Dead Island was absolutely the most average game that I will ever love this surely. In a time where every game endeavours to be your emotionally exhausting needy friend, Dead Island just wants to be your non-committal best bro, content to hang out for as long as you want, and then he goes home. It seems like a weird way of describing a video game, but that’s the niche that games like the Dead Island franchise are there to fill.
In marketing and sales, setting the proper expectations is of incredible import when you’re trying to please a consumer. A good product is fine and dandy, but people will always feel ripped off if they don’t get what they thought they were paying for, even if the product manages to have an equal but different appeal. It’s almost like Too Human Syndrome – which was another game I managed to love despite itself.
So what Dead Island did was in complete juxtaposition to what it was expected to do when the trailer for the original debuted in 2011. The trailer, which tells a story in reverse, depicts a young girl, dressed in proper holidaying gear, whimsical t-shirt and all, lying dead on the pavement. As a haunting piano melody plays, she ascends upwards and through a window.
Chronologically, the narrative goes thusly: A girl, fear-stricken, runs away from zombies but is ultimately bitten. Her mother lays her on a bed while the rest of the family fights off monsters. As zombies often do, she rises and lurches onto the back of her distracted father who flings her out of the window. So, you know, not fun, but perhaps compelling? Well, there’s a plot twist. Dead Island, as a franchise, is the opposite: fun but not compelling. I can live with that, though a lot of people seem to have had the series soured by a difference in expectation versus reality. The reality is that Dead Island Riptide and its predecessor are not really about narrative; they’re about gameplay – which, surely, is the single most important thing that a video game needs to be about.
Deemed a “spin-off” of the original, Dead Island Riptide definitely has more of a “Direct Sequel” feel. So direct, in fact, that it takes place immediately where the last one left off, bridging the tiny gap and offering a refresher of the first game via a monologue from one of the protagonists, Purna before the game cuts to present day, aboard an aircraft carrier. The main cast from the first game are the only ones to have survived Banoi. They are cuffed and imprisoned to await the research of their immunity by the military. It is below board, in their imprisonment, that they meet John.
Generic name aside, John was a part of the rescue team that attempted to help with the Banoi zombie outbreak, but once his boss came knocking, and the colour of the universe changed from petrified red to shaky brown, it became clear that rescue wasn’t on the cards. It turns out John – like the original four – is immune to the virus, and can be played as from the very get go as the fifth, but only all-new playable character.
In the next scene, the player character wakes up to find that everyone has left. The ship’s PA blares that the vessel has been compromised. Getting topside is your first real objective, and the creaking, flooding ship will serve as your tutorial section. “This is the Captain. If anyone is alive, fall back to the bridge,” rings the PA again. Things are getting more and more urgent as the boat tosses back and forth. For one, the engines are on fire, so let’s do something about that first.
Spoiler alert: there are zombies there. And everywhere. The ship was taken over by zombies. As far as inciting events go, it’s not the worst way to kick off the game. Is it great? No. Does it give you some context? Yes. Mission accomplished. This is the last moment where the game’s primary storyline will take your focus, quickly taking backseat to myriad sidequests and general exploration as you wash up on the island – so soak it up and then forget it.
It’s time to kill some zombies.
The game starts you off at level 15 with the option to accept a pre-designated build – based on whether you want to be an aggressor, survivor, or a balanced all-rounder – or allot the skill points yourself. You can also import a character from the original Dead Island and this works very smoothly, you just simply select them from the main menu when starting a new game. The zombies scale to your level, so where you put your points will be vital to the success of your character, the same way it would in a similar title, like, say, Borderlands 2. The variety of the skill tree (some skills can be upgraded multiple times) means that you can craft your character in a unique way, so there is scope to “main” toward a single player experience, but it’s clear that the best fun is to be had in multiplayer.
Most mechanics have only had minor upgrades from the original Dead Island, and as you’d expect, crafting returns. Within no time you’ll be attaching nails to baseball bats, or barbed-wire to skulls on sticks, or…well, just about any crazy combination of zombie-destroying weaponry you can imagine, really. One new aspect is the base defending, which tasks you with grabbing some form of protective barrier, then placing it over gaps in your defences. It works fine, and does cause some chaotic moments as the walking dead attempt to force their way in, and the fact you are slower when carrying these defensive walls is a nice touch that adds weight to the characters.
The missions are largely a case of travelling from one place to another, finding something or killing something, then returning to the original mission giver. Some narrative is attempted through the missions, and character exposition is toyed-around with, but it’s largely perfunctory. There’s not a particularly large penalty for dying either, as Riptide will simply spawn you a little way from where you died, and take a bit of cash from you as punishment.
When it comes to walkers or undead or zombies or whatever we’re calling them now, numbers are everything. I was fortunate enough to have the delight of playing plenty of multiplayer, and we easily ganged-up on zombies, allowing the gameplay to change into a bonanza of Benny Hill, slapstick hi-jinks. A gun-toting Purna-player stood sentry, disposing of any satellite corpses that threatened to harass us as we bashed a lethargic and irate zombie. Ratio is everything, especially when you consider the complete deficit of guns and ammo available in Riptide, which is a shame because the original title critically suffered from a lack of gunplay, too.
I’m not suggesting that the game should swing in total favour of guns because then it would lose its charm. It’s frantic being relegated to melee only, and the close quarters combat keeps the focus on team play. But with four players, the area around the zombies becomes a bit crowded and the action takes a turn towards a team-killing mosh pit. Perhaps more frustrating is that the developers did hear our plea, as they instituted a few measures to try to appease us. There is a stronger presence of firearms this time around and, more noticeably, an increase to damage from headshots does make ranged play more viable, which is especially useful for one of the new enemy variants, the suicider. Also added is a proficiency system for weapons. Essentially, the more you use a certain type of weapon, the slower it will degrade. Gone are the days of upgrading a piece, just to have it fall to shambles in your hand moments after you use it.
I didn’t expect much in terms of graphics, especially considering the rather lifeless world of the first title. But after playing the full game through, I can promise that things are much busier this time around. The jagged edges have been refined and running through waterfalls no longer looks like water rolling off a windshield.
Simply put, Dead Island Riptide is gorgeous. Beautiful. Breathtaking, and other such synonyms. The trees sway hypnotically in the breeze, light plays off the water to brilliant effect and the environments themselves are exactly the kind of luxury a well-to-do businessman would demand from his holiday. If it weren’t for infection, the island, which I understand to be a dead one, would be an absolutely lovely place to spend an evening. In fact, you’ll still often find yourself slipping away in the lush tropical locale. Is this starting to sound like a travel brochure? Good. And I’m not even being hyperbolic!
The audio in Riptide is never abrasive and sometimes actually lends itself toward a dark, zombie infested environment. The atmosphere set is reasonably tense, but of course adding multiple players into the equation, all chatting away, it becomes more of a social experience and that will change the atmosphere to match. More often, though, the sound design is pleasant and not what you would expect from a so-called survival horror title. The voice acting is also good, and only a little hammy. I can’t help feeling that the corny, stereotypical-sounding characters are intentional. Never nuanced, the acting has all the quality one might see in a low-budget horror movie, and that’s not a bad thing.
VERDICT: All in all, Dead Island: Riptide is a great place to meet up with a few friends, kick back and relax. The game demands very little of you and always has something bite size on offer. Like running a series of errands, made more exciting by looming death, experience points and loot, Riptide keeps you busy and gives you enough variety on your plate to keep from you getting bored. Dead Island: Riptide is a great sandbox title for buddies who fancy some zombie-killing. Not bad, Techland. Not bad.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.