Dead in the water
Dead Island Riptide banks on you having really loved Dead Island. We're talking love to an unquenchable degree. Did you adore Dead Island, could you not get enough of its boundless slaughter and tropical zombie abominations? Riptide hopes so, because its sole purpose is to provide exactly more of it, and nothing further.
The ironic thing is, Riptide is probably going to be most enjoyed by those completely new to the series. To a Dead Island veteran, Riptide's stance of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," may come off as tiresome, especially since the original game had plenty worth fixing. That, and the original's setting was a lot more engaging.
Still, if all you ever wanted was two games about slicing zombies with poisoned katanas and exploding knives, Riptide has your back.
Dead Island Riptide (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Like its predeccessor, Dead Island Riptide is light on narrative, but there's the skeleton of a story in place. The original survivors of the Banoi outbreak have been picked up by a stereotypical, self-destructively shady military organization, and are being held hostage on a ship when the zombies rear their ugly heads again. After an altercation on board, the protagonists wash up on a new island, Palanai, which is dealing with its own zombie crisis. Cue the onslaught of back-and-forth missions!
Riptide isn't billing itself as a sequel, which is probably for the best as it truly feels like an expansion upon the original -- to the point where you can even import your old characters and access their old levels and unlocked skills. Each character has access to some expanded skills and will likely be close to maxing out their progress trees by the time the campaign ends. Despite new abilities, none of the existing four characters play noticeably differently and all of them generally fall back into their hacking or bashing ways. There is, however, the inclusion of a new hand-to-hand combat character, who uses kicks and punches with deadly efficiency.
As ever, the game is fueled entirely by accepting various fetch and kill quests, picking up progressively powerful weapons to upgrade, and tackling the undead horde with near-mindless hack-n'-slash brutality. The "Borderlands with zombies" vibe has been preserved in totality, with up to four friends able to go online and take down the mutants with their own preferred blades, guns, hammers, and claws. Generic zombies are once again joined by more advanced mutations, including the tank-like Thugs, irritating Screamers, and yet more of those gigantic, straitjacketed Rams. Exactly how many insane asylums are on these islands?
Every good element of Dead Island can be found in Riptide. It's still gratifying to find new weapons and modify them to provide electric, poison, or flame damage. There's still a base enjoyment to be had in carving off limbs and kicking monsters in the head and ass. The rare battles with humans remain the most interesting parts of the game. Cooperative play is as good a laugh as it ever was. None of this has changed.
On the flipside, every single negative aspect of the original game has been preserved with equal care. Combat is still frustrating in its anarchy, with zombies constantly shoving you over, initiating quick-time-events, or surrounding survivors for plenty of three-hit kills. Attacks, yet again, miss with a high frequency due to the difficulty of judging distance amid the first-person chaos, or sometimes just because a weapon passed through the opponents' bodies. Least forgivable of all, the game is as unpolished and unfinished as it was before, with animations lacking decent transitions, and all manner of graphical bugs putting in their seemingly obligatory appearances. In a second game that really hasn't done much extra groundwork on the content front, it's fairly insulting to be given a game that hasn't even improved technically.
This is not to say Riptide doesn't at least attempt a few ideas of its own. At least in terms of scenario, the game tries to stand out, adding new siege-style battles and placing an emphasis on water travel, with boats that can be rammed into enemies with gleeful force. The game's heart is in the right place with sieges, but its delivery is lacking. While there's a certain fun to be had in setting up perimeter fences and placing gun turrets before waves of zombies arrive, once the battle begins it's just more thoughtless chopping with the added annoyances of NPCs who require your constant help. Still, points for giving something fresh a go.
Riptide's biggest failing, however, is in its environment. Balai simply isn't as fun a place to explore as Banoi. The original game's tropical resort was a unique and flavorful setting, giving Dead Island its own sense of personality, and splitting off into various interesting town and prison areas. Banoi had an identity, one players could feel intimately familiar with over the course of their adventures. The frequent backtracking was mitigated somewhat by the generally compelling surroundings.
By contrast, Palanai is a wonted expanse of jungle for the most part, full of linear corridors gated by invisible walls, and indistinct scenery. The game's second major area, Henderson, is a little more interesting, bringing back some of the town aesthetic from the original game, but it's not a patch on the variety found there. The map design feels convoluted, full of winding roads and dead-ends that undermine its open-world presentation; there's an overwhelming sense of environmental clutter, especially in areas littered with alleyways that could go anywhere or nowhere, depending on your luck.
It could go without saying that Riptide is not a pretty game. It looks exactly like the original, which was mutton dressed as mutton. On consoles, textures are muddy, screen-tearing is common, and there are several areas where the framerate drags to an unbearable crawl. None of the visual issues are necessarily dealbreakers, but when you account for this being Techland's second crack of the whip, it becomes much harder to forgive problems that should have been ironed out in patches to the first game, let alone making reappearances in the new one.
Dead Island got away with a lot of its documented problems because, for all its inspiration and all its missteps, there was nothing quite like it on the market. It took many familiar elements to create something far more amusing than it had any right to be.
There is something like Riptide on the market, though -- it's called Dead Island, and it's a far better game, having both the strengths and the weaknesses of Riptide, but presented in a more appealing way and lacking the lingering question of how a developer can essentially reuse masses of assets and still somehow lack the resources to fix anything.
Is Dead Island Riptide a fun game? At times, yes. In terms of raw combat and power fantasy, it's just as good as Dead Island ... and it's just as bad at the same time. The bottom line is that there's no excuse for it not being superior. Being "just as good" isn't good enough, especially not when Dead Island had things on its side that Riptide doesn't. Those new to the series entirely will likely not notice the problems quite so much, and be as forgiving to it as newcomers were to Dead Island. While Riptide banks on you having loved the first, in actuality you have a lot more to gain if you've never touched it.
If you played the first game, however, I'd recommend waiting for a real sequel, because Riptide fails to get away with pulling the same trick twice.
THE VERDICT - Dead Island: Riptide
Reviewed by Jim Sterling