Developer: Techland / Publisher: Deep Silver / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Use of Drugs]
In 2011, Dead Island caused quite a stir with its debut trailer featuring the struggles of a beautiful family mauled by zombies (some in bikinis). It was an emotional showcase of the true horror a zombie-infested world can have on just a small group of people, and it suggested a game that focused on the human condition and survival. What we received instead was an open world hack-and-slash with enemies that just happen to be zombies, navigating a world filled with bugs not of the undead variety. This time around Dead Island veterans considering Riptide know exactly what they’re getting into, but the extent of the resemblance to the original may not be to everyone’s liking.
Deep Silver has been careful not to market Riptide as a sequel to the series, and it’s easy to see why: it plays very much like Dead Island version 1.5. Not much has progressed since we last saw our survivors; they have left the island of Banoi and land on an aircraft carrier occupied by military personnel that soon start treating everyone like lab rats. One misunderstanding and bite later the virus is onboard, giving the survivors a chance to overrun their captives and escape.
They land on the island of Palanoi, where the virus has also spread among its residents. Once again, the survivors are tasked with protecting the remaining uninfected and finding a way off the island. The story is bland at best, but it follows suit with the first game’s plot, so at least there’s consistency. And that’s the problem with Riptide, it follows everything that was right AND wrong with Dead Island that it’s hard to understand how so many problems made its way into this spinoff.
Riptide is a first-person action roleplaying game featuring an open world environment, or the attempts at one in yet another tropical setting. There are five classes to choose from, four of which fans of the original Dead Island are familiar with and a new individual named John who specializes in hand-to-hand combat. There’s an option to import your character from Dead Island if you want to carry over your unlocked skills and levels, though your battery-powered katana and barbed wired baseball bat won’t make the journey. Despite your class selection, you are still able to wield any weapon you pick up, the difference lies in the special abilities made available in the characters’ skill trees.
Weapons are upgradable, and the fun aspect of finding mods and creating interesting weapon combinations is still alive and well. There are plenty of weapons and crafting items littered throughout Palanoi, all of different rarity. Likewise, melee weapons still deteriorate with much use, but weapons seem to last longer this time around and there are more workbenches available to repair broken items. The more you wield a type of weapon, the more proficient you now become in that category, granting longer durability for your weapons, faster attacks, etc.
Earning experience and money is accomplished by completing quests and defeating enemies. Like the first installment, Riptide has many sidequests available and collectibles to find. And like Dead Island, both the main story missions and sidequests boil down to boring fetch objectives, which require a significant amount of backtracking through areas of Palanoi that lack the expansive and tropical ambience of Banoi. There’s a blanket sense of urgency the game introduces at the beginning, but it all fades away when you’re tasked with running around finding random characters whose importance fades away after one cutscene.
Throughout your exploration you will encounter civilians who require your assistance, yelling for help in exchange for experience, weapons or money. Combat is very melee-centric, an aspect Dead Island is known for and that somehow remains just as buggy in this installment. Actions such as swinging weapons, running, kicking, and jumping are all tied to a stamina bar, a mechanic that should add to the survival horror feel the game is trying to accomplish but can easily frustrate the player. Zombies often times claw at you much faster than your character can swing, and when there’s three on you at any given moment, this makes fighting all the more excruciating.
If playing solo, prepare to be ambushed constantly, because Riptide does not scale down zombie encounters depending on your play style. What’s worse, zombies constantly respawn even after you clear an area, sometimes right behind you. There is an additional melee command implemented where you can attack a zombie from above to knock them down and stomp their face in, but this and other animations don’t always hit their mark. Melee is irregular and generally works against you, a troubling thought given how much of the combat depends on close encounters.
Thugs, Suiciders and Floaters return to make your day worse, but now they’re accompanied by new mutated zombie types called Screamers, Wrestlers, Grenadiers, Infected, etc. Screamers can inhabilitate you with their ear-shattering yells while the Infected pummel at you with twice the speed of a regular Walker (the garden variety zombie enemy), and because Riptide introduces boat transportation, you also have Drowners to deal with, zombies that will climb onto your ride while you’re trying to navigate through a swamp during a rain storm.
One noticeable addition to the Dead Island series is the use of fortifications when defending camps from hordes of zombies. Before a slew of enemies come knocking at your door, you have the opportunity to put up fences and set up gatling guns to help keep them at bay, an interesting concept that sadly doesn’t bring much to the table. Fences do very little to hold back the zombies, and having to put them back up is usually more trouble than it’s worth. This is coupled with having to save the other camp occupants from being killed by the enemy — while nearby NPCs watch them struggle only inches away. If you complete sidequests for these characters before the horde segments, the survivors become stronger to better assist in these hectic moments. Still, you’ll be tasked to save a couple of them when things get rough.
Co-op is Dead Island‘s main attraction, and this remains true in Riptide. The game is significantly more enjoyable with partners to aid you, especially during hordes, though this seems more a testament to your friends than the game itself. Friends no longer have to worry about each other’s progression or level in the game, anyone can join at any point in the story and enemies are now leveled to your stats, making for a better cohesive co-op experience. You can only revive friends if you happen to have a medkit, but respawning happens relatively quickly and the only penalty is the lost of currency. That said, respawning is spotty; just like enemies can randomly appear out of thin air in front of you, so can you appear behind a zombie the second you respawn (and remember, they have a better sense of awareness than you).
There have been quite a few mentions to the buggy state of the game, and for good reason. There are too many glitches I personally encountered to list them all, but some of the more significant drawbacks include dropped framerate (to a point that the game simply stopped working), zombies clipping through walls, primary objectives not appearing until the checkpoint was reloaded, and there’s the moment in the first ten minutes of my playthrouh where I found myself stuck in a room with two unopenable doors. It took me awhile to realize I wasn’t supposed to be in that room, though I arrived there by the game’s own doing, as I was pushed back by a gust of wind and suddenly I was trapped. There were even moments when a random player would join only to freeze the game, then my console.
The character models for the survivors still remain creepy to look at, with not much improvement graphically. Their personalities unfortunately remain absent. However, I do want to commend Techland for their variety of zombie designs; enemies have a more diversified look than most zombie games I’ve played. Weapons themselves change with usage: starting from clean, sharp edges to rusted, blood-covered blunt objects after a good round of zombie hacking.
The main campaign should take you about fifteen hours to complete, but coupled with sidequests this can easily equal up to a twenty-five hour adventure. Whether or not you’ll enjoy that adventure depends on your love for the first game, and the friends you bring along for the slaughter. Dead Island: Riptide doesn’t fix what’s broken with the original, which is odd given the amount of details that desperately need to be repaired. The concept of an open world zombie survival game is still good on paper, but somehow Techland has failed for a second time to make sure it works in execution. At least there is one trait I can commend: “Who Do You Voodoo” is still entertaining to hear when the credits roll.