HIGH The new character's hand-to-hand fighting style is a hoot.
LOW Watching zombies infinitely spawn, clown-car style out of a tiny wooden shack.
WTF It's got the jankiest menu system ever created. How was this approved?
I took a lot of flak for choosing Dead Island as my personal game of the year in 2011, and I took double when Gamecritics picked it as the site's official winner. I still stand by those decisions, though. Despite rough edges and assorted problems it delivered an immersive, deeply engaging experience. Combining RPG elements with the zombie apocalypse was brilliant.
The next installment in the franchise is here just a year and a half after the original made its splash, but the dev team has gone on record to say that it's not a full sequel.
While Dead Island: Riptide is much bigger than the average downloadable content (DLC), it isn't a legitimate next step, either. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since I enjoyed the original so much, but Riptide is so full of production shortcuts, buggy annoyances, and uncorrected bad design that it's more like a rush-job fan mod than something ready for prime time.
To set the stage, the four survivors and a few friends who made it out of the original adventure soon happen upon unfortunate circumstances. They're again stranded, this time on a new, neighboring island. Players start a character (or import one from a Dead Island save) and quickly locate a home base before completing fetch quests, collecting weapons, and slaughtering the undead from a first-person perspective.
It starts off on the right foot with a great opening sequence, but problems start almost immediately—ironic since the original was plagued with catastrophic issues at launch. If nothing else, I would have expected the devs to lock things down tight this time, but that's not the case.
For example, I kept hitting a glitch that would only allow me to choose every other item on menus, rendering half my inventory and quests unselectable. When picking up canned food, its icon would not disappear for the co-op player who did not grab it. This led to thinking something was still there, and wasting time searching in vain. I was frequently not able to give requested items to questgivers, and therefore, unable to finish quests. The solution I found was to first give the items to my co-op partner, who then handed them off.
Other problems weren't bugs, so much as poor design decisions.The biggest offender is that Dead Island has the worst menus in video game history. There's no sense in how items and weapons are listed (why was alphabetical not an option?) and the order they're in actually changes depending on which section of the menu the player is on. It's also difficult to figure out which weapon is better than another, or to see whether a certain item is even in the inventory. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but Riptide players will be spending a hefty amount of time fiddling with gear. Given this, I have no idea why these godwaful menus were released without improvement.
(I'm also at a loss as to why money continues to be a core mechanic. How does cash repair or alter weapons at unmanned workbenches? With the mountains of random junk acquired, it would make more sense to have the items themselves be functional, and abandon the money system outright.)
Other bad decisions? The game unpredictably autosaves and there's no way to do it manually. The on-screen mini-map shows symbols, but not topography. When in possession of a medpack, the player must use it on a teammate before being able to trade items with them. The high-intensity "dead zone" locations (houses and caves) that must be cleared to earn rewards are templates shamelessly copied and pasted multiple times.
Along the same lines, one of the things I liked best about the original Dead Island was that whenever I happened upon a survivor, it felt like a surprise. Each situation was slightly different. In Riptide, the survivors are always standing on top of something in an obvious location (usually on the roof of the bizarrely ubiquitous trailers) and they always give the player an item and experience. There's no effort made to disguise the artificial, contrived transactions here.
No, I'm not done yet. One of the publicized features of Riptide was that this new island had a lot of water to be navigated, so the player would be spending time in boats. It's an interesting idea, but a disaster in practice. Zombies can run through water faster than a boat can travel (physics? What physics?) and I never knew whether the zombies would take damage when I collided with them, if they'd clip through, or if they would pull me out. After a while, I gave up on boats and simply walked through the rivers to get to where I needed to go, negating the premise of the watercraft, while also making the incessant island traversal a real pain in the ass.
I wish I had some positives to talk about here, but the dialogue is flat, the characters are instantly forgettable, the quests are simple fetchery with little motivation, and I didn't encounter any compelling story points. I'm honestly struggling to think of anything that was worthwhile, apart from the new addition to the cast, John Morgan.
After the original Dead Island was released, some creative people came up with a mod featuring a character fighting zombies with super-powered punches and kicks. This, in turn, inspired the developers to incorporate some of those concepts into Morgan. Although it takes a while to get him leveled up, he's a one-man wrecking crew when the right abilities are activated. Uppercutting a zombie and watching it fly 50 feet away never gets old, and switching over to running slams and jump kicks on-the-fly was a nice change of pace from the usual melee weapons. It doesn't stop him from getting killed as often as the other characters, but the variety was appreciated.
While taking on legions of shambling undead with Morgan's fists was a genuine high point, it's not enough to make up for the fourth-class experience that Riptide is. I forgave many of the original Dead Island's problems since it had such a fresh, exciting vision, but Riptide lacks the same heart. Don't get me wrong, though—the developers don't need to reinvent the wheel every time (and more of a good thing is usually a good thing) but there's no excusing the slapdash production values and shortage of good ideas on display here.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and version 1.3.2 was reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the campaign (all 12 hours were spent in co-op mode) and the game was not completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, use of drugs and strong language. Parents, we've got omnipresent beheadings, constant bloodshed and otherwise excessively brutal corpse dismemberment. Salty language? Boatloads. It's graphic, hardcore stuff. Keep your children away.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: You will find this game very difficult to play. Audio cues play an important role in this game. Grunts and groans that players know when there are zombies off-screen, and screams of incoming zombies are the only warnings that players receive when they're about to be actively attacked. There are no Directional hit indicators onscreen. although they probably wouldn't do much good anyway since zombies can take down a character within two or three hits. Expect a significant barrier to success here.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway