I only played the original Dead Island last winter, more than a year after it came out. It was on my list but I’d never gotten around to checking it out. The used copy I’d picked up was gathering dust on top of my entertainment center until I finally gave it a spin during one of those winter flu couch marathons. I was glad I did, because I quickly became obsessed with its zombie infested, open world gameplay, brutal melee combat, RPG elements and relentless bloody gruesomeness. Dead Island had its technical flaws and a fairly mixed critical reception but it was just SO FUN. After beating Dead Island I promptly made a pre-order for its sequel, Riptide.
I loved Dead Island and have been looking forward to this sequel. After spending a few hours of quality time with Dead Island: Riptide, these are my early observations. Stay tuned for a deeper review in the near future, after I tame this sprawling beast of a game.
Back to the Beach
Dead Island: Riptide, is a very direct sequel to Dead Island.
Riptide finds our band of survivors (with the addition of a new playable character and a fresh cast of NPCs) again stranded on a South Pacific island overrun with the undead. The island of Palanoi is quite reminiscent of the first game’s island, Banoi. It’s a tropical paradise with lush jungle emptying onto white sand beaches with pleasant beach huts, villages and grottoes dotting the landscape. But, like Banoi, it’s the site of an outbreak. You are given the choice of 5 playable characters (I stuck with Sam B, the blunt weapons expert and rapper who I’d played in the original game), including new character John Morgan, a hand to hand expert.
The storyline begins where the first game left off. Our survivors, who are immune to the zombie plague, have escaped the prison Island (the final area of Dead Island) in a helicopter and they make a landing on a naval vessel. But they are detained by military men under control of the transparently villainous Serpo as soon as they land, and experimented on below decks. After an outbreak scene on the boat that also serves as an introduction to the game’s controls, the ship wrecks on an island and the meat of the game begins. Once you wake up on the island, it feels like a scene right out of the first game.
The game features some minor improvements to the combat system. In melee combat, the bone breaking and limb amputation system seem more fleshed out. In the first game it sometimes felt like it happened at random, instead of the result of a well placed strike. Also, thankfully, the gunplay is tighter and aiming feels like much less of a chore. This wasn’t much of an issue in the melee heavy first half of Dead Island, but became increasingly annoying during later segments against gun wielding enemies. Riptide has cleaned this up considerably, and it was a blast (no pun intended) to blow away waves of undead during the intro vignette on the infested boat.
Also, there is the addition of a team dynamic to the single player campaign. Your team, made up of the other playable characters and some NPCs can provide perks and assistance in fending off the hordes. Your team, and its individual members are rated and you can strengthen them through side quests. For example, an early quest to raise Xian’s level, entitled “Upping the Odds for Xian” sets you out to “Deliver 3 blades to Xian, so she can support our team more efficiently.” Completing this quest raises Xian’s level, which goes towards raising the team’s. Also, you gain XP and some bombs. If you hate fetch quests this might drive you nuts, but it just added to the fun for me. The more you quest, the more you find, the more you level up your stats, the better your team gets…. and on and on and on. Maybe it’s all the JRPG level grinding I did in my youth, but I can easily get sucked into this kind of gameplay – especially if I’m dismembering zombies along the way!
The good things about the first Dead Island are as strong as ever. The melee combat is ridiculously fun and never really gets old, no matter how many zombies you decapitate. There are multiple melee weapon classes, like blunt weapons and bladed weapons, as well as all manner of bombs, molotovs, grenades and eventually guns. Weapons take damage and need repair at workbenches, where you can also upgrade and mod them. The modding system makes it possible to add fire, electricity and other effects to weapons which add hilariously gruesome effects when used on the undead. The depth and humor of the weapon modding system means you’ll spend lots of time crafting and upgrading your implements of zombie destruction. There’s nothing like slicing off an attacking zombie’s arm and watching it writhe in purple electricity with a shock modded machete…. but I digress.
I only quickly jumped into the online co-op play. But it seems as pleasingly chaotic as the first game. You’re matched up with other players who are at a similar level and in the same area of the map as you, and you can choose to connect and play together. You can revive each other and trade items, and you use beacons and such to share mission objectives. But the most fun is fighting with a large group of online players against the much-larger groups of zombies that attack in this mode. It turns into an all out war and the battlefield is littered in corpses. It’s kind of hard to tell what’s going on, and it’s an insanely good time.
Sometimes…They Come Back.
The control tweaks and team system are a welcome addition but mostly Riptide feels like a new, albeit quite large, episode of Dead Island. While this means a lot of the same things that made the first game a barrel of corpse smashing good time are back, the weak story and technical issues that plagued Dead Island are unimproved.
The story is serviceable enough for me, it provides a bit of narrative to connect the main quest missions and advance the game. I appreciate games with good writing but, if it’s really fun, I can deal with some wooden characters and trite scenarios. However, those looking for a BioShock Infinite grade narrative, will probably want to look elsewhere.
The bigger disappointment is that there’s been no update to the engine, and it’s flaws are still pretty glaring. Texture pop-in abounds, sometimes taking a couple of seconds to show detail. There’s also constant screen tearing and some pretty bad slowdown at points. Characters’ facial animations are off and they just look…… strange up close. The zombies are supposed to be unnerving but your friends shouldn’t look like too-shiny skin pulled over an ill-shaped mannequin up close. Also, backgrounds can get jittery and blocky, especially during cut scenes. It’s really a shame, especially since so many reviewers named the technical hiccups as one of the biggest downsides to the first game.
The bottom line is this: If you liked Dead Island, you will like Dead Island Riptide. It’s even more of the same! If you hated Dead Island, you probably won’t care much for Riptide. It’s just more of the same.
Like the first game, Dead Island Riptide’s (many) flaws aren’t enough to take away from its addictively fun gameplay. I’ve been having a great time with this game and I look forward to finishing it. More to come when I do!