There are so many things so wrong with Dead Island: Riptide that I’m not even sure where to begin.
Sometimes you have to dig and climb your way through a game before the payoff hits. If you’ve ever played a lengthy RPG, this might be a familiar feeling to you. In the end, you won’t remember that game by its many tedious moments, you’ll remember it by its better ones. Unfortunately for Riptide, those are at best few and far between.
For the first (roughly) 10 hours of Dead Island: Riptide, I just wanted to put the controller down. Finally, finally I got to a place in the game where the story started to pick up. It wasn’t all “hey you seem able, go to this place and grab me this thing” anymore. It finally started to come together to some sort of progression. It finally started to feel like a story at all. And not exactly a very good one! Just one.
I enjoyed the first Dead Island game for what it was, despite its many flaws. I’d suggest playing the game if you were looking for a something to play with a group of friends, which also involves some pretty neat melee weapons you can craft on your own. I never expected Riptide to be a sequel, exactly. It always looked more like an expansion, and I always hoped it’d be a more polished version of the original.
Somehow, things went in reverse. Riptide feels like it could have been the first in the series, simply because it is an absolute mess of a game. Let’s just run through some things, shall we:
1. You are never just fighting two zombies at a time. You might start off fighting two zombies at a time, but before you know it the flesh—scratchers? These things don't really bite—are all around you, spawning from invisible places. Some areas are actually constantly, completely swarmed because at some point someone decided infinite spawns in an otherwise exploratory area was a good idea. You’ll spot an area with four potential zombies, but while you’re in the thick of it you’ll be fighting more like eight of them as they come rushing in from who knows where. Meanwhile, if your co-op buddy dies, they might get spawned far off in some desolate area for whatever reason.
2. The excessive difficulty I mentioned in my first point here could have something to do with the fact that I imported my character from the first game. Every enemy matched my 30, 40-something level character. But I found Riptide to be unbelievably unforgiving for the majority of my time with it. This isn’t the kind of difficulty that is challenging. It’s difficult in a way that feels unfair and unbalanced. Zombies push me harder than I can push them. They’re faster than I am. They have more stamina than I do. I constantly found myself out of breath and energy (with such a tiny and slow-loading stamina bar to work with), which is insane considering the mass hordes of these things you’re often facing. It’s really, really easy to die. Too easy. Zombies can take me down in just a few hits, but it takes me about five times as much to get them down. I don’t need to feel like a badass just because that seems to be the video game standard, but I certainly don’t want to feel like I’m always at a disadvantage. Not fun. Not fun at all.
3. Let’s forget about the fact that this game might have the most clipping issues I’ve seen in some time. In the midst of the friggin’ hundreds of zombies you’re always surrounded by, at all times and at all angles, the frequent lag I experienced was unforgivable. Anytime the game was tasked with any kind of animation—like the face stomp animation that takes you far too many seconds to recover from—my screen would freeze up on me, throwing me in an even more vulnerable position than I was originally. You can also jump on zombies from an elevated height for an execution move, which can often result in a one-hit kill, or at least weaken them down enough for a single extra hit to do the trick. But I’d reserve how often I did this, because it would always leave me staring at my feet for a few seconds while getting attacked by the other zombies, helpless and paralyzed. Feeling like you’re paralyzed might be the most frustrating thing I’ve experienced in a video game yet. This really needs to be patched (but even a patch won’t change how fucking stupid you look when you jump).
4. A video game has never made me feel nauseous before (I haven’t played Mirror’s Edge, in case you were wondering). So Riptide’s drastic motion blur and insistence on swiveling your head obnoxiously with every ladder climb caught me off guard. Maybe not a technical problem exactly, but certainly a nuisance.
5. I thought the idea of having a boat would be neat. Back in the first game, I was always the driver in my group of co-op friends. I’m good at navigating, good at driving, and good at hitting every zombie on the way to our destination, too. So I figured a new vehicle would be great. After the first boat ride in Riptide I was already done. It can be fun to drive, but the natural maze of a river is completely incompatible with the god awful mini-map. The mini-map is completely dark, only indicating your location, friends’ locations, and points of interest around the perimeter. There’s no terrain. If you’ve got a friend around, they can help navigate, but you’ll have to let them know when a zombie has clung onto their arm and is about to pull them off of the boat and into the water since they’ll be focused on the game’s main map screen to help you get from point A to point B. Now imagine having to navigate, steer the boat, AND tackle the constant swarm of zombies that are in the water, trying to climb up onto your boat. The infected living in the water—Drowners, as they’re called—are also more tough than your standard walkers. They are feisty—charging you faster than most other zombies—they almost can’t be knocked down, and they swing hard. And they come in numbers, as is standard for Riptide. I avoided the boats as much as I could.
