Dead Island: Riptide feels like a game of contradictions.  Alternately entertaining yet frustrating, it left me feeling quite a bit cheated as far as a sequel to Dead Island went.  All the familiar characters are back, in addition to a brand new one, yet there aren’t any spectacularly interesting changes or additions to any of them.  And the new environments in Dead Island are enthralling at first, then they give way to disappointment as they start to look strangely familiar. A lackluster side quest system just adds to the disappointment to the game as a whole.

As the game opens you’re introduced to the same enemies as in the first game, the fast moving and utterly dangerous zombies that populated the original island. As you progress in the game, you are introduced to some new types of zombies to make the players life more challenging.  Unfortunately, I found the new zombies to be less challenging and more annoying or strangely enough, barely present.  One of the new types of zombie, the Bombardier, was only around in a few select areas.  They were an actual genuine threat and I barely saw anything of them.  The same with the Wrestler, an intimidating new zombie that’s a huge lumbering mass of flesh and player beat down.

And the old intimidating zombies from the first game are hardly to be seen either; threats like the Butcher are barely around because the game relies upon randomly generating them.  In my play through the game I encountered perhaps four of them.  I felt a little cheated at not seeing more of them, as well as more of the other original zombies.  It seemed as if they’d been thrown over for the newer zombies.  While not necessarily a bad thing to see more of the new zombies, it becomes a problem when the perfectly good old ones are replaced by inferior models.  Case in point: the Screamer.  In theory it’s a sound concept, a screeching zombie that incapacitates a player who gets too close with its supersonic yell.  The problem with her is that she’s not content to wait for the player and ambush them. She actively rushes at the player, releasing her screech and incapacitating the player while simultaneously beating the ever living crap out of them. Dealing with her is not fun in the slightest.  The balance of tough zombies in the game is missing, eliminating a lot of genuine challenge and replacing it with sheer frustration.

Adding that to the areas of never ending Infected spawns and you have a recipe for disaster.  Instead of being genuinely challenged or frightened for your own survival, you end up feeling frustrated and annoyed as you rush through an area, seeking to just finish it before you get killed, either by being swarmed or by the zombies who throw weapons with pinpoint accuracy and decimate your health with one successful hit.

The rest of the gameplay for Riptide is pretty standard fare; explore the island, complete side missions and progress through the story.  Many could argue that the side missions are just as important as the main story, adding depth and extending playtime.  The side missions run the gamut from helping to save people, finding out information about missing loved ones and running around like a jackass to pick up items that NPC’s want you to foolishly risk your neck to retrieve. The side missions in the first game were pretty much along the same lines, however they were handled in a slightly more manageable fashion.  Side missions in the game could be completed while handling the main missions and the layout of the island was very conducive to exploring.

In Riptide, it seems as if the island was specifically made to frustrate the player.  There are only two main maps, making the island smaller than the first, which is upsetting to start off with.  Then the maps are constructed in a way that makes travel frustrating and difficult.  The first map features a lot of waterways that need to be traveled by boat to make them go by in any reasonable amount of time.  They were put into the game specifically to give the player more of the Drowned zombies to deal with.  But once again, they’re not challenging, they are annoying to deal with. Any player not steering the boat can actually swing a weapon while sitting in it, but actually hitting anything coming at you is next to impossible.  The entire ride is spent fending off the Drowned as they constantly grab you, trying to pull you out of the boat.  And because the boat is loud, it attracts other zombies as well, meaning that you pretty much always have a group to fight off when you exit on the shore.

The second main map is a large city in which many of the side missions are completed.  Portions of the city are underwater, up ladders and around blocked passageways (some partially electrocuted), making travel difficult.  Dead Island tries to mitigate some of the travel problems by giving the player quick travel locations that they can warp around the island with.  In the first game they were smartly placed, adding another layer of strategy when trying to decide how to navigate the island.  In the entire second half of Riptide, all of the warp locations are specifically placed in the upper half of the map, preventing the player from using them to warp to any locations in the middle or lower half of the map.  This means that every quest that takes you into those areas involves a trek through most of the city, past the hordes of repetitious and annoying zombies.  At a certain point in the game, I was totally convinced that the boatload of money I had was specifically meant to be a buffer against constantly dying, as losing money is the only real penalty to dying in the game.

