A couple of years ago there was a trailer for a game called Dead Island, and everybody was excited. Then the game was released…and a lot of people were disappointed.
Now we have Dead Island: Riptide; a sequel that’s not really a sequel and yet it seems to show more potential than its predecessor. The question is, “Too little, too late?”, and for many of us – fans of Dead Island included – the answer may very well be, “Yes”, before all is said and done.
There was speculation that Dead Island: Riptide began as downloadable content for Dead Island and when you look at the game for the first time it’s a theory you can believe. Almost nothing graphically has changed from the original apart from a few textures and the inclusion of water elements. The game as a whole has this clipped quality to its visuals, both in the environments and the characters.
Speaking of characters, did I mention that these are the same people we played as the last time around? And when I say the same, I mean exactly that. Seriously, do these guys want to smell like the things they’re dicing up with machetes or do they just like wearing the same clothes all the time? You’d think they might have found more appropriate zombie slaying outfits in the last game, but here we have sprightly Chinese agent Xian Mei in the same hostess uniform, rapper Sam B in his stage outfit, Purna in an entirely inappropriate evening dress, and Logan Carter in…whatever the hell he’s wearing.
Our biggest moments of bonding with these individuals we’re supposed to give two shits about come from the character select screen of Dead Island: Riptide. I kid you not.
Selecting a protagonist treats you to a brief monologue detailing their motivations to stay alive, what they found was important after or during the events of Dead Island, and how much they’re willing to give to beat the odds. That’s it; there’s no dialogue exploring these characters once you touch down on the new island environment of Palanai; no tension; no suspense or intrigue; in short, fuck all to make you care who they are or where they came from.
Whoever wrote this script needs to watch The Walking Dead if they want to make us care about the characters trundling into a zombie apocalypse.
Of course there are alterations to the way these characters feel in a gameplay context and that’s a good thing for new players, but for returning players it might not be enough because the skill trees remain fundamentally unchanged. A sequel – a true sequel at any rate – is supposed to make you think, “Oh, yeah, I like the way they changed this”, or, “Wow, that menu layout is so much better,” or even, “Hey, that’s new! Neat; I like it!”.
None of these thoughts shall flicker across your mind when you play Dead Island: Riptide. Unless you’ve been avidly playing Dead Island for the last couple of years since its release, it’s seriously doubtful you’ll be able to tell what’s new and what’s been recycled. That goes for the weapons, the ‘mods’, even the environments and character models look the same as they did before, barring the odd bit of spit and polish.
So, what is it about Dead Island: Riptide that Techland made truly new and interesting?
A new character, John Morgan. What little innovation went into Riptide’s script can be found in Morgan’s story, which is scattered across the island of Palanai as a collection of audio diaries. He’s probably the most relatable character in the entire game, as his diaries detail the horror of the zombie outbreak, trying to stay alive, and trying to find his family.
As for his skill trees, you know when you’ve got a high level John Morgan in your party of players that crowd control is not an issue. This Aussie bloke can deliver a kick like a fat transvestite in heels, a talent that sends zombies careening into rocks, walls, and flooded areas. His hand-to-hand abilities are great fun to use, and once you’ve built up his critical attacks there’s very little that can stand up to his Superman-strength punches. Bodies will most definitely hit the floor, with haste and great amounts of comic value.
I just loved playing as this guy, what can I say. Techland have done well with this character. Plus there’s a grim pleasure to be found in blowing a zombie’s head off and kicking the still standing body twenty yards downhill.
Most of the weapons, as I said, have been recycled from the last Dead Island, but there have been some improvements to the way they work. The limb-targeting system is a smoother and more precise tool to use in Riptide, eclipsing much of the flail-happy combat that made the last game such a chore to come to terms with. The weapons themselves are juicier, they don’t degrade as easily as before, and you can tell a lot of effort went into the sound effects department. Later on in the game you get some truly inspired ‘mods’ that imbue your axes, blades, bats, and whatever else, with magic. Fire, lightning, and poison attacks, which some might think of as ‘realistic’, but as far as I’m concerned it’s magic. Delicious, effective magic.
