You know what kills you in a zombie apocalypse? We all like to imagine it's the blaze of glory at the end of a hard day's survival - gravely wounded, sacrificing ourselves to trigger the explosion that lets our friends live to fight another day. But Dead Island Riptide holds the truth. The thing that gets you killed in a zombie apocalypse isn't holding them off while someone you love sprints for the chopper - it's losing your footing on a walkway or rooftop, or getting slashed to death while you're doing a three-point turn in a boat. When it comes to the end of the world, it's the boring stuff that really kills you.
That wasn't always the case with Dead Island, though. Techland's first stab at an open-world survival RPG - where players joined with friends or fought alone through a holiday island overrun by zombies - was light on smarts and heavy on smacking things with a modified shovel, but its biggest problem was the bugs and glitches that killed your enthusiasm more effectively than the undead. The developers belatedly patched in some dignity, and sales were tremendous thanks to canny marketing, but a lot of us felt burned by the experience.
So, first things first, then: Dead Island Riptide is a much more polished game. I've experienced a few glitches - sometimes the game switches from blues skies to dark clouds and pouring rain in a split second, and occasionally your zombie enemies exhibit behaviour for which 'brain dead' feels like an unsuitably mild label - but the worst thing that's happened is that I once had to quit the game because of a sudden, inexplicable performance drop. Restarting it at a generous automatic checkpoint solved the problem. The horror stories of missing triggers for story events and calamitous glitching and clipping seem to be things of the past.
So what does a Dead Island game look like when its guts aren't hanging out?
Initially, the answer seems to be that it looks pretty decent. Once you get past a poor prologue on a military ship and find your sea legs (characters in Dead Island move in a shambling gait that takes a little getting used to), you settle into the game's new island setting of Panalai - sister island to the first game's Banoi - and a fairly rewarding rhythm. Striking out on bitty quests from a small holiday village near the coast, you gather items, fight the hordes and try to fashion a new escape plan as you drive, boat and wade your way through the monsoon-soaked jungle and highways and towns beyond.
If you choose to play as new character John Morgan (you can also choose from one of the returning cast and/or import your character progress from Dead Island), you can quickly unlock a powerful kick attack that improves the cloying combat no end, and this gives Riptide a real boost. Rather than shoving and hacking away at grasping hands until your stamina runs out, now you can prioritise and control crowds of enemies with more success.
A typical encounter goes like this: you stumble into a clearing where half a dozen zombies are chewing on a corpse next to a broken-down truck. You sprint in and chest-kick each of them in turn, which sends them flying and skittering along the floor as though they've been struck by a bus. Then you pull out one of the weapons you've crafted - maybe a baseball bat with a circular saw on the end, or a hatchet with a blow-torch to keep the blade searing - and go to work on them in the order that they struggle back to their feet. Guts, brains and limbs fly everywhere and the first-person camera gives you whiplash as you thrash about, blades bouncing off bone with more satisfying connections and deflections than the first game could muster.
When your stamina drops, you hop onto the truck's roof for a rest, and as zombies claw hopelessly at the sides you coolly whack them to pieces with an electrified golf club.
Different enemy types complicate these battles - exploding Suiciders, acid-spitting Floaters, bulldozing Rams - and your surroundings come into play. Sometimes you're clambering onto caravans so you can rain down Molotovs; other times you lure zombies into shacks and mine the doorways so they blow up when they follow you out again. Your weapons are glued and taped together - and don't fall to pieces as fast as they did in Dead Island - while you're constantly scavenging for more parts, and you frequently run out of stamina or room to manoeuvre, which sends you diving into the inventory for inspiration to improvise. Guns are available but you often end up favouring blades and cudgels. Played alone, it's an authentically scrappy way of fighting for survival.
Throw in some human companions, though, which you can do at any time, and the fun is amplified as you all kick, hack and blast zombies all over the place in less tactically astute fashion. What feels scruffy and desperate played solo is suddenly slapstick and hilarious with friends, but the differing tones often complement the situation at hand just as well as each other. For instance, you might need to carry a boat engine from one place to another. This fills your hands and slows you down, so if you're working with friends they can guard you as you move; if you're playing alone, however, you need to make damn sure you've cleared the way, and your passage from A to B is all the more tense.
