The lights are on
Dead Island wasn't on my radar when it released back in 2011. At that point, the zombie apocalypse was starting to wear a bit thin. All the time I'd spent mowing down the living impaired in Treyarch's zombie iterations combined with my continued revisits to the Dead Rising games left me with a distinctly undead form of 'trigger fatigue'. But in the midst of yet another non-existent list of summer nothingness that was 2012's lackluster summer roster, the promise of hacking off appendages in an open-world zombie paradise was all I needed to pick up my Ripper Modded Baseball Bat and get back out there on the front lines of World War Z (If you haven't picked up Max Brook's book of the same name, trust me zombie fans, you will not want to pass it up). Techland's Banoi, did not disappoint. Despite it's drawbacks, of which there were quite a few, Dead Island was the sleeper zombie hit of the decade (it sounds a bit grandiose sure, but keep in mind that the decade started in 2010). After such an enjoyable outing on Banoi, I couldn't wait for what lay ahead on Palanai, Dead Island: Riptide's newest zombie infested island.
Set at the tail end of it's predecessor, Riptide brings back all of your old survivor buds, plus one; John Morgan, the hand-to-hand specialist (who magically appears out of thin air). Finally out of the frying pan, Riptide kicks off by promptly throwing you back into the fire. As one of the immune, your blood is a hot commodity to the shady corporate villains that greet you as your chopper lands on their floating safe haven. Treated about as cordially as your average Guantanamo detainee, your safety is further secured as your 'host's' fill you full of mutagen and toss you in the hold. Your time as their guinea pig however is short lived as the freighter becomes overrun by the zombie stowaways, sending you and the ship crashing onto the beaches of Palanai; yet another zombie infested island in what has to be the worst possible archipelago on planet Earth. Once your boots hit the sand, Riptide tasks you with once again finding a safe place to rest your weary machete while you figure a way out of this beautiful hell.
What's always made Dead Island such an interesting zombie experience to me is it's insistence on keeping it's game firmly grounded in the people on the ground and their minute to minute struggle to keep themselves alive. Finding resources, shelter, survivors, and ultimately a way off of this god forsaken island is front and center throughout the entire story. While Riptide introduces a questionable corporate boogieman and his equally questionable military shills, their only true significance to the mechanics of the story is their impediment to your escape. Dead Island has no Umbrella, and it's that much better without it. Their insistence on making a zombie survivor game instead of a conspiracy game, that just so happens to have zombies, is a huge part of what's made it stand head and shoulders above that.. other one; for me anyway (RE 1,2 & 4 are not part of this criticism). What's it's name again? Umbrella Evil? No matter. You'll find a conspiracy lurking in the corners on Palanai, but Techland does a great job of keeping it out of your way.
I prefer to avoid too many specifics regarding the story because the best part of any zombie story is not knowing what's going to happen; particularly, not knowing what's waiting around the next corner. I walked into the original Dead Island blind and it made the experience that much better. While most of you interested in the game probably know enough already, if you haven't heard the details yet it'll be that much more interesting; well, intriguing; well, whatever the word is for somewhat mildly interesting. You may not be blown away with a revolutionary new tale in the Zedworld, but Riptide delivers enough to keep you from completely writing off it's story. However, Dead Island being Dead Island, if you completely hate the story, no big thang; with everything this franchise offers in terms of gameplay, they could make the story about finding a pack of gum and you truly wouldn't care. The true nuts and bolts of Dead Island, are the ones attached to your bat.
As anyone tasked with hitting the streets and jungles in the midst of a full on zombie infection will tell you, the tools of the zombie survival trade make all the difference in the world. We all know that picking up a metal bat is better than walking through the shattered streets with empty hands, but Techland knows that sometimes that's just not enough. Why pick up a metal bat to bash those zombie skulls when you can just head to the tool bench, strap a motor and circular blade to that bat and slice and dice while you smash and bash. Dead Island's Mods are a big part of what makes this game the great time that it is. Whether you're electrifying your machete or turning your shovel into a veritable napalm stick, the vast array of possibilities will keep you scrounging every nook and cranny of Palanai for any and all parts and tools; a task made easier via Techland's dual gear icon's that mark every lootable spot. Riptide brings back all of your Modding favorites and then some. The ability to turn your average shotgun into a lighting blast is particularly useful when confronted with some of Riptide's biggest and baddest new undead. If you thought Banoi got ugly, wait until you see the way Palanai's infection has mutated it's inhabitants.
