Dead Island: Riptide
US: 23 Apr 2013
Dead Island: Riptide has unfortunate amount of baggage attached to it. The first game had great combat and a fantastic resort environment to explore, but once you left the resort, the rest of the game never lived up to the potential of those first few hours. Riptide represents developer Techland’s big second chance, their chance to prove that the great parts of Dead Island weren’t just a wonderful accident.
The story picks up right where the previous one left off. You were escaping by helicopter, but then you land on a boat that somehow gets infected with the zombie plague and crash on another nearby tropical island. That’s all you really need to know because it feels like the game stops caring about its story at this point. It’s bad enough to have a generic story with generic characters, but Riptide goes even further by retroactively changing the origin of the zombie plague. The first game told us it was a disease indigenous to the local cannibal tribe, which was a unique origin combining elements of real-life zombie voodoo myth and the more commercialized Night of the Living Dead/28 Days Later zombie mythos. Riptide reverses that for something far more generic and far less interesting.
The story toys with an interesting idea that those immune to the zombie plague aren’t actually immune, but this never evolves into a significant plot point. The post-credits stinger hints at a genuinely cool twist, especially for a horror video game, but that’s a story for the next game. This story is simply a bunch of fetch quests masquerading as plot points. The original Dead Island was no work of literature, but Riptide fails to even live up to those low standards.
The boring environments only exacerbate these narrative shortcomings. None of the environments are as interesting as the resort from the first game. That location was great because it invoked a scary contrast between the swanky, slick façade of upper class escapism, and the merciless reality of death lurking just outside the hotel doors. I was more accepting of the C-level horror story because the environment told a far more terrifying tale of the fall of a civil civilization. Nothing in Riptide evokes anything even close to that. Instead, Riptide is filled with what feels like standard game environments: A forest, a swamp, a sewer, and a city. Nothing particularly interesting, nothing particularly horrifying, these are all new environments, yet they feel so utterly familiar.
This is the biggest issues with Riptide. It simply doesn’t feel like a new game, it feels more like an expansion pack or a very large piece of DLC. Mechanically, the only new features are perpetual fetch quests for other survivors and a handful of wave-based horde battles. There are new character abilities and weapon mods, but you won’t be able to tell unless you compare the Dead Island games’ menus side-by-side. All the characters even have the same clothes from the first game. Riptide is so aesthetically and mechanically similar to Dead Island that it feel repetitive as soon as it begins.
However, that over-familiarity is not all bad since it also means the great combat is still great. Individual zombies are still dangerous enough to be scary, which turns even the most casual of excursions into a grueling struggle. Exploration is still a slow combination of scavenging, hiding, running, and hunting. Most important of all, the combat is still fast and brutal. Riptide is wonderfully bipolar. One moment it feels rather tedious as you loot luggage and trash cans, the next moment it explodes in violence as you smash, slash, cut, chop, gut, stab, shoot, burn, or decapitate the three infected who just ran into the room screaming their horrible screams. It’s calm exploration punctuated by extreme violence, and its still fun as hell.
Unfortunately, Riptide also seems to have more technical issues than its predecessor, or at the very least its issues are more common so as to stay fresh in my mind for the entire length of the game. While exploring, I would seemingly die at random with full health. Sure, there were always zombies nearby but no enemy is strong enough to kill you in one hit. The framerate would begin to chug horribly whenever I killed a zombie in water, and considering how often you find yourself in flooded areas, this issue is more common than you’d think. Then there was the time that the sound cut out while autosaving, leaving me with a muted game. When I tried to reload the save, it was still silent; the game broke and then saved itself in the broken state. Thankfully, this happened during the prologue, just 20 minutes into the game, but it planted seeds of fear that stayed with me throughout. Riptide only allows you one save per character, so if that save gets corrupted, you’re screwed.
Riptide is fun as hell, but it has to be in order to make up for all its other issues. It’s clear now that Techland stumbled across a great idea (cooperative first-person melee combat coupled with an open-world RPG), but they don’t quite know what to do with it. Riptide is a lesser game than its predecessor, but it proves how powerful and addictive that core idea really is. It’s an idea worth chasing, and the post-credits stinger hints at even more potential, but at this point, there’s more potential greatness than actual greatness. Riptide is good in spite of itself, but it could be so much better.