Less than two years after the sleeper success of Techland’s open world/zombie/FPS/Action RPG Dead Island comes Dead Island: Riptide, the supposed “sequel.” In terms of content, it very much stands as a sequel as it is nearly, if not as long as its predecessor. However, for as much content as there is in Dead Island: Riptide the gameplay, structure, and even the technical issues remain largely unchanged. So much so that during the first three to four hours of the game, I honestly felt like I was playing the third act to the previous game that was excised for time.
It wasn’t until about a third way through the game when the good things clicked and the nagging issues became a sort of charm that I could either ignore or embrace.
Story Isn’t Everything
For those that don’t recall the original game’s plot, that’s OK, I didn’t very well either. All you need to know is that there was a zombie outbreak on a tropical island, your character and the 3 other survivors are somehow immune, that you killed a bunch of zombies, helped a bunch of surviving locals and escaped.
The story, such as it is, begins seemingly moments after the events of the original Dead Island. The helicopter that the survivors escaped on lands on a large, military ship not far off the coast of Banoi, the island from the first game. Here the survivors are told they are to be quarantined by Colonel Sam Hardy and Frank Serpo, who is some sort of corporate bigwig. In the brig, the survivors meet one more “immunie” (my word), John Morgan. From here, sequel wackiness ensues – zombies have overrun the sinking ship, and the “immunies” escape only to wind up on another island overrun with zombies. It’s up to the survivors to kill a bunch of zombies, help a bunch of surviving locals and escape.
There are cut scenes that give the player the basic set up for the next section of the game, but some of them are so poorly implemented and full of dumb character moments that it would almost be better if you skipped them altogether. It doesn’t help that they’re animated poorly and one even features a transformation that happens obstructed from view. You can tell that Techland didn’t focus a lot of resources for these moments in the game.
Land of the Dead
The new island is called “Palanai”, and while at first it looks very similar to Banoi, it’s replete with shantytowns, tree houses and fishing villages – a resort is nowhere to be found. Instead there is the city of Henderson, which seems like at one point it was thriving with street vendors, villas and a great view of the ocean. Dead Island: Riptide‘s title comes from the flooding that has hit the island leaving much of the tropical and urban paradise in three feet of water.
The idea of a flooded island doesn’t really play much into the game other than providing boats to use, and a new enemy type called a “Drowner” that float as if dead in the water only to jump to unlife when you get close. Similarly to the first game, about halfway through the game, the survivors move to a city area, which abandons vehicles all together, and the player is left to get around on foot. Thankfully the fast travel locations are plentiful so you never have to go too far before being able to use one.
Techland did do a fantastic job building the world of Palanai. It’s a gorgeous, lush environment that belies the horrible horror that lies beneath the canopy of palm trees and clear blue water. The ambient sounds of both the tropical environment and the rage of zombies do great things to create a true sense of place and dread which is essential for a zombie game that takes place on a should-be paradise.
Killing Zombies Builds Character
At the start of the game the player is given the option of picking one of five playable characters, up one from the previous game. Each character has a specialty when it comes to combat – Rapper Sam B uses blunt weapons, Hong Kong Police officer Xian uses bladed weapons, Australian bodyguard Purna is proficient in firearms, Logan’s specialty is thrown weapons and newcomer John is an expert in hand to hand.
You are able to import your character from the previous game and you’ll start with your level and stats intact. I imported my Sam B from the original game because I never really much cared for the other characters. Not that Sam B is a good character in terms of development or dialogue, because he isn’t. At all. I chose him for his blunt weapons-focused skillset. Blunt weapons are the strongest in the melee class, and have the highest duration overall.
Once you have your character selected and begin the campaign proper, everything regarding progression will be instantly familiar to players of the first game. Players will earn XP for killing zombies and completing quests. Leveling up gives the player a new skill point to use in one of three trees: Fury, Combat and Survival.
