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Dead Island Riptide: is it really more of the same?

Dead Island: Riptide may wear the same face as its predecessor, but Deep Silver's creative producer Alex Topolanski assured VG247's Dave Cook that this quite a different game. Judge for yourself here.

I keep on getting emails about Dead Island: Riptide's zombie wedding marketing stunt. I've been binning them straight away without reading.

This isn't because I'm not interesting in the game. I really enjoyed the original despite its faults, and I'm already convinced I'll enjoy Riptide as well.

Cast your mind back to the infamous reveal trailer for the original Dead Island. The all-CGI clip of a family being attacked in reverse slow-mo, with the heart-shredding piano music laced over the top for added schmaltz got people talking about the game.

Gamers debated the validity of the clip for months, the press wrote outraged columns about it, while others didn't see the harm. Either way you could be damn sure that every man, woman and their dog knew the name "Dead Island". It was a massive success.

However, when the game came out it delivered none of the trailer's sentiment, starred some hideously overblown stereotypes and crowbarred in several thinly-veiled attempts at pathos. It was a different beast altogether.

But it was fun in numbers, and gave rise to many bonkers, genuinely enjoyable co-op sessions, backed up by a crazy crafting mechanic. I had fun with it, even though it scarcely resembled the trailer, just like the zombie wedding stunt isn't accurately portraying Dead Island: Riptide. That's why I'm not covering it personally.

What you really want to know is if the game is any good or not, and that's what I believe in as well. After a recent hands-on session with the game's first hour, I had a chance to speak with Deep Silver creative producer Alex Topolanski to really get a feel for the game beneath the hype, and to see how far it's come since Technland's first outing.

"The game has really found its voice, found its centre," Topolanski told me. "We saw the way people played it, and they really loved playing together, which is something we were really happy to see. The co-op experience was something we bet on with the game's success, and it really paid off.

"I think what we learned is that sometimes there's a lot to be said for the excitement of mowing down zombies together. I think that what we've tried to do is go more over the top, have a little bit more fun with the setting, and just deliver a more visceral, entertaining experience, without all the dramatic hand-holding. We just want to set you guys free in a world full of walking piñatas."

As Jack Arnott wrote on these very pages, the game just wants you to have fun, and after playing through Riptide's first hub-defence area, I get the feeling that co-op really is going to shine this time around.

I won't pull any punches here though, there is still an inert, ropey nature to the game that I would probably miss if it wasn't there. There's no denying it looks much better than its predecessor, but this certainly isn't cusp of the generation stuff. Compare it to BioShock Infinite's carnival veneer and both games feel years apart.

Yet I think it's easy to ignore all of the Xbox 360 version's jaggies, blurred textures and wonky animation in favour of the fun, and there was plenty of it as our group set up mesh fences to block zombies, makeshift flame swords in hand, as we waiting to cave in the head of the nearest zombie foolish enough to shamble within striking range.

I shared with Topolanski my key concern that the game simply isn't different enough. At the start the control method is identical, all of the first game's four survivors start with the same skills, and the standard zombie-fighting gameplay has been carbon-copied. Not forgetting that this was - of course - the game's opening hour, I asked him how much new content there is the further you get.

"I think this is a small sample of what's to come later in the game", Topolanski explained. "We've got hub defence situations with stationary guns, mines being planted everywhere and it's really a centrepiece of the game for us.

"The interplay of how your friends act alongside you, the way zombies approach from all these different angles, and the need to constantly be replenishing things like fences and mines creates this situation with a lot of depth and a ton of re-playability. They should continue to offer a lot of variety.

"We've played my favourite hub defence area about a hundred times and we're still finding out new things. Like I'll see a whole wave of zombies just blow up at once and I'll be like to my friend, 'How did you do that?' and they'll say, 'Well if you put the mines like this, and do that you can kill them all,' so that's what we want to do with the hub defences."

Added to hub defence you have news zombie types the Drowner, which lurks beneath bodies of water, and the Grenadier, which pulls out its own explosive entrails and hurls them at you like a bomb, and the Wrestler, a hulking brute who can batter you with their flailing club arms.

There's also expanded weapon crafting options, flooded areas that make traversal dangerous and new character John Morgan - seen in during the session wielding a pair of Wolverine-esque claws. It's silly and aggressive right across the board, but while I'm happy with how Riptide's ended up, I do wonder if others will be so forgiving seeing as the game is very similar to its predecessor.

I'm guessing many gamers out there will come down hard on Techland for playing it safe, but only a thorough play-test of final code will reveal just how varied it becomes. Perhaps the biggest 'game-changer is the new city of Henderson, with its flooded lower levels posing a potential death-trap to unprepared survivors.

"I think the biggest challenge in building a city like that is dealing with the issue of guidance," Topolanski continued. "It's very easy for people to get totally confused and lost, especially when you're dealing with things like ladders, because we need to be sure these objects are highlighting themselves. Otherwise you have a situation where no one has any idea what's going on.

"That was a challenge, but we also wanted to push limits of how much we could draw on screen at one time, with all these big vista points and all of that, but I'm proud of how much we've been able to accomplish in such a short time with

We caught a hands-off glimpse of the city later on in the game, as a band of survivors battled their way slowly through flooded courtyards as Drowners leapt out of the still water unexpectedly and began hammering the party. With movement hampered I could see how these 'wet' moments could be pretty tense.

The group then fought zombies on the street with a wide range of mad, but familiar weapons and climbed up to the rooftops to clear the infected out of a cinema, which triggered a new hub defence area among the red-seated aisles of a theatre room. What followed was an explosive struggle against waves of zombies that ended in victory for the humans.

But again I didn't feel like I had seen much in the way of new material. If you read this site regularly you'll know I'm a rank optimist so I'm still not worried about the game being fun or ludicrous. I can see that clearly from playing just the first hour, but do you think your attention hold up for the duration? Let us know below.

Dead Island: Riptide is out on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 across North America from April 23 and across Europe April 26. These impressions are based on preview code only and not the final build.

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