In the corner of my living room is my shelf of shame, piled high with games that I have never gotten around to finishing, or in some cases never even played. The original Dead Island is in the latter group, sitting on the shelf, still in its shrink wrap, waiting to be played. It waited so long that the sequel, Dead Island Riptide, came out and I was tasked with playing that for review instead. For a game that seems perfectly suited to my tastes, Riptide never clicked with me, and it will soon be collecting dust on the shelf next to its predecessor.
Riptide picks up immediately where the original ends. After surviving a virus outbreak that turns people into zombies, a small group of immune survivors escape the island of Banoi and are picked up by the military. Their relief is short lived however, as the ship they are on also succumbs to the virus, and shipwrecks on yet another lush, tropical island. Stranded again, the group must fight their way through the undead to freedom.
I should pause for a moment and mention that both Riptide and the original Dead Island appear on the surface to be games that I would really enjoy. Set in an open world with quests, side quests and loot, it shapes up like the zombie infested cousin of Borderlands, a game I spent more time with than I would like to admit. I started Riptide with the same expectations that made me purchase the original Dead Island; that I was getting into the perfect game for my tastes.
Right off the bat Riptide assumes that players have played the original game. Players can import their character from Dead Island, or create a new one, who starts at level 15. Like other games of its type Riptide assigns skill points as characters level up, which can be assigned to one of three skill trees. When starting with a new character, players have the option to let the game assign these points based on their play style, or to assign them manually.
The problem with starting a new file is that the skills being selected, and even aspects of the characters themselves, are not explained anywhere. For example, when choosing a character, one of their benefits was that they build up Fury faster than other classes, but I had no idea what that was. Likewise, at no point in the beginning, or any other time during the game, are the skill trees or how they work explained. Certain skills need to be unlocked by acquiring previous ones, but the requirements were never stated, and later on I found myself investing in attributes I didn’t want in the hope that it would unlock one that I did want.
Once the game begins, the structure is easy enough to catch on to. There are story and side quests, which can be as simple as acquiring medication for a fellow survivor, or saving people players run into while exploring from a group of zombies. For the first two types of quest, the difficulty, XP reward and any weapon or items are displayed at the beginning, making it easy to decide which quests are worth embarking on.
The island is full of the walking dead, and combat encounters make up a large part of the experience. The majority of combat is melee, handled by weapons found throughout the world. Guns and other powerful weapons are found occasionally, but ammunition is rare, and best saved for the most dangerous encounters. All weapons are color coded based on their strength and rarity, much like other action RPG games. Blueprints can be found that unlock weapon recipes, and combining weapons with found items can make for more deadly instruments of destruction.
The loot in Riptide is fun to collect and modify. Weapons will degrade and become less useful over time, and stopping at a workbench will allow them to be restored, upgraded or modified. As fun as it is bashing in a zombie’s brains using a baseball bat, it’s even better when said bat is wrapped in barbed wire. The weapon variety is good, because the zombies in Riptide are fairly advanced, and will come running and attack with knives and other objects.
The combat itself is satisfying in small doses, but the amount of it takes away the fun. Most enemy encounters fall into the pattern of kick the enemy until they fall down and then bash them in the head with something, whether it’s the first time or the 100th time. Medical kits can be found for healing, but death only costs a little money while temporarily granting an extended health bar, so there’s really no reason not to just jump in and start swinging. In fact, I used that strategy fairly often in areas where health items were scarce, and I still never found myself short on cash when it was time for upgrading.
One of the biggest parts of the combat is the ability to disable or completely remove enemy limbs. When facing off against a huge zombie who swings his arms wildly for large amounts of damage, a few well-placed whacks with a crowbar will break one of those arms, rendering it useless. In addition to the standard digital combat the game suggests players use the analog fighting style, for a better and more precise experience. I tried to take that advice, but given that analog combat was not explained either in the game or the instruction book, I eventually gave up in frustration. Once again, it felt like I was being punished for not playing the original.
While much of the game is spent in transit from one location to another, there are occasional horde sections where all of the survivors work together to protect a base location. During these sections players must watch the health of the other survivors in addition to themselves, as the death of any character will end the game and restart at the last checkpoint.
Dead Island Riptide can be played up to four player co-op, and the online is one thing the game does very well. When playing in an open game, alerts will pop up when other players are nearby, with a similar level of progression. Joining their instance is as simple as pressing a button, and very smooth. In my experience the online play was lag-free and worked well, although once I joined another player’s game only to find they were halfway across the map from my location.
Visually the game looks fine, though there are some surprisingly blurry and flat textures in certain areas. The frame rate is the same; mostly solid with occasional bumps, but neither really affected the experience in any meaningful way. The characters are wooden and somewhat odd, and ironically the dead look more lifelike than the living. The combat sounds are good, and the satisfying crunch of a bone breaking is very nice. Zombie footsteps are a good and necessary addition, since outside of horde battles there is no radar for enemies. Character voices are fine, although some of the profanity feels inorganic, like they were just trying to punch up the dialog.
Dead Island Riptide is by no means a terrible game; it’s just not very fun to play for very long. It’s especially disappointing because given my tastes; this should have been a game that I loved. As good as the online play may be, it’s still just an extension of the fairly stale single player experience. It’s not friendly at all to new players, to the point that I only discovered the fast travel system because I wandered into it by chance. The characters are fairly stereotypical and bland, so at no point did I become attached to any of them, or really care about their survival. Those who enjoyed the original and want more will likely enjoy, but anyone else can find a better zombie or action RPG experience elsewhere.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.