The first Dead Island was a bit of a buggy mess, but its cheerfully batty blend of zombie killing and RPG elements felt so fresh that it was usually worth putting up with the glitches. The follow up, Dead Island: Riptide, adds new elements to the mix of co-op play, loot collection, and combat, but fails to improve on its predecessor in any way. Buggier and messier, Riptide‘s good ideas are nearly overwhelmed by its frustrations.
The four player characters from the first game – somehow immune to the virus that overran the island resort of Banoi – continue their streak of bad luck with a shipwreck that leaves them stranded on yet another infected island, Palanai. There’s rumor that a nearby town is safe, however, so they band together with a few locals to make their way through swamps, villages, and towns in the hopes of finding if not rescue, at least a place that isn’t crawling with the undead. As one of the few who can be bitten and not turn, it’s up to you to run around fetching various bits of equipment, clearing paths, finding maps and unlocking doors that will allow everyone else to follow along. Your non-immune companions aren’t entirely dead weight, though; they’ll hang out back at base camp and support you by providing you with weapons and supplies – so long as you have enough money to pay for it, of course. Hey, it’s the end of the world, but they still have their vacation to pay off, you know?
Despite its zombie exterior, Riptide plays like a first-person dungeon crawl: Kill stuff, collect loot, gain experience points, level up. Each immune survivor specializes in a different form of combat, but they can all use any weapons they come across, which makes loot collection far more fun if you’re playing solo. Quest givers will dole out experience, cash, and special items like blueprints for weapon modifications if you’re willing to do their legwork for them, and to Riptide‘s credit, the sidequests this time around are typically more interesting than uninspired fetch quests of the previous game. Despite a few minor tweaks, like doing special quests for your companions to improve “team strength” (but just how, I could never really tell) the gameplay of Riptide is still virtually identical to Dead Island, but collecting junk like deodorant and duct tape to upgrade or create unique weapons is still a lot of fun. It’s exciting to clear out a boss zombie’s lair and collect the rare items he’d stashed away, or discovering a stranded survivor as you zip through the swamp in a little fishing boat. You’ll have to do some serious hunting for the many, many modification blueprints scattered around the game, but the ability to create something like a liquid fire ancient Chinese sword is typically worth a little poking around. Exploring is the only way to find many of the game’s quests and dungeons, but if you’re by yourself, you may not enjoy wandering too far off the intended path.
Co-op was a lot of fun in Dead Island, mostly because it felt like an option, not a necessity. Playing Riptide by yourself frequently feels like you’re being punished, as difficulty scales wildly and you die over and over again. It’s particularly frustrating in the earlier portions of the game, before you have access to long-range weapons like guns and grenades and are forced to wade into oceans of the undead, frantically hacking and bashing your way to victory. Combat becomes a chore, a war of attrition where you try to do a bit more damage to the horde before you die, so at least they’re that much weaker when you respawn. This is especially true in the new and particularly tedious “defend the hub” scenarios, where you and your fellow survivors must survive several waves of zombie attackers. It’s lots of fun when you can coordinate your defense with another player, but tiresome when you’re on your own.
It doesn’t help that Riptide often seems to be actively working against you. Your walking speed is a foot-dragging slog reminiscent of a fourth grader on his way to the first day of school. A new addition to combat, the ability to do a one-hit-kill jump on enemies below you, works wonderfully…sometimes. The rest of the time Riptide apparently assumes you were just joking when you hit the button, kind of like that time you said you wanted to jump across a gap but you what you really wanted was to totally not jump and instead fall to your doom. You’ll also get stuck on pretty much everything, but most especially doorways. Riptide will occasionally freeze up for a few seconds when you select or reload your automatic rifle and has a tendency to chug horribly when there are too many zombies going through death animations at the same time.
As frustrating as all of the technoglitches are, they might be dealable if there was anything or anyone to care about in Riptide, but there isn’t. The new zombie types are more annoying than challenging, most particularly the drowners that clog the many swampy or flooded areas of the island. It was quite interesting that the “heroes” of Dead Island were such unlikeable, ignoble people, as it turned the typical survival scenario on its ear. The story of Riptide just can’t compete as it shambles through familiar tropes and plot twists, and characters that were once intriguing antiheroes just become mouthy complainers.
The game also smacks of a certain amount of laziness when it comes to its environmental details. With so many zombies running around, it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect each one to be distinct, but you’ll find yourself facing entire groups of clones. You’ll probably get a good laugh out of the whiteboard you’ll find in the military stronghold the first time you see it, but the same exact whiteboard – complete with a joke about blueberries – shows up four or five more times. In one room, two of them are set up next to each other. Zombie hideouts and strongholds are identical right down to the way litter is scattered across the floor, to the point that it’s easy to forget which ones you’ve cleared out and which ones are unexplored. It’s game design by cut and paste.
Bottom Line: All of that said, Dead Island: Riptide isn’t a game you have to play for its characters, story, or finesse. If you want to kill stuff with your buddies, this can be a decent way to do it.
Recommendation: Proceed with caution. If you’re willing to forgive its many sins, Riptide is shallowly enjoyable, but don’t expect to care much about anything other than your kill count.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.[rating=2.5]
Game: Dead Island Riptide
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360