Grab your customised barbed wire baseball bat and med kits, we have some more infected to bludgeon
Developer Techland released Dead Island: Riptide in 2013 as a direct sequel to their original first-person role-playing survival horror Dead Island, though it is very much that game with some minor iteration but disappointingly suffers from the same technical issues and overall feels a little stale by comparison.
However, an important disclaimer needs to be made for this review. I have been playing the original Playstation 3 game streaming over PS Now (on PS4) and for the original Dead Island review I played the Definitive Edition downloaded from PS Now on my PS4 so I have to take into account this inferior version over streaming is likely the issue for the frame rate drops and general graphics downgrade. So, I will refrain from being too critical of its performance issues as I am admittedly going about this backwardly. It's actually startling playing these versions back to back as you really do notice the difference the HD remaster makes and overall how big a leap we have come with the last generation of consoles over the Xbox 360/PS3 era.
Anyway, it's almost tempting to copy and paste my previous review for the original title as this is so similar in its strengths and weaknesses that it's essentially like an expansion for that game. You have the same four survivors as your character choices (with a new addition too) and still roam some open world exotic settings in an effort to once again escape from the undead hordes, using any melee or guns you can find to pulverise their grotesque faces. I once again played this as a single-player experience although I am led to believe there were some neat quality-of-life improvements made for the online co-op players but unfortunately I haven’t been able to experience this element of the series.
Everything from menu interface, weapon crafting system, enemy types and mission structure returns from the previous game as well as some of the dialogue spoken by your chosen character as they accept missions and also the general grunts and screams of the zombies. I guess this makes sense as so much work was put into the original release that they were fair game for re-use. But it does make this feel a little too similar to stand out as its own instalment.
Smartly, there is the option to actually transfer your save from the original game and continue the story as the same character with the previous skill tree abilities (though the cash, weapons and items don’t carry over). I couldn’t take advantage of this due to my save being from the Definitive Edition but I did still choose the redneck all-rounder Logan due to personal preference as well as sense of continuity and the game let me start from level 15 (with a potential level cap of 70).
The story from the previous release saw the survivors (called the Immune) seeming to escape in a helicopter from the fictional island of Banoi and this starts literally from that helicopter ride. Of course, no prizes for anyone who guessed that this trip might be a lot shorter than planned as our survivors are led onto a military ship which is inevitably overrun by infected. This ship setting makes up the tutorial section of the game and is much more intense than the hotel of the previous version, as well as a little frustrating (partially due to my struggles with trying to get used to the differences in button configuration from the original’s Definitive Edition.)
Once this has been surpassed, you arrive at the new island of Palanai which is less touristy than Banoi but equally as infested. The first open world area you will spend the majority of the first half of the game in is the Flooded Jungle. It’s got a similar vibe to the Jungle area of the first title but as the name suggests, has more swamp sections to wade through with whole villages erected above the water. I actually enjoyed this setting as once again it made me feel isolated in this primitive backdrop, with the beautiful sun-drenched locales a curious haven for the undead nightmares within. I also particularly enjoyed driving my jeep through clusters of strolling infected as this was equally liberating in the original Dead Island. The visuals are stunning and even playing the base game I still could admire the lush bayou setting with the newly added tropical rain effects as part of the reworked weather system.
With the swamps come new types of special infected zombies to avoid – the Drowners. These guys will float in the water likes corpses and only on close proximity will they jump you (and when they do it’s pretty terrifying). In addition, you can opt to use the new motorboat to traverse the large stretches of swamp areas to reach a specific goal but the noise of the boat startles them and they will knock you off very quickly. I found this to be an irritating pattern and decided to simply wade across the map avoiding these enemies where I could. Only problem with that, there are more missions in this game which involve you having to carry some fuel cans or items across from different ends of the world and so meant there was a fair amount of time simply spent wading through swamps.
Techland introduced many subtle changes from the original which are not as evident unless you have recently played that game. Firearms do much more damage against zombies than previously, rare weapons are no longer quest rewards but only found in hidden chests throughout the open worlds, weapons are more durable and last longer with new inclusions such as mines, poison and sonic bombs, new blunt and sharp weapons, throwing knives, a stun gun, flare gun, harpoon gun, sniper rifle and even a rocket launcher. The previous game had a litany of customisable weapons at your disposal and with all of the new inclusions it became almost overwhelming trying to decide which to use. As far as I could see the majority of the crafting effects returned from the previous game so I tended to opt for a deadly machete that could electrocute on impact or a baseball bat with an attached buzz saw to do nasty damage to those undead scumbags.
In addition to the aforementioned Drowners, there are more mutated ‘special infected’ zombies such as the Grenadier (lobs toxic flesh at you) Wrestler (pulverises you with huge fists) and Screamer (similar to the Witch in Left 4 Dead but paralyses you with its scream). These certainly mix it up well enough with the regular infected and mutated zombies from the first instalment and don’t feel too prominent. There are also side quests which are miniscule interior levels (labelled ‘Dead Zones’) which feature a large group of enemies and one ‘boss zombie’ that is very difficult to kill and can instantly murder you. They do have their own back-story found through reading the menu text after you have faced them but in all honesty these areas felt too difficult and unfulfilling for me to see them all through.
