Dying to disappoint

The first Dead Island turned a lot of heads by blending open-world and RPG elements with survival horror. It lacked the polish to make a truly significant impact, but this solid core led many to believe that the inevitable follow-up would only improve on the strong foundation laid by the first game and deliver an experience that could be enjoyed by zombie slayers everywhere.

Man, were we ever wrong.

Dead Island: Riptide opens with the four heroes from the first game—along with terrorist hacker Charon and Yerema, patient zero of the Banoi outbreak—landing on a military ship in their commandeered helicopter. The soldiers on the ship immediately take everyone into custody, as a mysterious figure named Serpo wishes to experiment on the immune for undisclosed reasons. Yerema freaks when grabbed by the soldiers because of her bad experiences with male authority figures and bites one of her assailants, thus spreading the infection onto the ship.

Following a short cutscene where our heroes awaken from a drug-induced stupor and exchange pleasantries with new playable protagonist John Morgan, we take control of the characters for the first time and discover the ship has now gone to hell. After a brief tutorial segment, the carrier crashes onto the nearby island of Palanai, and a very familiar scene is laid out before us: a tropical haven torn asunder by the zombie outbreak.

And while this paradox of hell in paradise is still an interesting concept, the punch it had with the first game will be lost on returning players, as they’ve seen this before. In fact, as you continue to play through the game, you’ll realize in many instances how very few differences there are in terms of story pacing and location from the first Dead Island to Riptide. The result is usually a less than satisfying sense of déjà vu.

Even the things that were being hyped as major additions were simply meant to fool us into thinking there was something new to be found in Riptide. The “improved gunplay” we were promised has been instituted by removing most of the required gunplay from the game and putting an even stronger emphasis on your melee weapons. Using a boat to get from point A to B is available in only one section of the game—and ended up making for a more frustrating experience, as all that water consistently causes framerate drops and horrendous screen-tearing. At the least the themes of water and flooding are consistent throughout the game—even if you can avoid it in most areas.

And the new quest types we were promised? They’re there, but they’re every bit as much of a grind as the fetch quests that dominated the first game. There are still plenty of fetch quests here, too—so many that almost you almost want to willingly dive into the waiting, diseased maw of some flailing zombie just to end it all.

The first new objective type involves the relatively straightforward task of saving a survivor who’s stuck on high ground, surrounded by zombies below. The second type is the highly touted siege quests. The survivor quests were fun the first couple of times, but when you realize there are literally dozens of survivors scattered about the world—too stupid to help themselves or realize that the zombies can’t climb—a part of you wants to leave these pitiful NPCs to their fate. By contrast, the siege quests are actually a lot of fun and require some complex thinking and strategy, but given that they only occur a handful of times through the entire game, I can’t help but wonder why Techland stressed something so relatively insignificant.

And that’s the kicker, really. If you played the first Dead Island, it’s hard not to notice how little has changed between the games. Even the glitches from the first game have returned, imparting the sense that Riptide needed at least another six months of polishing before ever reaching the hands of consumers. There are the little things, like radios that magically and inexplicably rotate 90 degrees when you turn them on, and big things, like times when the audio drops out completely, breaks whatever quest you’re on, and forces you to quit out and restart from your last checkpoint. The zombie respawn timer is also far too fast. In many instances I would see zombies I just wiped out literally start respawning not 15 seconds later. Polygon by polygon, they would fade back into existence right in front of me, and I’d have to run or deal with them all over again. It’s always nice when a developer uses an in-house engine, as it usually gives them mastery over that which they are trying to create, but it comes off that the Chrome engine still can’t give the smooth experience most gamers demand from a game nowadays, especially one with so much hype.

And the shortcomings aren’t just technical. The story this time around has even more plot holes, and does nothing to further develop any of the characters. Not to mention that Charon and Yerema—two of the most important characters from the first Dead Island—completely disappear once you leave the ship from the game’s opening cinematic/tutorial mission. Characters don’t ask about them, collectibles don’t explain their absence (if you can even look past the all the typos in the various collectibles’ scripts), and when you meet the bad guys again later in the game, it never comes up that two people you arrived with are just gone. Their existence is ignored in order to help further a plot that maddeningly undoes much of the first game’s. All this leads up to one of the most pitiful and poorly developed end bosses I’ve seen in a while, one that pales in comparison to the Ryder White fight from the end of Dead Island.

As much as I may be bashing Riptide, though, some of the good from the first game was able to make it over into this sequel, and there are a couple of nice new features as well. Being able to import your original character is a great touch; it was nice playing with Sam B and already having my skill trees largely filled out. Since the level cap has been raised to 70, you’re also able to further flesh your imported character, as well as try out new abilities, like the Charge maneuver. If Riptide is your first experience with the Dead Island franchise, however, there’s nothing to fear. You’ll automatically start at level 15 with a new character, so you can fill out your tree a decent amount and jump right into co-op without having to worry about other players having to carry you.

The co-op is also a critical returning feature, as many of the missions have been specifically tailored to take advantage of group play—specifically those where you have to carry weapons or supplies to a vehicle while other players cover your rear. The addictive nature of bashing zombies in the face with some trusted cohorts, especially with the weird assortment of weapons you can craft at benches, is as enjoyable as ever in Riptide.

Also, the new enemy types, like the Wrestler, the Butcher, and the Screamer—along with the addition of 13 boss zombies scattered throughout the world—provide some nice monster variety that was noticeably absent from the first game. If as much effort was put into the rest of the game as was put into creating the new zombie monstrosities, I suspect my review would have a dramatically different tone.

Still, as much as I hated the glitches and lack of story development, there were times I couldn’t put Riptide down for hours upon hours. The sheer fun of the co-op zombie-slaughtering gameplay was strong enough to carry the burden. The fact that the rest of the game can’t live up to this promising foundation is nothing short of heartbreaking. It’s a reboot of a game that only came out two years ago. It’s a nightmarish expansion pack with only a handful of new gameplay elements and two new bugs for every one that’s been fixed. If this is your first experience with the franchise, then you might be able to look past some of the more glaring flaws, but if you played the first Dead Island, Riptide is a difficult game to recommend.

Developer: Techland • Publisher: Deep Silver • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 04.23.13
Newcomers to the franchise will likely be more forgiving of many flaws, much like many of us were with the first Dead Island, considering the fun zombie-bashing core and unique dichotomy of an apocalypse in paradise has remained intact. Veterans of the first Dead Island, on the other hand, will feel cheated, as they’ll recognize the cheap carbon copy that Riptide actually is. Combine this with glitches galore and a plot with more holes in it than the sinking ship the game starts off on, and it’s hard to recommend Riptide to all but the most naïve of zombie enthusiasts.
The Good Enjoyable zombie hacking and co-op remains intact.
The Bad Frequent screen-tearing and quest-breaking glitches; tons of plot holes.
The Ugly The fact that I’d actually hoped this would be better than the first game.
Dead Island: Riptide is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.