Two years is a long time in gaming, but it’s nothing compared to how long a few hours in the company of Dead Island: Riptide seems. For all of the 2011 original‘s flaws – and they were legion – it was at least a shot at doing something new. It offered a sun-drenched zombie apocalypse with action-RPG combat that had limbs flying with every swing, and an open world built for teaming up with friends and running over armies of the undead with the nearest Jeep. There turned out to be little real meat on Dead Island’s bones, and those bones could be spindly, toothpick-like things, but at least it felt like it was trying.
That’s not something that can be said about Riptide. It’s not a sequel so much as a standalone continuation that immediately declares its creative bankruptcy by throwing in a corrupt corporate executive and talk of zombie bioweapons, then drops the four original characters and a new one – imaginatively named John – onto a new island to essentially play the first game again. There are a few differences, of course. This island has more water, and therefore boats. Some missions involve holding out against the zombie hordes, and the action is a little tighter in places. Riptide rehashes far more than it reinvents, though – right down to the lack of guns early on and uninspired questing – and does so without any of the novelty value of its precursor or its attempts to foster an emotional connection.
The best sequels and semi-sequels don’t usually feel like this much of a cash grab, but even ignoring that Riptide is one of the most tepid follow-ups around, a game that sets its sights on adequacy and sometimes reaches it, but whose critical path is constantly interrupted by tripping over the endless stones it leaves unturned. No effort, for instance, has gone into fixing the way that other characters just stand around while you do all the work, or even scripting them to not constantly bark orders and whine and complain until only their cursed NPC invulnerability stands between them and falling down dead with a Scottish Dirk between the eyes. Head into the zombie-infested jungle and Riptide’s world is still one where you can fight your way through a dead village only to wander into a bar where a bored-looking woman glances up from the floor, asks, “Hey, what are you looking for?” and offers a good price on a set of shiny new Wolverine claws.
Raw combat fares little better, still bringing floaty weapons and flailing swings to the party, but not upgrading the action to feel notably better, or to offer any real sense of progression beyond a numbered level. You do improve – take the way you can upgrade stamina to run farther – but zombies still level up so that you’re always surrounded by enemies of roughly the same difficulty, and unlocked skills are mostly unnoticed passive boosts. Collecting blueprints allows for new toys as the story unfolds, though perfectly good weapons are never in short supply. As before, an abundance of respawning resources makes for the most ridiculously equipped survivors ever, even with the extortionate cost of resurrections after inevitably being torn to pieces by the island’s other inhabitants.
Riptide’s biggest addition to the formula is that every now and then the survivors have to defend against a zombie horde, made obvious by the piles of fences that magically appear just beforehand. These sections should heighten the tension, asking you to play tactically by throwing together defences and laying mines. Instead, bad AI and too many zombies make them a chore, compounded by NPC deaths meaning automatic failure and none of your comrades having the common sense to help fix broken defences or help free each other from death grips. Usually it’s a waste of time even bothering with the fences after the first wave, though, since dealing with the zombies is never as hard as it’s supposed to be, and Riptide often gets confused by the difference between ‘put this fence here’ and ‘throw this fence through there’ anyway. It’s easier to just let the zombies in and brutally put them down en masse, with the real challenge turning out to be playing Whac-A-Mole with survivors in trouble rather than actually surviving. As the progress bars get longer, these scenarios don’t even get more difficult, just increasingly like prison sentences as opposed to set-pieces.
On the plus side, nothing that breaks up the tedium of the story can be all bad. Riptide’s plot is ten hours long with all the flavour, texture and depth of a single sheet of toilet paper. Its characters are flat, every assignment is padded out to the point of torture to hide the fact that there’s no real story for most of the game, and moments of intrigue or interest are rare enough as to seem like mythical treasures. The best zombie fiction has something to say, some metaphor for life, or dark drama in a crumbling world. Riptide just has zombies, and a humourless, lazily written trudge through endless numbers of them. It can’t even be called B-movie schlock, since that suggests a level of energy, quirkiness and self-awareness that it completely lacks.
Even ignoring all those failings – something at which Dead Island fans will have had plenty of practice – Riptide’s biggest flaw is that it never justifies its existence in terms of plot or new ideas. It’s not simply yesterday’s game, but a time capsule from 2011, a time when zombies weren’t as overplayed and games such as Far Cry 3 and Borderlands 2 weren’t around to cast their long shadows over the action. As with its predecessor, Riptide does offer fun with friends, though it’s the kind for which the mechanics can only take partial credit. Alone, it’s pure monotony, and as either sequel or mere continuation it represents a thoroughly wasted chance to push Dead Island forward.
Dead Island Riptide is available on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. 360 version tested.