, perhaps, it's the one that you hate.

Reichart says there have been enhancements, but they're never going to be enough to overrule the shoddiness that's at Dead Island's heart. "A lot of polishing is done to make sure things work," he insists. "The whole menu's getting a redesign to make sure it's cleaner. We have a lot of feedback regarding user guidance. Before, it was OK for playing the game, but not for developing a character. We had feedback that the weapons break too fast."

But it's that shoddiness that gives Dead Island its charm. Riptide, a quick-fire follow-up, certainly won't be a masterpiece, and it's never really going to win over anyone who found the original not to their taste. It's going to be blunt, messy fun - but there's really nothing much wrong with that.