Fury is the special attack that allows you to kill common enemies in one blow, and the thug or boss types in a few more. Each kill adds to a multiplier for damage meaning that the highest level lands some devastating blows. Combat deals with your specialty weapon. Lastly, the Survival skillset deals with things like inventory space, health and selling your wares.
By the time I had finished the game, I had all but a handful of skills maxed out, so it never feels like you may be putting points into useless skills.
A (Very) Few New Things Under the Sun
With no new skills being introduced, it really makes the game feel even more like a continuation of the previous game as opposed to a sequel, in the sense of adding new elements to the game. This is both good and bad. The good is that I didn’t have to learn any new systems and it gave the game a “pick up and play” kind of feeling. The bad is that if anyone came into this game hoping for strides to have been made in terms of character progression, gameplay, mission types or even polish, they will be sorely disappointed.
The additions to the game include more special infected, such as the “Screamer”, a gangly female zombie whose screech can and will leave the player incapable of combat for a few moments. The “Wrestler,” a slow moving behemoth with a boulder for an arm that when it connects can knock you for a loop and a “Grenadier” that throws explosives at you. I already mentioned the “Drowner” above.
In terms of gameplay there are now defense missions, which act like mini-Hoard modes in which you must help the survivors, fortify and defend the safe zone from several waves of zombies. There is a context in terms of story progression but they never felt like much more than filler as none of the survivors died during any of these missions. There are also “Dead Zones” which feature named Thug/Boss zombies for which killing all of them will land you an achievement/trophy. Unlike the defense missions, however, these are almost entirely optional and can be skipped altogether. Lastly, the pacing seems tighter overall as boredom never set in, which is something I can’t say about the original.
For better or worse, other than these few new ideas, the gameplay remains largely unchanged. Weapons still degrade with use, but can be repaired, upgraded and modded at workstations. Missions are acquired by talking to specific NPCs and largely consist of fetch quests since and/or taking out specific enemies, and clearing out new safe zones for the other NPCs to gather.
Is This Gonne Be a Standup Fight, Sir, Or Another Bughunt?
Naming all of the wonky control/design issues, bugs and general “WTF” moments would derail my intentions with this review so I will just take this time to list a few:
- Jumping is absolutely terrible in this game. Jumping too close something you are trying to get on top of tends to bounce you back. This makes escaping annoying rather than suspenseful and makes general navigation a chore when it’s needed to reach an area.
- On more than one occasion I would have full health only to be hit by an invisible enemy and fall over dead. Then there is the time I opened a door, flew 30 feet in the air and fell to my death. That was interesting,
- Switching between submenus is sluggish.
- Swapping out weapons with ones in your inventory could be a lot smoother. Since only the general shape of the weapon you are highlighting in your wheel is shown, having more than one of a weapon type means highlighting it on the list on the left, seeing the position it takes up on your weapon wheel, and then replacing it.
- Clearing out an area means nothing because the zombies respawn after you walk a few feet or travel back to the area.
- Looting an area means nothing because everything can be re-looted after your walk a few feet or travel back to the area. While that one is kind of awesome because you can essentially never run of money, it absolutely kills the immersion when you find $4000 in a cash register, and return to find another $3000. First of all, you aren’t gone for very long, and who in the blue hell is running this register in my absence?
The Game Remains the Same
While the overall lack of improvements and changes will turn off anyone looking for a marked difference from the previous game, Dead Island: Riptide remained a predominantly fun experience for me throughout. Sure, nothing has been improved from the previous game, but it definitely hasn’t taken any steps back either. Dismembering zombies is still a ton of fun and watching zombies go into seizures after being electrocuted is incredibly visceral and well animated. The environments are vast and worth exploring, be it to find that next great weapon, or stumble across another survivor in need of you help. With better pacing than the first game and a ton to do in Dead Island: Riptide, I’m cautiously optimistic for the series in the future.
Sean completed the campaign of Dead Island: Riptide on Xbox 360 and completed 72 of 80 side quests. The copy of the game played was a rental and was not provided by Deep Silver.