Dead Island: Riptide is the follow up to Techland’s first person survival horror Dead Island from 2011. The original Dead Island initially met with high praise for an emotionally gripping teaser trailer but would go on to garner acclaim for its unique melee combat system. Now the sequel has arrived on PCs and consoles, and we get the chance to see how things are shaking in the zombie infested tropics once more.
Before I get into the guts of Dead Island: Riptide and discuss what does and doesn’t work, I’ll lay down a TL;DR version of the review. If you loved Dead Island and want more of the same crazy zombie killing action, you’ll get a kick out of Riptide. If you didn’t like the original game or feel like you got enough of the game the first time around, you should give Riptide a pass. Sequels often iterate on their predecessors, but Dead Island: Riptide sticks so closely to the original game that it might as well be billed as an expansion campaign for Dead Island. It brings back exactly the same sorts of scenarios and mechanics you experienced in the first game, and while this is a welcome return for fans of the original, it likely won’t win over any new folks who didn’t enjoy the first one.
Dead Island: Riptide picks up right after the conclusion of the first game, with all the playable characters beating a hasty and well advised retreat from the island where they’ve been killing hordes of undead creeps for untold hours. And–wouldn’t you know it–just as they’re about to be home free, circumstances land them on a boat that crashes into some giant rocks and ends up wrecking them on a nearby island that also has been overrun by zombies. After waking up on the beach, the four familiar playable characters and one new addition to the lineup are assimilated into a group of survivors that hangs out around a location that serves as a mission hub. They eventually move the story along to open additional similar hubs, filled with similarly needy survivors, all of whom need various tasks done for them. If you think that setup sounds familiar, it’s very likely because it’s almost identical to the setup from Dead Island.
Both Dead Island games are first person RPG / survival horror hybrids that pit you against teeming throngs of zombies while coaxing you along with a satisfying leveling system and scads of useful loot. The gameplay and interfaces of both games are identical. In fact, the four playable characters from the first game that return for the second have the same skill trees for leveling, and you even can import your character from Dead Island to continue your killing and leveling for Riptide. There is a fifth playable character this time who specializes in hand to hand melee combat. If you lean more toward blades, guns, blunt instruments, or thrown weapons, you can stick with any of the original characters. I’ve found Xian Mei, the resort hostess turned swords expert, to be the most satisfying character for my own playstyle, but there’s a character for everyone here.
Most of your favorite weapons from Dead Island return in Riptide, as do the modifications you can build. There are a few new flavors of weaponry in the second game, but it all feels very familiar if you’ve played through the original game. Weapons in Dead Island can be looted from the environment or corpses, and you can enhance and combine them to make even better tools at crafting stations sprinkled liberally around the map. You’ll constantly find yourself stumbling across all manner of random junk, from flexible hoses to batteries to scrap metal. You will want to scavenge every bit of it you can get your hands on, because all that crap becomes essential components in your weapon crafting. You’ll be able to attach saw blades to baseball bats, butane torches to wrenches, and more. The variety of weapons you can build is pretty awesome, and the resulting products can be hilariously vicious. Of course, you also can find your old zombie standbys like chainsaws and shotguns as well.
Firearms can be useful, but as with the first game, Dead Island: Riptide excels when it comes to melee combat. Strangely, Riptide hides its best feature from the player in exactly the same way Dead Island did. By default, your combat mode is set to digital, meaning that you fight with the standard trigger pulls on the controller. Nothing is overly interesting or challenging about that setup, and it feels adequate for getting you through the game. Lurking in the options menu, however, is a setting that will turn on analog fight controls. Turn that on immediately. No, seriously, turn it on. For some unknown reason, the game never clues you into it, and turning on analog controls makes all the difference in the world.
The analog melee controls have you pull the left trigger to wind back with your current weapon. To swing the weapon, you’ll keep holding the left trigger while swinging the right thumbstick in the direction you want to attack. This makes fighting more visceral, as you really feel like you’re doing damage to the zombies, but it also makes it more tactical. Worried about that giant thug zombie swinging his arms at you? Kick him in the head to stun him, and then give him a carefully targeted whack with your hammer or sword to break or cut off the offending limb. I really can’t imagine playing or enjoying Dead Island without the analog fight controls, and I have no idea why the game never points them out to you in either game.
While most of Riptide feels exactly like the original, there are a few differences and updates in the sequel. For one, you have a new Team screen in your menus that you can use to keep track of the NPC survivors you’re working with, as well as any co-op buddies you have playing with you in your game. The NPCs will have missions for you to complete, all of which boil down to “Go get me X many of this particular thing.” Once you’ve satisfied their hunger for batteries, bolts, and zombie meat, the NPC’s stats will increase, making them more capable in combat encounters. And speaking of combat encounters, Riptide introduces a new concept called Dead Zones. Dead Zones are Riptide’s version of raid maps, if you think of the game in MMO terms. These zones are small areas that are full of zombies, usually with one or two elite undeads that need killing. Sprinkled amongst the zombies, you’ll be able to find special loot in Dead Zones that you generally won’t find outside of it, so hitting up the zones repeatedly can be a good way to grind some experience and to build up your inventory.
Dead Island: Riptide does lean a little too heavily on the original Dead Island, from its interface to gameplay mechanics down to even the story structure and graphical assets. That strict similarity will make Riptide a no-fly zone for anyone who wasn’t won over by the first Dead Island. For the rest of us who had a ball with the open world and truly unique fighting mechanics, Riptide provides another huge wad of hours spent slicing and bashing our way through familiar territory that still proves fun on a second outing. Given that Riptide is not a numbered sequel, it seems fair to assume that this game was intended to expand on the original all along and that a presumed forthcoming Dead Island 2 will be a truly evolved sequel. For now, I’m content with heading back into the tropics for another dose of the same intense action I got in 2011.