6. I wouldn’t say the original Dead Island was the gold standard for seamless co-op experiences, but it was certainly better than Riptide. If you’re not on the same chapter as a friend, you can go along for the ride, but your actual saved progress won't include those quests your friend is on. That seems a little silly to me, but maybe that was a developer judgment call. Ok, fair. But even when you have met the standards the game asks you to, they often spawn your friend far, far away from your location as I mentioned before. So you spend the first 10 or so minutes of your social interaction simply finding each other.
7. Characters you meet in the game often feel robotic. Their animations are at best awkward, and they often stand there and repeat the one line they were programmed with as you walk by them. But, hey, the Aussie accents are neat. Hi Luke.
These are all technical and combat issues. Just by virtue of these I already don’t like the game enough to suggest you stay clear. But let’s talk about Riptide: The Fetch Quest Game That Never Ends. Those first 10 hours I talked about earlier—the 10 hours that made me look longingly out the window as if I was being held prisoner there, tethered to my Xbox—feel like an album stuck on the same track. Go here, get this thing. The lights are always off, the path is always blocked. Once you’re done figuring all that out, now here’s another fetch quest where you get to do it all again! But unlike those games that follow their tedium up with an amazing, rewarding story and experience, Riptide never grants you with that reward. There’s no redeeming moment to make you feel like every boring thing you just did wasn’t totally boring after all.
There are some areas that at least manage to switch up the pace from the long stretches of island you spend most of the game wandering helplessly. The laboratory, for instance, introduces new zombie models of mutated undead who were once scientists. They’re tough, some of them can throw stuff at you. I’d note the military base as another change of pace, but there’s always a goddamn military base isn’t there.
There’s also an intermittent fortification/hold-out sequence interspersed throughout the game. These were...kind of more fun? You at least had tools to work with—fences, explosives, even a mini-gun. With a friend, running back and forth in circles around each other to contain the spread of zombies into our camp, it can be enjoyable. You finally feel like you have some amount of power you can wield over these things. You’re not totally vulnerable anymore. You even have the NPCs holding some zombies off. But it’s sad to think that this was, again, just part of another formula. Fetch quest, lights, new route, come back again, hold-out sequence. Rinse, repeat, tear your eyeballs out.
The last five or so hours won’t redeem the game, but the combat does at least get tolerable. By this point, I had my favorite weapons crafted and rooted in my inventory. I’d swap out for an explosive here or there, but a shock-inducing rifle and pistol, a flaming shovel, and an electrified katana were my perfect go-tos. You’re still surrounded by a never-ending stream of zombies spilling out of closets like zombie clown cars, and you’re still dealing with a ton of lag and animation screw ups, but at least you’re not always seconds away from dying. You can almost hit as hard as those zombies now.
The other compliment I must pay the game is the sheer terror that is invoked by some of the new elite enemy types. The Butcher may be one of the most terrifying enemies I have ever faced [edit: totally forgot these were in the first game!]. The flesh from his forearms has been taken clean off, exposing spiky bones that he uses to rapidly slash at your face. He’s fast, too. Then there’s the Screamer, who is a cross between scary, annoying, and a little like Left 4 Dead 2’s Witch. She (I actually think it’s a he but it feels more fitting to call it a she) shrieks loudly, distorting your view and throwing you on your back. She can run faster than the Butcher, and is usually (surprise!) surrounded by lots of zombies.
Side quests—though many of which are boring fetch quests—can sometimes feel like in depth adventures in their own rights. You’ll have entire areas to explore—basements or other dead zones.
Unfortunately, even by the 10ish hour mark when things start to get more tolerable, the last five or so hours never get good enough to excuse the rest of the game. The story starts to come together into a, well, story, and the combat doesn’t feel like you’re slapping people with a fish while they shoot rockets at you, and you may even have some extra missions to explore, but it’s never fun. And it’s still almost always broken.