PAX East 2013: Dead Island Riptide might be treading water

I’m a little worried about Dead Island Riptide.

To be fair, I wasn’t a huge fan of the first one. It started out strong, with an open world, beautiful island resort, and co-op gameplay with tons of quests and content. But as the first Dead Island dragged on I found the later environments more linear, the quest design too repetitive, and I simply got tired of smashing zombies heads in. I know I’m not alone, but I have a pretty good feeling I’m in the minority.

That’s why I also want to say fans are probably going to love Dead Island Riptide. Deep Silver’s creative producer Sebastian Reichart isn’t coy about the reason for Riptide’s same-ness either. “According to fan feedback they want more and they want it fast,” he explained. “So we thought, hey, if that is the requirement we don’t start to build something from the ground up anew.”

Whether the game is a true sequel or an expansion has been somewhat unclear, but Reichart offers up his own take. “It’s a spin-off of Dead Island. We went to another island, we made sure that this is a whole new experience to the players but we want to keep the systems intact that they know.”

What I played felt largely identical to the 2011 original. I could still sprint at zombies and knock them out with flying jump kicks, throw knives at their heads, or swing away with a trusty baseball bat. The melee combat still has that heft and weight to it, and it can still be a visceral and disorienting experience to bash zombie brains in. The controls and systems are familiar for sure, and I guess that’s the point.

Dead Island Riptide

Graphically the game seems largely identical to the original as well. On Xbox 360 it’s big and lush and colorful, if not rough around the edges and simply a little grimey in spots. I didn’t see it in my demo, but rain and flooding will be one new aspect that’s surely putting the engine through its paces.

“We wanted to have a game where this water element was really in the foreground,” Reichart continues. “So we have this new weather system that enables us to display a storm, display perfect weather in a dynamic way for exploration of the game. So when players want to wander around they get different experiences.”

Along dynamic weather, flooding will force players to take to a new boat. The driver will be able to boost through zombies wading out in the water while the passengers have to fight off the hoard to avoid getting pulled into the water. I didn’t have a chance to see this in action, but I did see one other new element: a defense mode/quest where players must protect a zone from waves of oncoming zombies.

This will work as a quest that pops up throughout the game in specified zones. Players may get the chance to fortify the area with fences, turrets, and mines, but not necessarily before the waves of zombies start appearing.

Dead Island Riptide

So it’s not to say you won’t be getting new features in Riptide. Along with those updates, there have been tweaks and improvements to the quest system, better waypoints, and more opportunities to use firearms. “Our initial idea in Dead Island was we have to make it this way [limited firearms] so that players understand it’s all about close combat. Now with Riptide we feel confident that all the fans know that by now, so we’ve definitely been listening and giving more punch to the firearms,” Reichart explained.

Fan feedback also inspired the new character, John Morgan, who specializes in martial arts and melee combat. “The fans were using developer commands and they created a video called Fist of the Dead Star [Check it on YouTube, it’s hilarious], which was a tribute to the anime Fist of the North Star,” Reichart told me. “They go completely nuts in this video…making the zombies fly around and start to burn when they punch them. We thought, why not? That’s a very good idea!”

Addressing some of my complaints about the first game, Reichart did have some more good news: “The sewer levels were very restrictive. We also have some sewer levels in here but we wanted to make sure they feel more open. It leads to slightly unrealistic design, but if it’s better for the gameplay then that beats the realism.”

Dead Island Riptide seems to sit somewhere between expansion and sequel. It offers new quests, tweaks and improvements, a new character, and an entirely new, flooded environment. At the same time, if you tired of the original game before the end, Riptide is probably going to be painfully familiarity. The bottom line? I doubt Riptide will pull me back in, but for true fans of the series it’s going to be another must-buy.

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Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.