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Dead Island Riptide preview: Horde mode leads a raft of new tweaks

Not a bona fide sequel; more a refinement

At one point during our eyes-on, hands-off preview of Dead Island: Riptide something brilliant happened: a zombie tripped over a tree branch and broke his neck, dying instantly.

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The dead, it turns out, are as susceptible to physics as the rest of us. We saw zombies struggle for balance as other flesh-munchers dropped at their feet; we saw them clumsily bash past debris-strewn levels rather than clipping straight through them; and, at one point, the humans even got in on the act, as one player chucked a fence and accidentally killed his co-op partner.

Riptide is more expansion than sequel...

These are the effects of Techland's beefed up physics system, part of several refinements which make Riptide more expansion than sequel. In fact, it picks up directly where Dead Island left off, casting you as one of four returning characters - rapper Sam B, alcoholic former NFL star Logan Carter, hotel receptionist Xian Mei and hotel security Purna - and even continues your save. Level 35 there? Level 35 here.

GOOD TIDINGS

You're still on a tropical archipelago set in Papa New Guinea, new island Palanai replacing Banoi. You're still leveling up skills, looting items to craft blades, grenades, firearms and blunt weapons. You're still joining up to three players online in a big open-world. You're still cracking open heads with little regard for the emotional tone established in that announcement trailer. This time, though, everything's just a bit... better.

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The first game was a solid idea sullied by janky controls, ruinous glitches and sometimes lazy level design which, towards the end, took you on dull trips through linear sewers. Riptide aims to refocus on that undeniably great 'zombies in paradise' concept by removing the niggles that got in the way.

The improvements at first sound like they belong in patch notes. Weapons degrade slower the more proficient you are with them, remedying the frustration many felt after crafting an expensive poison machete they could barely use before it crumbled to dust. Guns pack a punch, and now headshots definitely drop zombies in one. Even the menus are different, with loot now organised into an intuitive menu leading to less fumbling when trading with merchants.

However, there are new features too big for any patch. The most prominent is defense scenarios, not disimilar to Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. They play into classic zombie fiction; hordes of zombies attack your base, and you need to make a stand. Our demo took place in ancient crumbling ruins where a flooded underground chamber blocked the only way out. A water pump set the scene, providing a tense ten minutes before the tunnel drained and we could escape.

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There's a dash of Horde from Gears of War, as well as COD's Zombies mode...

While the mission definitely leans heavily on COD's Zombies mode, there's a dash of Horde from Gears of War too. Dropping undead earns money which can be spent on fortifications like wire fences (as previously mentioned, it's not a good idea to go chucking them around), turrets which you can place manually, and spike mines able to strip several enemies down to their component parts in one go. Zombies break apart more convincingly than before too. New type the Grenadier proves this in sickening fashion, breaking off pieces of itself and flinging them as makeshift projectiles, then - upon death - swelling up and exploding unless you hack it apart with melee weapons.

ZOMBIE HOLIDAY

When the water finally drained, our heroes made a daring escape through dripping ruins and piled into the small fishing boat docked by a tree-flanked body of water. Boats are vital to traversal. The new dynamic weather system ranges from suntan-calibre rays to torrential downpours which limit visibility, threatening to unleash flash floods at any time. There's no day/night cycle, different fog and luminosity effects instead varying visuals.

Unless you fancy a dip, some sections can only be navigated by boat, but zombies won't make it easy. They'll block routes and grab onto the sides, forcing passengers to dislodge them with oars, katanas and anything else to hand. You can mark a good boat journey by the amount of disembodied arms left floating in the water.

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While the demo ended there, we were told that, like Banoi, Pelanai later introduces other environments, taking you to a massive flooded city and into deeper, denser jungle. Certainly, it's roughly the same game driven by the same compelling four-player free-roam co-op, and while it's not a drastic enough departure to justify a name with a number at the end, it introduces solid new modes and methods of travel while eliminating the frustrating niggles which put many off an otherwise winning concept.

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