“That’s brave,” I remark to a fellow journalist while we’re stood on the roof of a central London hotel.
It is early afternoon, but it’s still bloody cold and a group of us are watching two actors in zombie makeup as they disrobe and get into a hot tub with a beach ball, growling and moaning to each other. The zombies should have turned up a little earlier, we were told, but London Transport was apparently difficult for them to negotiate without hitting delays.
This is a preview event for the zombie-killing sequel to Dead Island, Dead Island: Riptide, and belated zombies notwithstanding things have gone more or less according to plan. A good chunk of real time gameplay has been presented to us, showcasing some of the new stuff Techland has done to make the dismemberment of walking corpses fresh and exciting.
I’m invited to sit down for a chat with Creative Producer for publisher Deep Silver, Sebastian Reichert, a gentleman who’s been deeply invested in all matters related to undead slaying. “I love to run around the world and drop a mine every now and then,” he tells me with a beaming smile, “and then, some time later, I get EXP ‘cos some zombie stumbled over the mine – that’s awesome; I love it!”
We begin with a cursory glance at what’s new with Dead Island: Riptide. By all accounts, it was a successful new IP and players were very happy to vocalise what they wanted a sequel to contain that Dead Island didn’t.
“We gave them a lot,” Reichert says, “but they wanted more of it, so we made sure we gave them more of it and we now have more water, we have defence, and we have character-levelling.”
The defence Reichert refers to is in fact one of the key points about Dead Island: Riptide’s gameplay. Players can team up online or work with competent AI partners to fortify a structure or partially exposed location, then mow down the incoming hordes with machine guns, blow them up with improvised explosives, and when all else fails chop their limbs off with melee weapons. It’s reminiscent of the hugely popular ‘zombies’ mode on Treyarch’s Call of Duty games, but there are objectives to achieve and players must deal with the environments as effectively as they deal with the undead.
“We have an Island that is now completely flooded,” Reichert explains, “So we put in boat vehicles. We have a dynamic weather system, we also have a scriptable weather system, so with regards to water we definitely pushed everything to the limit and we’re very happy with the result, because now when you venture through an area you can have two completely different experiences depending on if it’s raining or sunny.
“In terms of defence, we’re very happy with the designated missions that have you defending an area. The barricade system, the mines and the mine system around it gives you a whole new feeling to the game – and of course it’s the classic zombie fiction. It’s Night of the Living Dead; how do you defend yourself?”
It appears you can start defending yourself by importing your save file from Dead Island, as any higher level characters you have will start out at those levels in Riptide. The levelling system has seen some improvements overall as well regarding multiplayer balance, with zombies tailored to match player experiences regardless of their high or low level status. A level 35 player will, for example, see and fight against level 35 zombies, whereas a level 5 player will do battle with level 5 zombies – all in the same session.
The zombie is a cultural icon at this point, having resurged in the last few years or so, and we’re all keenly aware that there are subcultures of fans who like their zombies to be presented in a certain way. The classic shuffling zombies, mutated zombies, running zombies, zombies that still look human and others that are completely desiccated; it must have been difficult for Techland to cater to that many fans who each prefer the subject matter differently.
“We are aware that we cannot make everyone happy,” Reichert admits, “That’s a fact. Because the most extreme fans will say, ‘If the zombie can run then it’s not a zombie.’ So what we do is we have a healthy mix in there. The walking zombie is still our dominant zombie creature, to spice things up there are running zombies in it, and of course we have some mutations in there, so we have a little bit of everything. We are very concerned that they stay ‘human’ so you have that original form in there; you realise that they were humans and I think that’s a very important thing for the zombie genre because as soon as they become something weird, mutated, that has nothing to do with anything anymore, out of zombie territory, you’re gone.”
>One thing the original Dead Island didn’t have was animals and there are small hints Reichert gives to suggest that they remain on the cards for inclusion, but nothing definite to confirm it passes his lips. “For the future there might be animals because animals can offer a similar approach, like they keep their shape and you can understand what they were, but you can go a little more nuts.”
It’s revealed that Dead Island: Riptide begins right where Dead Island finished, with your survivors in a helicopter on their way to what they hope is safety. Landing on a military vessel it appears all is well and the heroes are safe, but things soon escalate into chaos and eventually players are thrown into another zombie-riddled island paradise.
“It might feel like [the story’s] hopping from one crisis to the next, but the rest I cannot spoil yet!” Reichert chuckles.