Most of the island is thick with Walkers; your everyday lumbering zombie whose uncoordinated and clumsy physical prowess rank them low on the zombie evolutionary ladder. But don't be fooled; just because they're idiots and a little clumsy, doesn't mean that they can't get a hold of you. Once they get a few yards away their pace picks up and they lunge forward, making 3 or more of these guys a dangerous pack of rabid idiots. But at the bottom of the evolutionary scale, these guys are the least of your concerns. As you move deeper into the story and jungle, you'll quickly find that the zombie infection has turned some of the islanders into truly dangerous and wonderful monsters. Suiciders, Thugs, and Floaters were some of the heavyweights on Banoi and they return again to reek havoc on Palanai; but compared to some of the island's newest, these guys are just mild nuisances. Grenadiers, Screamers, and the monstrous Wrestlers are the new big boys on the block, and if you aren't packing some serious explosives and high-level weapons, your best bet is to either seek higher ground or just turn tail and run. Along with these new guys they've also morphed some of the OGs into lethal hybrids that make remaining upright a truly tricky feat. What do you get when you combine an Infected with a Thug? Short answer? Death. I'll leave their abilities unexplained (although some of them are fairly obvious), because it's a lot more fun to just stumble upon these heavyweights and find out for yourself just how quickly you're about to die; that's half of the zombie fighting fun. The other half, is dismemberment.
Other than the weapon Modding, this is Dead Island for me. It's one thing to hack away at the zombie menace, but it's quite another to hack off an arm or two, maybe a leg here and there, and then cleanly remove the head with one well timed swing of the axe. Though the aim is notoriously sketchy, making area specific strikes oftentimes more luck that skill, nothing is quite as satisfying as marginalizing a Thug by removing his arms. Well, let me take that back. Lopping off an Infected's head as he's barreling down on you full sprint is hands down the most satisfying dismemberment in the entire game. If blood and gore make you a little squeamish, well… Actually. If blood and gore make you squeamish, you're probably not playing a zombie game anyway. Enjoy your knitting. Riptide is all about hacking, slashing, smashing, and bashing, and I've yet to play another game that has such a beautiful and satisfying amount of blood, gore, and body parts. Watching that Infected's head pop off and tumble away as the Infected's body flies full sprint to the ground is what zombie dreams are made of. And while it's oftentimes more luck that skill, Techland doesn't leave all of your skills to chance.
Riptide's skill tree, much like your average RPG's, gives you the ability to upgrade your character in the way you see fit. When first choosing your survivor, you have the option to automatically upgrade their skills based on that particular characters fighting style, or, just take the points and dole them out how you want. Each survivor has their own unique skill tree with character specific options that complement their fighting style and to some degree, personality. Making Logan a more potent drunk, or Xian Mei a more efficient silent assassin is a decision left entirely up to you. But regardless of whose shoes you step inside of, the Rage branch cannot be ignored. For you new folk, Rage is pretty much what it sounds like. When a sufficient amount of XP is accrued, holding down B drives your character into their survivor specific Rage, turning the screen black & white and highlighting enemies in red. For my Riptide survivor, Purna, her Rage drives her to pull out her sidearm (whether she has one in her Inventory or not) and fill the dead full of led for a set amount of time (which itself can be upgraded). As you can imagine, this is an important skill to nourish, particularly when confronted by one of the big boys, so don't ignore it. With 3 branches it's difficult sometimes to balance what you can and cannot live without, but that's the hallmark of any good skill tree. By the time I finished my first playthrough there were somewhere around 5 or 6 skills untouched. Since most skills have 3 levels to unlock you will definitely get the chance to maximize your survivor's potential, but most decisions are still fraught with tradeoffs.
