Review: Dead Island: Riptide

DeadIslandRiptide

More of the same, buggy as a corpse left to rot in the sun, yet still loads of dumb, zombie-butchering fun.

That about sums up Dead Island: Riptide, the follow-up (calling it a true sequel would be inaccurate and far too generous) to Techland’s 2011 vacation-gone-horribly-wrong zombie RPG.

Riptide begins where the first Dead Island ended, with our ragtag bunch of immune zombie slayers – the Aussie ex-police officer, one-hit-wonder rap artist, resort desk clerk secretly working as a Chinese spy, washed-up former American football star, and the newcomer, a Navy cook – landing their rescue chopper on an aircraft carrier out at sea. Somehow zombies have made it on board just as a nasty storm sweeps in, shipwrecking the surviving “heroes” on the island of Palanai, which of course has also been ravaged by the undead infection.

Obviously there is more to the plot than what I have described, but none of it is worth writing about or paying attention to while playing the game. The only worthwhile narrative is delivered through optionally collected audio diaries, which usually recount the horror stories of locals and vacationers trying to fend off zombies or dealing with the torment of people they know turning. What’s odd is how these diaries are often so tense, compelling and well acted, while the main storyline is plagued by awful voice-over performances and bland, soulless characters you won’t care to see perish.

Much like the flooded island where the game takes place, Riptide is a soggy, infected mess of glitches and technical miscues. In the time since the first game was released you’d think Techland could at least properly optimize the engine – which still renders some of the most hideous, rigidly animated character models you’re going to see on modern HD consoles – and yet this time around audio breaks, frame rate skips, clipping glitches, and texture load-in are actually more prominent than I recall experiencing before. Worse still, I’ve seen zombies get stuck in walls and freeze in mid-shamble as if suddenly transformed into wax figures. Quest notes and waypoints occasionally don’t properly appear on the map or in the journal, animation routines get stuck, and sometimes cycling through weapons loads so sluggishly that you’ll be firing off pistol rounds before the actual gun model has loaded into view. It’s embarrassing that a game can be released in such an unfinished state, even if a patch is released within a day or two of launch in an attempt to quickly bring things up to par. (In my experience so far, the first patch has cleaned up some of the frame rate woes, but the engine remains unstable with stutters and unloaded textures.)

Other parts of the game are functional, but show a lazy attitude toward attention to detail. Game design doesn’t get any lazier than cut-and-paste map layouts. Interior environments were clearly slapped together from a handful of themed templates, because other than prop placement, every bungalow, cave and building has the exact same layout of rooms and doors and zombie spawns as its kin. Which leads to another problem: Zombie spawns are a major malfunction. I don’t know if the spawn points are bugged or just horribly unbalanced, but it’s a fairly common occurrence to clear out an entire area, proceed to walk forward to the next area, and suddenly have a zombie pop out of thin air to attack from behind. (One time I walked through a door into a building and immediately turned around to see that two zombies had magically materialized out of thin air on the other side of the threshold.) In a few spots zombies even seem to be on a continuous spawn cycle, where they’ll just keep charging out of a doorway or a hole in a bungalow roof no matter how many times you kill them off.

Of lesser impact but still annoying, some of the skill and inventory menu text is illegibly tiny, to the point that when choosing where to invest the latest skill point, I regularly had to get up from the couch and damn near stand with my nose against the HD TV just to read what I was selecting from the skill trees. How can testers not catch such basic things before a game ships?

As unevenly polished and lackadaisically designed as it is, Riptide, like the first Dead Island, is way more fun and addictive than it probably should be. Slicing off zombie limbs with a shock-modded katana or crushing heads in with a barb wire-wrapped baseball bat is as gruesomely satisfying as it sounds on paper. Techland missed the boat on many things, but the Polish developers prove once again that they can design a glorious dismemberment system. Blade weapons allow for surgical removal of limbs, while shotgun blasts shred through zombies and send body parts flopping into the air like fleshy confetti, typically in slow motion to give the player a brief moment to appreciate the gore.