Aside from defensive situations where players will need to work directly together in order to survive, like its predecessor Riptide also allows exploration of various areas where the heroes can scavenge materials to help along the way. Reichert assures us that there are more weapons, more blueprints, and more opportunities for co-op adventures to get a little crazy, but there’s also a degree of realism. Jumping straight into a crowd of agitated walkers armed with nothing but a melee weapon probably isn’t a great idea. There’s a balancing act going on with Riptide that feels like it’s going to incorporate pieces of gameplay from Borderlands, Left4Dead, and Far Cry 3 that are spaced throughout the main story.
“We try and break it up a little bit to make sure that players have their fun there. We improved the physics system to make sure that more insane ideas can be played out. We definitely have more toys in there to play around with. There is a lot in the game that gives you the chance to say, ‘No I just want to scavenge around and see what the game world is like.’”
I suggest that there could even be an element of subtlety to Riptide’s play style, but Reichert is quick to laugh this off.
“What we haven’t got in there is being subtle – Dead Island: Riptide isn’t about being subtle! Actually scavenging around to get heavy machine guns out of old military choppers and then installing them on an old church to shoot down zombies…that is a little bit ‘not subtle’.”
The other thing about Dead Island: Riptide is that it looks bloody gorgeous. On our preview tour of the defence scenario, five heroes (two of whom are player-controlled) are holed up in an ancient dilapidated ruin which happens to have been flooded. Water effects are beautifully fluid and you can actually pick out flaws in the old masonry. Everything is fresh and disquietingly silent.
Once the action gets going, tearing apart zombies with a machine gun also yields impressive visual results. Bursts of red cloud accompanied by flying limbs, blood spatter, and chunks of flesh going everywhere. Small details, but appreciable nonetheless, and the onset of heavy rain adds difficulty in spotting targets from more than a couple of dozen feet away. However, as someone who’s vaguely familiar with graphics engines and processing power coupled with the complexity of maintaining online functions, I’m worried.
“The thing is that Techland works on its own engine and so we have a constant iteration of the Chrome Engine – it’s an in-house engine – so we have constant work in progress there to make sure that it’s getting improved, and make it possible to have this visual quality even in multiplayer.” Reichert explains, “It is a very hard task, definitely, because if you want to make a game that looks awesome and have three additional players that can also run havoc, you have to have some limiters. But we decided to have the limiters in an extreme area so, for example, if all four players think they have to use explosives now and activate insane modes, and so on, then there might be a slow down. That’s the exception, but everything will die anyway, so…” he grins, “it can’t be that harmful.”
Even though we’ve seen a fair few zombie games crawling out of the woodwork of late, it was still a risk making the co-op zombie adventure into a new IP with so much competition out there. Deep Silver seems happy with Techland’s progress, though, and they’re keen to make the most of this franchise while the fan interest is peaked. Riptide is being built with astonishing speed for a sequel – it’s barely been a year since Dead Island was released and Riptide is already reaching the preview stages. It doesn’t look like they’re going to run short of ideas, either.
“The future for this franchise is definitely to get into the critical territory of, ‘OK, now we’ve had this zombie apocalypse for a week. What would happen if it was going for three months? Is the zombie the threat or would you start killing the guy you’re working with because he takes the loot for himself?’ So there are a lot of ways we could spread out. That’s the amazing thing about Dead Island, it’s so flexible and we can do just about everything. Except a horse game,” Reichert shakes his head with playful emphasis, “Riding ponies will not happen in Dead Island!”
“That’s a shame,” I say, “I like riding ponies; I like the idea of being on horseback and doing a bit of zombie slaughtering. Is there no chance of that? Maybe?”
Reichert pauses. “Now that you mention it, maybe we could even do that! Having a lance and killing zombies, on a horse…Not ponies, probably. If the animal is used in war we can implement it!”
To be fair, I must concede to Mr. Reichert that ponies are in all likelihood useless in an apocalyptic scenario. Behind him, still in the hot tub, the zombies are trying to grapple the elusive beach ball. Before leaving this little rooftop in London behind, I briefly hope that there’s a blueprint for a beach ball explosive in Riptide. That’s the kind of game Dead Island: Riptide is set to be: the kind the makes you imagine alternative uses for beach balls and just about everything else.
A release date is scheduled for 26th April 2013 in the U.K. and 23rd April 2013 in the U.S. You can pre order your copy now from our retail partner at www.thatgameshop.com