One criticism I noted in my previous review for the original game was the fact that at no point in the general gameplay did I interact with the other ‘Immune’ characters outside of seeing them in cut-scenes. This caused disconnect because for whole hours at a time I was a solo adventurer until those cinematics suggested I had been with a team all along. However, this game includes the other playable characters as static NPC’s which added to the sense of belonging as a group. Yet, over the course of your playthrough you (and your buddies if playing cooperatively online) will encounter another group of survivors who will also each serve as mission givers at different points and will join your group as a large zombie fighting team.
This leads to one of the main new mission types - the ‘siege defence’ – requiring you to face off against entire waves of zombies and mutated boss enemies whilst protecting your safe-haven area with constructed electric fences and gun turrets (laying mines down too is very effective). They would eventually break through unleashing pure anarchy as your team battles it out with hordes of the undead. These set-piece moments can be absolutely thrilling and stressful in equal measure, especially if you haven’t buffed your team enough (by completing side-quest missions collecting various items for each member of the party) as they can die which fails the mission. Thankfully, if you are killed there is only a timer penalty as you wait to respawn with a generous checkpoint system making it quite forgiving. I took pleasure in the manic battles, slaying countless undead and looking around at my AI buddies dishing out their best to them as well. There is even the possibility to enact a Team Fury (your special attack combined with the power of the group) ability on the zombies which is particularly devastating. It’s one of the most effective iterations on the formula from the first game and I almost wish they took the idea further and allowed me to have the CPU immune characters escort me in the open world areas.
But, it’s not all improved, unfortunately. I was aware of some of the technical issues which plagued the original Dead Island and - although I didn’t really suffer these as I played the Definitive Edition which fixed most - there were some disappointing issues which hampered my playthrough of this sequel. For starters, there were a few times that on reloading back into a save after playing the day before, I would start in a completely random area of the open world based on one of the last missions I had completed. This led me to being spawned in the same area as a high-powered Butcher zombie which completely drained me of all of my health and best weapons. Because I was a fair distance from any safe areas I had to traipse through the jungle swamps avoiding all enemies, which was particularly frustrating knowing that I had left the game saved in a secure area previously. On top of that, there was a side quest mission that was completely broken because the item I was meant to pick up had not appeared where it was supposed to and only on watching YouTube videos could I work out what had happened. Other minor things would occur like poor collision detection and zombies glitching through the world but these were not game-breaking and were occasionally hilarious.
I will admit to finding some of the new areas to be less interesting than the initial game. There is more emphasis on verticality in the layout of the open world maps (especially the town area) which may be more realistic but in practicality was perplexing trying to navigate through specific side streets to particular goals. There were too many moments of frustration staring at the map screen and trying to plot which route I could take only to get it wrong and be completely surrounded by hordes of the infected zombies.
The game is also shorter as well as the four act structure is now simply twelve chapters. In the first game there were three main open world maps with a final indoor section in the prison for the finale as well as a few underground sewer sections and interior levels to mix it up. This added to around a forty- hour playthrough doing the majority of main and side quests. However, for this game there are only two main open world exterior maps and an underground tunnel section so the overall playtime for me was shorter at around the thirty-hour mark. This isn’t necessarily a criticism as it’s still a fair amount of time although my interest was waning towards the end as the combat became too repetitive and story uninteresting. Of course, that was including doing a fair amount of the side quests so if you were to mainline this game it could be finished in probably half of that time. Nevertheless, with another four characters to play as with different character benefits and the returning New Game Plus mode unlocked after finishing the playthrough, there is no doubt that the game has potential for serious playtime. That’s before you even consider doing all of the in-game challenges, finding all hidden collectables and earning all of the trophies.
Similar to my comments in the first game’s review, the atmosphere of this series is absolutely tremendous. Not only do the visuals and lighting create palpable tension and sustained terror (especially in the underground tunnels with only a flashlight and flares to aid visibility) but Pawel Blaszczak’s score is once again a perfect blend of tense strings for the horror vibe and sombre piano for the moments of quiet reflection. Additionally, the sound department really bring the sounds of the zombies to terrifying levels (possibly because they are mostly from the previous game) and the newer mutated zombies each have their own distinctive scream to make you think twice about approaching their vicinity.
Verdict – It’s by no means a major disappointment or a poor game. This is more or less what Techland promised in that it isn’t a proper reinvention of the first game and is simply a continuation of the story of the Immune characters. Yes, there are some technical issues that really should have been fixed given how the last game was picked apart for its numerous bugs and glitches on first release. Yes, there are fewer areas in this game and many of the assets feel ripped out of the original. Yes, the combat and crafting all feel very familiar with only slight improvements. But, for anyone wanting a slightly more refined version of the previous game, some new environments, fun ‘siege missions’ and a flimsy reason to batter the hell out of the living dead, then this game does have enough to warrant diving back into the world’s deadliest archipelago for some of that zombie-killing fun. Just don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.