In a nutshell, Dead Island is, and with Riptide continues to be, ‘Borderlands with zombies’, combining first-person action with role-playing character progression and a heavy emphasis on loot and weapon crafting. While some may not enjoy the errand-boy, level-up grind, others will become compulsively drawn to rummaging through luggage piles and trash bins for loot, and freely exploring the open world island terrain to complete every available task. Cooperative play similarly is an important component, and for the most part playing with others is handled well—though personally this is the type of game I prefer to play at my own pace, without others tagging along making me feel rushed like I can’t dig into every nook and cranny of the game world. Before starting, you can set the game to single player or open it to public or invite-only online access. A lobby is available from the pause menu should you ever want to randomly join another player’s game, or you can switch on a notification system which provides in-game prompts to join other players who may be nearby to your position in their world. With a quick press of the D-pad, you’re ready to cooperatively slash up some zombies—and whenever you’re ready to go at it alone again, you can drop out and continue from your own session.

Like many RPGs, Riptide is the type of game that seems to get better the more you give it a chance to come into its own. When you first set foot on Palanai, the setting doesn’t come alive with the same personality and atmosphere as Banoi’s dream resort locale. Many of the early quests also just have you collecting things for survivors: Fill up a gas can for one dude, gather some medicinal tree bark for another guy stricken with malaria, find batteries so some chick can hook up your base defense arsenal with electro-shock fences. But once you take the ferry ride to the city of Henderson, the environment becomes a lot more interesting and the side missions seem less fetchy (even though in general you’re still mainly doing things to get items for NPC survivors). I’ve actually found myself enjoying the game a whole lot more as I work into a second New Game Plus playthrough, as I feel liberated from the need to follow the flimsy story (thankfully cutscenes are skippable), and I can simply concentrate on hacking zombies to pieces and taking in the surroundings. The game sure is a mess, but dammit, I just can’t stop playing it.

Riptide definitely feels like a poorly aged rerun, but it isn’t completely devoid of fresh content. New zombie types like the Wrestler, a hulking brute with an arm that has mutated into a fleshy club, and the Screamer, an undead banshee of sorts that shrieks to stun the player and simultaneously beckon surrounding Walkers to attack (zombies swarm to loud noises), bring a different dimension of terror to a returning cast of monsters which includes the likes of Butchers, Rams, Floaters, Suiciders and Thugs. Drowners also now dot the flooded landscape, floating lifelessly on the water’s surface just waiting to spring up for a surprise attack. Speed-boosting over these waterlogged zombies is also now possible while cruising around in small motorboats, a meaningless yet mindlessly fun activity to pass time and pick up some cheap experience points.

A major feature is the ability to import a saved character from the original game and continue level and skill tree progression from where they left off. While the skill trees remain the same (except for a new sprinting charge attack), a new weapon proficiency system has been added. Each weapon category – blunt, blade, hand to hand, firearms – can be developed over 10 levels of proficiency simply by using weapons of a particular type, and each level gained is met with a weapon-specific bonus, such as faster reloading, reduced stamina usage, increased experience points and so on. You’ll reach max proficiency in your favorite weapon type long before the game is over, but at least there is a little something new to spice up the skill progression.

Another prominent addition to the game is base defense. As you work your way across the island and clear out certain areas, the team of survivors will establish new base camps with shops, workbenches (for crafting and repairs), and fast-travel maps. At times these bases will also need to be defended from waves of attacking zombies, in missions that play out like rounds from a wave survival Horde mode. There isn’t a ton of strategy going on, but you are given the opportunity to block off entry points with fences, lay traps, or install mounted chain gun turrets. Missions like these showcase the game’s strengths– combat and cooperative play—and momentarily hide its weaknesses—storytelling and errand running. Too bad there isn’t a standalone survival mode to play on the side.

In some ways it is difficult to support what basically is a glitchy, glorified expansion pack to a game that already had its fair share of shortcomings, none of which have been addressed. But the guilty pleasures of chopping up zombies and hunting for loot and experience points may be enough to suck in returning Dead Islanders for a second vacation to undead hell. Returning players with an established zombie slayer to import will in all likelihood be able to overlook the familiar flaws and find some level of enjoyment buried beneath the mounds of dead bodies and severed limbs. But if you’re new to Techland’s tropical zombie apocalypse, Riptide probably shouldn’t be your first trip to Dead Island.

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Pros:
+ Brutally fun combat and dismemberment
+ Horde-style base defense missions
+ Character import option for returning Dead Islanders
+ Addictive looting and weapon modding
+ Effectively integrates single player and co-op

Cons:
– A mess of bugs, glitches and sloppy design
– Characters are as stiff and lifeless as the undead monsters they slay
– Doesn’t even attempt to fix problems from the first game
– Too many dull fetch quests
– Palanai isn’t as atmospherically memorable as Banoi

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC and Xbox 360
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Techland
Release Date: 4/23/2012
Genre: FPS/RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (2-4 online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!