Publisher: Deep Silver
Dead Island was a bolt from the blue. Though Techland's tropical holiday from hell shipped with any number of flaws, not limited to plentiful bugs and an irredeemably awful roster of one-dimensional characters, many of us were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt because it felt fresh, unexpected and most importantly fun. That trailer probably didn't hurt either. Despite disappointing some, Dead Island was unexpected and hyped enough to hit home like lightning.
The thing about lightning, though, is that it can't strike twice. We now know exactly what to expect from the franchise, meaning that Dead Island needs a successor that refines its core gameplay into something more substantial, removes the more tedious aspects and lets the series fulfil its potential.
Riptide is not that game. Instead, Techland have effectively released a large expansion pack that offers a practically identical gameplay experience; another island full of shambling monstrosities to clumsily brutalise with home-made weaponry and fetch quests a go-go. Can Dead Island impress now that (as B.B. King once famously sang) the thrill is gone?
There's fun to be had here, of course. Once you've created your character (all four inappropriately-attired reprobates from the original game make a return, alongside newcomer John Morgan who packs an insanely overpowered crowd control kick) or imported your Dead Island save file, a perfunctory opening level sees you returning to Banoi's sister island Palanai for totally important reasons. As you'll quickly discover, the story is little more than an excuse to maroon players all over again, with little in the way of development until the latter few hours, but it's unlikely that you'll be buying into Dead Island for the narrative.
Instead, you'll be anticipating another few hours of exploration, scavenging components from bins and creating totally insane homebrew armaments to bludgeon, burn, poison, slice or otherwise desecrate the hordes of infected zombies with. It's still the same offputtingly deliberate and clunky beast you might remember, centred around a slow-paced approach to first person melee combat. Infected shamble at you in small groups, howling and occasionally lobbing explosive kibbles in your direction, at which point you'll have to beat them into submission with whatever crowbar, knife or insane petrol-powered flaming axe you have to hand. A dwindling stamina gauge limits how often you can chaotically swing at foes, while their powerful attacks can quickly stagger or kill your lolloping survivor, meaning that exploiting their basic AI with a well-placed wall is often the key to survival (though the only penalty for death is a fistful of dollars rather than a game over screen).
Beyond a limited Rage Mode and some welcome tweaks to firearms handling that makes gunplay much tighter, Riptide doesn't do a huge amount to shake up the core combat. A few new melee skills such as a 'death from above' jump attack hangs up on the scenery too often to be a viable combat option, while the wonderful new power kick is unique to John Morgan, making the other immune survivors green with envy. The slow and cumbersome brawling can be oddly compelling, and more than a little amusing when you bring one of the sillier weapons to bear, but you can only hack so many zombies to death before malaise starts to set in. Many of us will have already had our fill in the original.
Thankfully, getting a few friends involved amplifies the fun factor fourfold. There's a great deal of fun to be gleaned from rampaging around the island in a convoy of jeeps, bodies splattering over the bonnet, or punting around zombies with John Morgan's power kick in a macabre game of tennis. However, it's also where Riptide's new features come into their own. New boats allow you to explore more of the waterlogged island, relying on your passengers to keep the hull free of menacing 'drowner' variants who swarm towards your tub, and make for a uniquely chaotic way of getting about.
Better yet, 'hub defence' missions task your party with holding a safe zone against waves of zombies, using fences, mines, turrets and small army of NPCs. Alone, these sections can be utterly miserable since you can't let even a single AI ally die, but provide plenty of versatile combat options for an imaginative team of zombie slayers. With difficulty scaling now much more reliable and appropriate, and the netcode fit for task, you'll certainly get some serious catharsis out of the package.
Yes, Dead Island: Riptide is fun with friends. But it's so very fleeting.
The hyper-repetitive combat (swinging a venom axe is much the same as swinging a plank, when all's said and done) needed a varied and enjoyable selection of missions and sub-quests to back it up, but Riptide falls completely flat with some of the least inspired objectives you'll ever see. Go to point A. Get item B. Now come back. Do it again, but this time through waist high water that slows your languid survivor down to an even slower pace. Occasionally you'll have to save an NPC for some cash in hand, but the whole thing quickly descends into a thankless slog. Without anything truly exciting to distract you, the conveyor belt of samey combat encounters quickly becomes tedious rather than a bit of a hoot.
Palanai boasts some nuanced levels rife with waterfalls, nooks and cubby-holes to explore, along with a flooded city that lets you risk drowning and drowners for extra loot or shortcuts. Sadly, navigating this colourful environment is another matter entirely. The useless minimap doesn't show topography, making it totally redundant save as an on-screen compass, while the breadcrumb trail usually fails to display. In theory, this should encourage players to explore rather than blithely trundle along the rails, but in practice you're forced to constantly break gameplay flow by bringing up the map screen every few seconds just to get from A to B. After blazing our own trails in Far Cry 3, Palanai's abundance of obvious walls and paths feels incredibly primitive.
Progression, both in terms of levelling and weaponry, proves to be slightly stilted. Despite an initially-addictive three-pronged skill tree, unlockable special attacks are finicky to execute and often fail to hit their mark, while zombies constantly scale with you. You'll rarely feel like you're making any progress or becoming more powerful, save from equipping one of the more zany armaments. Even the weapon system comes off as a little half-baked, since grappling with the inventory system is still a cumbersome time sink, and continually-respawning items in safe zones undermine the nervy scrounging and survival.
Though nowhere near as broken as its predecessor, Riptide still betrays a notable lack of polish and attention to detail. The 'dynamic weather system' suddenly changes from bright sunshine to torrential monsoon in a split second, without even the slightest hint of transition, while you'll often notice inactive infected falling into their prone state when you enter clipping distance. Good luck with that ambush, guys. Clipping issues, embarrassing animations and cut corners abound (from stiff jumping poses to your own static feet that pivot on the spot and pushing a petrol can through the side wall of a truck when you stash it in the boot), constantly slapping you in the face with the idea that tender loving care was in short supply during the development cycle.
But this could have been forgiven were it not for Riptide's most aggravating issue: its confused and practically non-existent personality. The slapstick silliness of the action compromises, and is compromised by, a painfully po-faced and dull script that takes itself far too seriously. Characters are idiotic one-note stereotypes, profoundly unlikeable and totally impossible to relate to (thanks in part to horrendously forced voice acting and brainless dialogue), yet they're played straight nine times out of ten rather than hammed up for grindhouse laughs. Dead Island doesn't know whether it wants to be a survival game a la ZombiU or a fun factory like Far Cry 3 or Dead Rising, meaning that there's little soul to cling onto and elevate players above its copious flaws.
Flaws that, gallingly, were also present in the original game. Though we were willing to give Dead Island the benefit of the doubt once on merit of being new and exciting, Techland's unwillingness to fix what was broke results in an ultimately mediocre second outing.
- Silly and unapologetic fun in co-op
- Boat trips and hub defence sections are a laugh with mates
- Plenty of raw content and zany home-made weapons
- Painfully repetitive and tedious, both in terms of stodgy combat and uninspired missions
- Navigation is a chore
- Bereft of character and personality
- Unpolished, full of cut corners and glitches
The Short Version: Dead Island: Riptide offers another long haul of zombie-punting cooperative larks, but it's neither polished nor even consistently fun enough to excel without the element of surprise. The thrill is gone, and Dead Island's flaws have never been more difficult to ignore.
There's enough raw content and potential for cooperative funtimes to recommend Riptide as a weekend rental, but expect serious buyer's remorse at RRP.