This stuff is all good, then, but it won't last you forever. Palanai is full of interesting topography, half-hidden caves, battered camps and abandoned shacks full of loot that hint at greater potential than just the combat, but - just like the first Dead Island - the setting is poorly served by desperately drab storytelling, quests and system design.
It's not unusual for side quests in games to be one-note fetch-and-carry affairs, of course, but in Riptide's case so are the main quests. Would you like to know what all of the quest types are? OK, there's the one where you have to go to a distant location to retrieve an object or press a button, and there's the one where you have defend a location by putting up barricades and repelling waves of zombies. That's it. If the script had even an inch of character to it - bad Australian accents don't count - then this might be easier to ignore, but as you sit through another comprehensively tedious mission briefing from an NPC whose name you barely remember even though it is written above their head, you really have to remind yourself it's the desperate, scrabbling journeys you enjoy, not the motivation or outcomes. At least the escort missions are gone this time, I suppose.
The systems that underpin everything are scarcely more inspired. It all sounds sensible enough at first - you can compare the endless weapons you collect to make sure you're efficiently equipped, you can gather all sorts of items and crafting materials to fashion upgrades, and you can bring things to NPCs to exchange for exotic consumables, explosives and ammo. But it's all incredibly fussy to manage, despite an overhauled user interface. Even after a dozen hours I struggled to tell at a glance what was worth picking up or discarding, which is bad news in a game that's mostly about picking through litter.
What's worse is that items still constantly respawn in the world, which completely devalues your scavenging activities. When you know you can go back to camp and always find a machete stuck in a table and sell it to an NPC standing five feet away looking directly at it for $236, why would your eyes light up the next time you see a stack of abandoned suitcases with loot icons hovering over them? Sure, other games have this stuff - even BioShock Infinite is full of bins of money - but they get away with it because their systems are coherent enough not to feel like a waste of your time.
For the second game in a row, you can even abuse this ramshackle design to acquire masses of experience points. When you reach the half-submerged coastal town of Henderson, for example, you can pick up a piece of electronic scrap in a saferoom, fast-travel to a location where an NPC wants to give you thousands of XP for any piece of electronic scrap you find, fast-travel back, pick up the same piece of scrap again and repeat. This isn't an isolated event. Hell, it's not even the only instance in that room - there's a respawning can of food that you can shop for endless XP as well.
The only thing that stops all this being game-breaking is that enemies throughout the adventure are levelled to match whatever progress you've made, so they always put up a tough fight. Except, if you're not levelling up to better your enemies, then why bother grinding for experience points at all? There are more perks to unlock to improve your Fury abilities, general combat and survival skills, but there aren't many desirable unlocks beyond John's chest-kick. Before long, as with the looting, you realise you've invested a lot of time and energy in something that is effectively pointless.
All of which leaves us in much the same situation we were in with Dead Island. A few boring tunnel missions aside (why do they keep doing this?!), this is a rich and attractive open-world environment - lovingly composed, full of interesting locations and little scraps of land where you can kick, shove and mutilate interesting enemies for as long as your crude tools and spatial awareness give you the upper hand. Do it with friends and it's even better. I love games where you sift through the fading footprints of displaced and dying civilisations, and Palanai is a great setting for that kind of game, too.
But that isn't enough by itself, and the truth is that while bugs may have been the bane of Dead Island, the underlying shabbiness of everything else still overwhelms Riptide. For as long as you don't notice the fundamental flaws in game systems and for as long as you can put up with the instantly forgettable story and mission objectives, this is a game where you can have a lot of fun improvising your way through hordes of the undead. Unfortunately, the game lasts twice as long as my patience for the duff bits held out.
What makes that so sad is that this feels like a series only a few great decisions away from being really good. A better script with a sense of humour, a bit more imagination in quest design, more coherent inventory management and character development... These things shouldn't be unattainable goals for a developer that must be flush from the unexpected success of the first game. If there is to be more Dead Island - and I wouldn't object to that - then those things must be high priorities for it to avoid another mauling.
As for Riptide? It's half-fun, but fittingly enough it's the boring stuff that ultimately kills it.