The environment for the game was a major let down as well, with the new setting starting off as rather exciting and deteriorating from there.  At first, the new main island is very beautiful. It’s a lush tropical environment with lovely plants, beautiful views and interesting pathways through tunnels and caves. The game even adds a new dimension to travel by allowing the player to traverse the environment, climbing up and down vines to navigate.  The weather system and day/night cycles that were added in helped make everything seem even more realistic.  However, once you progress too far into the game, the new gives way to the very familiar old.  Many of the interior locations used in Riptide were rehashed versions of areas from the first Dead Island.  In fact, one of the later locations is almost an exact repeat, with a few added extra decorations.  I wasn’t entirely convinced until I turned on my copy of the first game and went to the hospital area in the prison.  Lo and behold, it was the exact same area being used in Riptide. I even saw the same blue funnel on the exact same desk in the exact same area in both games.

I’m aware that creating new assets for a game can be a pain, but lifting entire environments and just slightly re skinning them seems like a giant rip-off, especially when the second game is listed at the same price as a brand new game.  Sadly, even the actual new areas got repeated over and over again.  One of the games new ‘features’ were Dead Zone areas where the player could go to defeat boss monsters and collect weapons and weapon modifications to make their existing weapons more deadly.  There were four layouts that kept being used repeatedly for these areas, meaning that once you’d gone into that layout once, you knew where all the nooks and crannies were.  After a while they got boring and annoying.

Granted, there were weapon modifications in all of them, meaning that if you wanted to be able to make better weapons, it was to your best interest to explore them all.  But the game screws the player over once again, saving many of the best weapon modifications and blueprints for later stages in the game.  By the time I received the modification to make one of the better explosives in the game (by going through a story area), it was so late in the game that it really wasn’t worth my time or effort to go use the modification.  Normally I would still have tried to use it, expecting that bigger and better would be useful for the final fight.  But by playing the game normally and progressing at a steady rate, I was so beefy that I completely blew through the final boss with no difficulty.  It was very sad and anticlimactic.

Coupling all of these difficulties with game glitches and we have an experience that was less than stellar.  For example, let’s talk about really nice explosives. There is a bomb in the game that blows the heads off most regular zombies in the game.  Very nice bomb, very useful for groups and a great way to clear some space.  It was designed to be used in game with massive hordes of zombies, yet in an online cooperative game, the bomb proved to be too much for the system to handle.  Multiple times when using that particular bomb, my cooperative players’ game would freeze.  As a matter of fact, whenever too many zombies got on the screen it gave our online game a lot of trouble.  We all know that less is sometimes more; maybe more difficult (i.e. special zombies) and less of the hordes would have been better suited for the game, especially considering the types of firepower given to the player this time around.  Even in my single player game, it seemed to have a lot of trouble whenever too many zombies got on the screen and I used an uber bomb or other weapon.

And in a game that works best cooperatively, I expect it to actually work when playing cooperatively.  I expect that both players can use their weapons to maximum efficiency without having to worry about massive lag caused by programming choices.  I expect to be seeing the same thing on the screen as my cooperative player and to not have a zombie alive on one person’s screen and not even present on the others.  I also expect that item drops will be present on both screens and that one player won’t have to pick it up and then trade it with the other player because it miraculously decided to only show up on one screen.  And when both players save the game in a safe location then restart, I fully expect that both players will spawn into the safe location.  Not one person spawning into the safe area and another player being dumped into the middle of a combat zone, which is exactly what happened on several occasions.  It’s a little jarring to exit the game next to a shop and then restart it to be stuck in an area with a bunch of zombies trying to rip my character’s insides out.

The name of this game should be Dead Island: Big Disappointment.  It failed to deliver anything significantly new or exciting.  The new elements that were introduced were lacking and the game itself felt like a complete rehash of the old, even down to the environments and layouts of some of the interiors.  I didn’t get a new interesting experience or learn anything earth shattering about the setting.  As a matter of fact, the ending of the game completely throws away the characters in one of the most frustrating ways I’ve ever seen in a game.  This felt like an interim game; something to finish dealing with the characters from the first simply so that they could move on to thinking of characters for a new game.  I was not impressed or pleased with how the ending of the game went and I would caution anyone playing to be prepared to be underwhelmed by the entire experience.