So what's wrong with this picture then? Why isn't it an across the board 10? Well, it's Dead Island… and with Dead Island comes some frustrating problems that at this point I'm starting to think are part of their intended design. For starters, their 'automatic' aiming system is a bit twitchy. It's definitely an improvement from it's predecessor, but it's still Vegas baby, and anything can happen. However, most of the points headed in the wrong direction on Riptide, at least in my book, are a direct result of their menu system, particularly, the amount of time you're forced to spend inside it. Out of the 5 sections; Map, Quests, Inventory, Skills, and Team; the most frustrating two are the Map and Inventory. While the jungle navigation isn't really a problem, the more developed areas are downright frustrating without a more detailed map. I understand the 'lost in a foreign land' concept, but why bother with a map at all if I'm unable to discern building from ground in the village and city areas? As far as the Inventory is concerned, it's still the same frustrating, tedious experience that it was last time. Next time you guys at Techland are headed to development, please, give me a call. In this particular case, the addition of just one more subsection would've made my life a whole lot easier; a throwable subsection. The amount of time I spent simply trying to swap out my molotovs for shock grenades was absolutely obscene. Add to that this little one to two second delay when switching main tabs, and the menu screen becomes a tiresome disruption to an otherwise fantastic experience.
Aside for my main concerns, Riptide has a few other problems worth noting. If you've read GI's review, you've heard about the disappearing weapon problem. This actually happened to me twice, and while my cat wised up and left the room after the first, they were both full on cat punchable. I actually think I've nailed the problem for them though. Their unfortunate decision to add newly modded weapons to your active weapon slot, bumping that weapon to your inventory, has opened the door for a very problematic glitch. In modding my newly acquired Shotgun, my previously equipped, and go-to Shock Katana, vanished into thin air. After assuring my cat that it wouldn't happen again, not too long after I was attempting to mod my newly acquired blue-level Katana when my previously modded Shock Shotgun simply disappeared into the void. With no cat in sight, my turkey sandwich took the full brunt of my displeasure. But it was here that I noticed the problem. Instead of kicking my equipped weapon back to the inventory, it had dropped it on the ground where I eventually found it hiding between the bench and a cabinet. I think the permanent disappearances are just a result of this kicked out weapon dropping through the floor into digital no-man's land. So I'm warning you guys. If you want to avoid losing your best and brightest, never, never go into a bench with a weapon equipped that you aren't prepared to lose. While it only happened twice the entire game, it was two times too many for my cat.
At the end of the experience, all the menu time, cat punching, and random and infrequent frame-rate drops didn't sour my experience in the least. The beautiful island of Palanai is such a lush and incredible zombie infested world that what few bumps in the road you hit, don't amount to more than just a couple of flies buzzing around your head. However, at least one is buzzing around your head the entire time. I completely understand why people have knocked this game down a notch or two, because with all it's possibilities these continued shortcomings are just downright frustrating, and in a sequel, completely unacceptable. The way this franchise popped up out of the blue and took it's place lingering beneath that upper tier should have made the folks at Techland and Deep Silver focus a lot more attention on the complaints and suggestions of it's fans. But just like Banoi, Palanai still gets so much right that it's easy for me to dismiss what's gone wrong.
From the beautiful jungles to the beachfront villages, and through the dark and cramped sewers to the city of Henderson, every part of Riptide's experience is exactly what surviving in the zombie world is all about. It's hard to take your eyes off of the beautiful landscape and the immense depth of detail that Techland has infused this entire island with, but when that roaring zombie growl echoes off in the distance you're quickly reminded of just how deadly this paradise is. From the Walkers to the Wrestlers and every zombie in between, there isn't an undead inhabitant of Palanai that you won't have a blast dismembering. Add in the fact that you can bring your friends (more on that in a second), and Dead Island: Riptide is an open-world zombie experience that truly does the genre justice. If Techland steps up their game and redesigns and reworks that menu, there is no reason why such an incredible zombie outing wouldn't end up at the top of the heap. But potential isn't all that this game has. The beautiful island of Palanai, it's horrifying and eerie soundscape, it's incredible wealth of weapons and modification possibilities, the fantastic and frightening zombie adversaries and the satisfying ways to take them down, make Dead Island: Riptide, in it's current form, a game that zombie fans should not pass up.
I'm not a co-op player. While Dead Island: Riptide allows up to 4 players the chance to run the streets and jungles in a zombie slaying pack, I haven't personally jumped into the fray. I have yet to hear anything that has led me to believe that this feature has any problems, so while I cannot personally vouch for it, if you're a fan of the mob mentality, Riptide has your back. I do know that from a single-players perspective you can choose to link up with others online based on your particular level and place in the story, but that's about the extent of my personal knowledge. I'm not a video game people person, so I don't really know the specifics; my review is based on the single-player experience. Whether co-opt adds to or subtracts from this experience I cannot say. Let me know.