April 30, 2013
The opening segment of Dead Island: Riptide is monstrous, and not because it involves a stereotypically sleazy exec talking about bioweapons. Not because of zombies either. In fact, aside from the hideously ugly cut-scenes that seem to be animated in flipbook style and the drab story, I was actually hit by a complete absence of sound only ten minutes in. Not wanting to let my co-op colleagues down I soldiered on because, hey, the game has subtitles right? Yeah, then the subtitles stop progressing too. So unless I have the ability to lip read (I don’t) badly animated characters that I don’t really care about anyway I guess it’s time for a hard reset. Welcome back to Dead Island.
As one of the few people who found the original Dead Island a refreshing change of pace, with a unique blend of melee combat, exploration and RPG style levelling and questing, this semi-sequel is nothing short of an appalling wake up call. In fact Riptide is really just a glorified expansion pack, riddled with the same myriad of technical issues as the first, along with none of the appeal.
Once again our intrepid gang find themselves washed up on a zombie infested island, tasked with finding a way out, as well as getting to the bottom of a rather tiresome double cum triple cross involving pretty much anyone you bump into. Yay. The problem with the story is that it's amazingly tired and clichéd from the get go, whereas the original game had that sense of intrigue and exploration that seems woefully absent here. The four leads are just as obnoxious and badly scripted as ever, while the newcomer John is your typical taciturn soldier type. Thank god they didn’t just grab him from the stereotype handbook, amirite?
The story this time around is just not as compelling as the last one, and the survivors you meet along the way never seem to truly need your help in the first place. A guy is trapped in his hut surrounded by zombies, so you rush in to save him and he promptly makes a beeline for safety. Only he doesn’t. He says he should but then walks a few feet away and sits on the ground. The realism here is mind blowing. The same story holds true for most of the people you meet; you stop to help them out and then they just offer a minor platitude and proceed to remain in peril anyway. What gives people? Is this game so tiresome and repetitive that you can’t bring yourselves to escape from it? Or did the animators decide that those extra frames for your escape could be better spent elsewhere? Who knows. Even when these NPCs fight alongside you they're clueless, often just letting themselves be hit or they'll simply stand still ready to attack but never actually help out. It’s like they want to become brain chomping undead.
At least the melee combat is still as oddly satisfying as ever, or at least it would be if the same cheap issues didn’t weigh things down time and time again. Assuming you played the first Dead Island then you are free to import your character, which is a nice touch, but also reintroduces the worst balancing mechanic known to man. As in the first game your foes level to where you’re at, ostensibly to keep the game interesting. What this means in practice is that at higher levels, zombies can down you in a couple of hits all the while laughing at your supposedly enhanced stats. Did I mention that some of them like throwing things at you too? I probably should, as those superstars can down you in one hit. EVERY TIME. I get that the game should become more challenging but when things are cheap for the sake of it then it soon becomes frustrating. It basically means that playing a lower level character makes the game that much easier and the enemies much less overpowered.
It doesn’t help matters when zombies tend to respawn at the drop of a hat. Enter an area, clear it of zombies and then proceed to loot useful items. Only don’t turn your back for too long as after a couple of minutes the zombie population will have reformed. The number of times I’ve wandered down a road only to be set upon from behind by undead goons that were not there mere seconds ago, is not worth thinking about. Sure I want to beat up zombies but if they are randomly spawning every five steps then the appeal of killing zombies is going to wear off fast.
Even the environment fails to evoke the wonder of the first game. The available maps feel much smaller and uninteresting, with most areas looking remarkably similar to the last. Remember the excitement of braving the overrun hotel again in the first game, or finding the lab in the jungle? Such neat set pieces seem to have been strewn by the wayside here, and you feel like you’ve seen everything before. Where is the inventiveness and the unexpected events? Even the supposedly clever weather conditions are anything but. A tropical storm can blow in, the screen darkens, the rain falls and the wind howls and then, a split second later, it’s bright and sunny once again. It’s like weather is condensed into tiny pockets all over the island, ready to spring out and attack you before scurrying away again.
In truth the alterations to the first game seem preposterously minor. You can now engage in zombie horde style defence missions, which involve you throwing around a few fences and explosives and then killing everything in sight. You can also zip around on a boat, which is basically like the car but, y’know, in water. If anything there seems to be far less missions to occupy yourself with too, with a good portion of them simply being to rescue a few survivors that you stumble across or kill certain badass zombies in specific ‘dead zones’. The changes just don’t seem to add anything to the whole, and the defence events feel amazingly forced rather than being tense or fun. This is certainly a much shorter game too, and the experience never feels as satisfying as it was in the first game.
Luckily you don’t have to suffer alone though! You can drag your friends down with you. That nets you a few more team-related tasks and the wonderful Russian roulette system of “who’s Xbox will freeze up first”. The game seems to struggle even more when more players are involved, and this results in people being booted out of a match or random system crashes. All fun and games, but hardly making for the most enjoyable co-op experience. Still assuming you can get some friends together the game goes from being short and dull to being short and dull, but with other people to laugh at the terrible glitches with.
On the plus side the achievements are much easier this time around, though that’s probably because they evoke the same phoned-in feeling as the rest of the game. However, like with the rest of the game, the issues from the original title also seem to have slipped in here. Tracking collectibles and kills of certain enemies seems twitchy at best and having to complete an entirely new playthrough to pick them all up again is hardly that appealing. This is especially true for those of us that did that exact thing for the There and Back Again achievement last time out. Is tracking ten items that hard? This game makes you think so.
Dead Island: Riptide is not a full blown sequel, which is probably something to be thankful for, because if it were then the sense of disappointment would be that much greater. If you enjoyed smashing in zombie heads the first time around then it's still fun, to an extent, but the issues in terms of the story, graphics and dubious AI, thrown in with the regular glitches and technical bugs all come crashing down to ruin things. Those problems could be forgiven in the first game thanks to the variety on offer and the much stronger storyline, whereas here everything seems lazily phoned-in.
A few new enemies and ideas hardly make up for the same environments and combat, coupled with the same bountiful frustrations. By the time Dead Island: Riptide's cliffhanger finale rolls in you're left wondering whether you even want a true sequel, as clearly the good intentions and ideas have been left to rot.
Laughable voice work and numerous audio bugs and glitches, often prompting a hard reset.
Decent when in-game, but woeful when it comes to cut-scenes. The frame rate tends to come crashing down at regular intervals and the weather effects are sporadic to say the least.
Smashing in zombie heads is fun, but the dearth of missions and variety is disappointing and the short story will not sustain you for long.
Too many of the same bugs rear their heads again which is unforgivable. Nothing seems to have been learnt from the original and it seems like there just wasn’t enough care and attention paid here.
A dull and unbalanced list (90G for boat kills?) plus one that also has the risk of glitching on you and forcing a second playthrough. Not cool.
The first Dead Island was an interesting breath of fetid air, and one that made for a novel take on zombie survival. Dead Island: Riptide takes all of the worst elements of that title, removes some of the better ones and adds a few features that are average at best to create something that is wholly underwhelming. Here’s hoping this series is allowed to rest in peace.