Techland's Dead Island was something of a diamond in the rough; a game not without its flaws and bugs, but one that nonetheless met with success due to a solid foundation of atmosphere and gameplay. At gamescom 2012 we got to see the next planned instalment in the series, Dead Island: Riptide, and got to see first hand some of the refinements that have been made with the aim of mitigating the weaknesses and improving on the strengths of its predecessor.
Riptide will continue the story at the exact point Dead Island left off and will star the same playable protagonists who find themselves stranded on a new island. As the same characters will feature, players who have already played through the first game can import their developed characters over with their existing skills and abilities intact; although the new game will feature an expanded skill tree to allow for further development.
We were shown a sequence from chapter 6 of the game which will occur around 6-10 hours in, depending on the amount of side missions players choose to explore. In this sequence, the survivors were tasked with defending a church which was to be used as a future safehouse. The footage we saw was based on a pre-alpha build, so may not be representative of the finished product.
The game will still run on the Chrome Engine 5, albeit a version of this engine that has been substantially built-upon. Despite this, Riptide's graphics are noticeably improved over the original in almost all ways, from scenery to character models. Particular emphasis was given on how weather and water will feature as both an atmospheric feature and as a gameplay mechanic.
Flooding is a central theme and the tropical island setting is in large parts under water. Boat travel is now available as a transport option and in our demo we witnessed a short boat trip in which zombies attempted to climb into the craft and to grab players and pull them overboard. Storm weather effects will be scripted for certain mission sequences or island areas, but can also be dynamically generated. Particularly dramatic encounters with large groups of zombies will often be accompanied by atmospheric weather conditions in order to add to the tension of proceedings.
The players' first task in our demonstration was to collect heavy machine guns from a downed military helicopter to set up defences around the church. Working in cooperative play, the Techland team loaded this 'zombie repellant' into their boats and transported them back to the church.
The building itself was flooded and all parties were aware that the noise made by the water pumps would no doubt attract large groups of the undead so took some time in setting up additional defenses prior to starting the engines. This involved laying mines around the knee-deep water surrounding the church, placing explosive barrels at key choke points and using wire mesh to repair gaps in the existing fences in the area.
As expected, starting the pumps caused the horde to descend and we watched as several large waves of zombies were successfully turned back. Proceedings kicked off dramatically when a large group of zombies wandered into a minefield and the whole area was engulfed by a gigantic fiery explosion, leaving a cloud of red mist hanging in the air. The force of the explosion was particularly brutal and has clearly been stepped up from the gang's first outing.
After this explosive start one player manned the heavy machine guns, cutting down the approaching deadheads with liberal spraying, while others took care of those attacking the fence repairs and caught large groups in deadly blasts from the explosive barrels. The traps being spent the group then took to ground level to clear out up the stragglers with a combination of firearms and the brutal melee combat that is at the heart of the game.
Following this demonstration we did get the opportunity to glean some more information about this upcoming title from the development team, including some information on how online cooperative play will function.
Dead Island was, in many ways, built to be a cooperative experience; with four characters that compliment each other's styles and the fact that all four appear in cut scenes, even when playing in single player. Unfortunately, matchmaking wasn't the games strongest suit and sometimes it was difficult to find a game with a group of similarly experienced players. When joining a group containing a significantly higher level player, those lower on the skills spectrum found that they could barely scratch the tougher opponents encountered.
In Riptide, the zombies will be balanced in level to each individual player in order to balance the group dynamic. While a level 40 player will see a level 40 zombie, the exact same zombie will appear to be level 10 to a level 10 player, dealing and receiving damage proportionally.
While this balancing system may seem to detract from the purpose of levelling up at an initial glance, higher level players will still feel empowered compared to their more junior colleagues as they will have a greater repertoire of skills and combat abilities available for them to use in clearing out the undead menace.
Other changes include a reduced emphasis on human enemies, with a clear statement that while some will be present the main threat in the game will come from the undead. Indeed, the players will be supported in several points during the campaign by military allies also trapped on the island.
Another change to structure is that firearms will be available earlier in the proceedings making it more worthwhile to have a firearms specialist character. The team were quick to state that while guns are available earlier they still cannot be relied upon as a primary weapon, as ammunition will still be scarce, and that visceral melee combat remains at the core of gameplay.
Dead Island: Riptide looks a lot like a more-of-the-same experience when held up against the original, but with substantial enhancements to iron out the problems and add a smattering of new features to improve the overall experience. While this is definitely one to watch for fans of the original, hopefully getting rid of some of the bugs and technical issues that plagued the first game will make this more appealing to the more unforgiving players who could not accept the rough edges of the first instalment.