Dead Island Riptide Review
Publisher Deep Silver had their first big runaway hit in 2011's Dead Island, a free-roaming zombie action game on a picturesque South Pacific island - or, at least, what used to be one before most of the island's inhabitants and tourists were turned into bloodthirsty undead. And while people are sick of zombie action games just about to the point that they were of World War II first person shooters a few years ago, this genre has surprisingly managed to hold on, with games like The Walking Dead adventure series taking the high road with character-based drama being a key part, and well, I hate to say it, but Dead Island taking the low road and revelling in the zombie-decapitating action.
That's not to say that Dead Island is a bad game - I actually quite liked it - but once it became clear that that this game was successful enough to become a franchise, it was difficult to see where Polish developer Techland was going to go with this series in sequels. It turns out that the intent, at least with Dead Island: Riptide, was simply to deliver more of the same. Players will be off to a new tropical island in the South Pacific, this one called Palanai, and many of the story elements, themes and visuals are in the same vein as the first Dead Island. There are more weapons, more levels, new zombie enemies, a couple of new ways to deliver hot death to zombie faces, and a continuation of the storyline for the four main characters from the first game - plus a fifth character that specializes in unarmed combat.
I fired up Dead Island: Riptide and was immediately invited to import my save from the first game. I played as Sam B previously, focusing on blunt weapons by going down the two talent trees on the right, and the simple fact that the exact same skill tree followed me into this game, fully intact, told me that Riptide isn't really vastly different from its predecessor. I basically picked up right from where I left off in the first game as far as levels and talent progress, although the story dictated I come into this game empty-handed and rebuild my arsenal of maces, baseball bats, and golf clubs.
Players still mostly spend their time in Riptide fighting off zombies with hand-held weapons that they loot, scavenge or build from components, and you level up and find new partially-randomized gear Diablo-style as the enemies also level up along with you. Quests have you ferrying, fetching or fixing something in an attempt to find safety and get off of Palanai, and there's a new element of having a base of operations that you'll need to defend during specific parts of the storyline. This is touted as a big and superbly fun feature, but in practice, it's just not implemented to its full potential, especially considering how it's often best to just let the zombies into your base and fight them off of the few NPC survivors that need help.
As you go through Riptide, you'll find that death isn't terribly inconvenient; the game simply takes away some of your money and respawns you nearby. Overall, the system is pretty lenient and seems to be done mostly to keep people fighting together in the online cooperative mode. And compared to the original game, money is even less vital this time around, since weapons have to be repaired at workbenches less often than before. It's always a blast to build and use modifications for your weapons to add electricity, paralysis, or extra chopping power to them, and it's these upgraded, modified weapons that will likely become most players' bread and butter.
Other mildly interesting new things include a drop-down attack to allow you to do massive damage to one zombie while also breaking your fall nicely, and boats that allow navigation of the flooded areas of Palanai, although these are made to be used out of necessity rather than for convenience. Zombies can do a lot of damage to players in boats, too, even throwing them out entirely, so this feature winds up being implemented in a way that increases danger and removes freedom and fun. The developers have also tried to add tension to the game by beating players down with inclement weather, but in many cases, it only seems to serve as an excuse to close off the game, leaving people to navigate narrow paths and alleys with a rather useless minimap. These "features" make the game feel less like an open sandbox than the original Dead Island, so in this case, I feel like the attempt to innovate has backfired.
The biggest issue with Dead Island Riptide is that it's a glorified expansion pack sold at nearly full price ($40 US on PC, $50 on consoles); there's nothing wrong with a developer doing this if they're adding lots of features and are building on top of a near-universally beloved game, but the simple fact is that neither of those conditions really apply here. It's still fun to slice zombies up and on PC the game looks decent, runs online with four-player coop just fine, and is at least somewhat unique, but these tepid words I'm using should give you the impression that Dead Island Riptide just doesn't add enough on top of the original to really excel. It works and it's generally fun, but don't expect a revolution.
Disclaimer: this review was based on pre-release review code provided by the publisher over Steam.