It's amazing that the zombie genre refuses to die, though I suppose it's appropriate, given the subject matter. How many different ways can you tell an apocalyptic scenario filled with undead, flesh-craving monsters? Apparently we're still finding out, and with the recent success of "The Walking Dead" across TV and video games, and the older Dead Rising entries from Capcom, the public clearly isn't tired of the genre yet, and that's what developer Techland and publisher Deep Silver are banking on with Dead Island: Riptide.
Techland and Deep Silver are adamant that this is not a sequel to the original Dead Island from 2011. That's probably a good idea because if you think this is going to be Dead Island 2, you'll be disappointed. From a gameplay perspective, there's little change between Riptide and the original game. The majority of the playable characters return, with the same focus on certain attributes. The combat feels identical, revolving almost entirely around a melee system. Controls, locations, quests, skill trees and zombies are exactly like — or remarkably similar to — Dead Island. The plot continues from the first game, but there are certainly not a lot of differences between the two.
Instead, Riptide feels a lot more like DLC that spiraled out of control in development. This isn't a short game and warrants being on disc as opposed to a downloadable add-on. Riptide doesn't feel as long as the original game, but that's actually a plus. The first Dead Island had some pacing issues, and the last half of the game didn't shine as brightly as the first. While Riptide ventures into the double digits in terms of completion time, I never got bored.
While Riptide does look similar to the first game, the visuals seem to have improved just a bit. Character models are still ugly for both sexes, but some of the awful animations that spawned a number of humorous gifs have been toned down. Textures seem to be improved, and screen tearing is virtually nonexistent.
However, the frame rate still suffers at different points, much like the first game. While it's not consistently bad, there are points where the game slows to a crawl. This usually happens when there's a weather or fire effect on the screen with five or more zombies, so it's infrequent, but it's certainly noticeable. There was a day-one patch on Monday, but playing the game after the patch didn't make any significant changes for me. There are still a number of odd bugs present, like zombies trapped in walls or occasionally floating in midair. Collision detection seems to be problem, and some of the ragdoll physics lead to unintended moments of hilarity.
It's also a shame that more attention wasn't given to the writing and voice acting. Outside of the so-bad-it's-good, "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch?" song featured in the original Dead Island, little about the characters, world or story were very memorable. So I was thankful for the quick recap of events when Riptide. The game relies heavily on standard RPG mechanics, which usually entails decent writing and plots, so it was weird that I quickly lost interest in the story and characters. This isn't aided by the lackluster voice-over work on display, most of which features bland delivery that sounds like it might've been phoned in.
Despite some lackluster material surrounding the core game, Riptide is remarkably fun. Most of that fun can be attributed to the combat, which remains one of the few titles to get first-person, melee-focused combat done right. Other titles have come close, such as SEGA's Condemned series, but nobody has nailed the visceral nature at which Dead Island: Riptide excels. When you hit a zombie, whether it's with your hands, baseball bat, feet, flaming mace, or golf club, you feel like you struck something solid and organic. Limbs break, shred, and sever, all of which change the way an afflicted zombie fights and reacts.
Also, I love the way the game incorporates the standard slow-moving George Romero zombies with the modern faster-moving variety from films like the remake of "Dawn of the Dead" and the popular "28 Days Later." The mix leads to some unexpectedly harrowing experiences. You think you have time to react to a walker-style zombie, only to get slammed from all sides by a bunch of screeching runners.
Another plus is the ability to freely roam the majority of the map. There are definitely sections of the game world that are cordoned off for story events, but early on, there's a lot you can see and explore. There are a number of optional side-quests that you can miss if you're not looking. The quality of these quests isn't always consistent; some are extremely basic and quickly finished, but others tend to be involved affairs and may lead to unique locations for additional goals.
While I feel that Riptide is best experienced alone at first, you can still play online co-op. Hop online with three other players at any point, provided you've started a game that's accessible from Xbox Live. While playing, you occasionally get notifications that another player is near you, which also indicates that they're also roughly around the same story quest. You can jump into their game with the press of the button, and after a quick load, you join them. The transition is generally flawless, and I rarely had issues with lag or other connection problems.
There's definitely a drawback to joining co-op games, whether they're public or private. When joining a co-op game, you learn about the quest progress of the player who began or led the match. While the matchmaking puts effort into pairing you with a player who's in the same spot for the story quests, it's likely you'll lose some side-quest progress when joining a game. It's hard to know what you'll lose, and I had to re-do some side-quests when joining and leaving a co-op game. From an achievement perspective, the information is likely still tracked, but if you're really big into completing a game, this can drive you crazy. Thankfully, everything else remains intact, so character level, current experience, inventory and skills remain the same and carry over.
In the end, I found Dead Island: Riptide to be a fun stopgap in the series, despite not being a full-fledged sequel. Certain things could have been better, like the characters, story, and more innovation. There are a couple of new skills, a new character, and new locations, but it's not wildly different. The initial location is nearly identical to the starting island area from the original game, and while it might feature a different layout, it's really hard to initially tell them apart.
I still had fun with it, and in the end, that's a sizeable part of what matters when it comes to video games. I enjoyed what I played and eagerly scoured the world maps in an effort to root out every zone and quest. I'll probably play more, so I can double-check in case I missed anything. Now that I'm done with the title, I can also jump into random co-op games without fear of losing quest progress. Riptide has its share of flaws, but allowing players to use weapons to slash and punch through hordes of the undead? That certainly isn't one of them.
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