Is there anything more satisfying than slicing off a Thug zombie’s arm and watching him puke himself to death? I don’t think so. Damned good fun. Decapitation is entertaining, too.
Then there are the guns. Riptide might fool you into thinking it’s more about the guns this time, because the opening sequence has you picking up gun after gun, ammo box after ammo box, and tearing through the hordes. Don’t be fooled.
Once you finish that prologue, it’s going to be several hours at least before you find your first decent firearm. Having played through Riptide once and not found a sniper rifle, that’s something I know a lot of fans will be annoyed about. It could be that I just missed them, or that they’re a ridiculously rare high-level item, but on an island with military forces trying to hold their ground against zombies you’d think sniper rifles would be just as common as shotguns and pistols. Apparently not. I’ve sunk over twenty hours into this game and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of a sniper rifle, in spite of the rumours that they were going to be included.
The biggest change for Riptide is the way your progress is hampered by water.
Palanai has just endured the worst monsoon in recent memory, so great sections of the island are cut off by flooded areas and you’ll need to negotiate these areas with boats. There are new types of zombies to go with this obstacle, including ‘Drowners’ which are water-based variants of the ‘Infected’ zombie type that can storm your boat and drag you out of it. Rain comes and goes too, making visibility a concern for players.
The water effects in Riptide aren’t the best you’ll ever see. They do their job and they do it adequately well, but like a lot of things with Dead Island it falls short on the presentation. Palanai has two modes: ‘sunny’ and ‘grey’, which is the grand total of weather patterns in Techland’s dynamic weather system, and each comes and goes with barely a moment’s notice.
Finally, the multiplayer. Is it better than the online functionality we had in Dead Island? At this point I’d be inclined to say it is. Dropping into and out of people’s games for some co-op action is seamless and – on PC at least – there’s barely a change in the frame rate, but I don’t think Techland deserve points for this when we consider how Riptide is essentially the same as Dead Island with added water features. If you’ve played co-op recently on Dead Island then that’s more or less how Dead Island: Riptide will function online. The more players you have, the tougher the zombies are, and it must be said that the Dead Island games were designed specifically for co-op gameplay.
There are sections in the game where you have to defend strongholds against a ravenous horde of undead bastards and these are a godsend for two players or more. For one player alone it can get pretty hectic.
One glaring flaw in Riptide’s online functionality is that it still has that stupid rule where you can only play with people who are at your point in the story or lower. Why? Nobody gives a shit about the story and, even if they did, the menu tells you where people are and what chapter they’re on. I finished Riptide with John Morgan and was thoroughly disgusted to see that I could only – even after FINISHING the game – join parties who were at my point in the story or behind.
Dead Island: Riptide has things in it that fans of Dead Island will appreciate, the trouble is that we’re almost two years down the line from the last game and this one doesn’t look to have expanded much upon anything. Its story comes across as lazy, slapdash, and clichéd; it’s so goddamned clichéd there’s a witty black character who dies first, a German scientist, and a French cinema owner, all of whom make watching grass grow in your back yard look thrilling by comparison.
It doesn’t feel like a true sequel at all. It plays and behaves the way you wanted the original Dead Island to the first time around. Yes, there are tons of side quests and there are new enemies to fight, but this is all fairly basic stuff we’d expect from a game like this in any case and I’d argue against paying full price for it even though it’s a lower price to pay than most games.
If you’re a Dead Island fanatic or you haven’t played the original Dead Island and are feeling curious, feel free to jump in and get yourself wedged deep in zombie guts. For gamers who want more in their zombie games apart from rampant slaughter and drab characters, you need not bother.
Dead Island Riptide is due for release in the U.K. on April 26th and you can pre order a copy from our retails partners www.thatgameshop.com