Dead Island: Riptide preview: pulled back in

The original Dead Island was the classic example of a cult hit. It had its share of flaws, but fans saw past that to the pure fun of RPG mechanics built into cooperative zombie killing. Dead Island: Riptide is emblematic of iterative development, retaining many of the first game's foibles for better and worse.


During a short hands-on cooperative mission at PAX East, I was paired with three other players (one of them a Techland guide). I chose to play as Sam B, the melee-focused brawler and survivor of the original Dead Island. The plot didn't call much attention to the events of the first game, but some of Sam's incidental dialogue indicated his displeasure at going through all this over again. The first game worked on pulpy action tropes, and it's difficult to get away with that again without expressing some self-awareness. Still, this isn't meant to be self-satire, so Techland struck the right balance with only a handful of comments.

My team of survivors was tasked with saving a village and then setting up fenced barricades against invading zombie hordes. Despite their numbers, the undead themselves were fairly lifeless (ha!) and didn't pose much threat. I was never afraid for my life, and found the zombies themselves to be slow-moving and fragile. If the zombie threat is based on swarming, it will take a much larger group to pose a serious threat in the full game.

But all the fences and boots in the world could barely do any good for the safety of the village, because a bridge adjoining the small village to the forest was still unimpeded. Zombies started to come in greater numbers near the end of the mission, and for the first time I felt the dread of being overrun.

The solution was to blow the bridge using a flare gun on some conveniently placed red barrels, universal video game language for explosive materiel. The zombie horde had grown so thick that it obscured the path to the barrels, and the flare gun's arc was erratic and hard to judge. But given that this was an isolated mission, and therefore lacking long-term consequences, I simply ran into the thick of zombies to reach a sure shot. If the game had continued, I almost certainly would have been eaten alive. Instead, I completed the mission successfully.

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If Dead Island was comparable to an enjoyable B-movie, Dead Island: Riptide is a sequel trying to stay true to its roots. Even the somewhat jagged edges and textures have gotten only minor improvements at best. The game seems compelled to lean on the first title's ideas, but it's missing some of the plucky heart made the first a break-out favorite. It is certainly more of the same in many ways, so audiences will have to decide if they agree with Sam's general sentiment: this again?