Also On: Xbox 360, PS3
Publisher: Deep Silver
When reviewing a game, there’s a certain unspoken undercurrent that forces opinion into four neat subsects: graphics, sound, control, and fun factor. Coincidentally, those are the same four qualifiers that GamePro laid in stone twenty-four years ago—a magazine most writing about games today read in their formative years. A typical new release will find a niche, a high water mark, something to define it and make it easily palatable for a reviewer. What if a game fails to do that?
Therein lie the problem with Dead Island: Riptide. In a playthrough of the game, issues lie within every technical and artistic metric it can be graded against. C-movie writing and acting, graphics that are good but not great, environmental factors that are nonsensical at best, mission design that blends together into a beige gameplay landscape that’s easily ignored… All of this is forgiven, however, with the sheer capacity of violence available to dispatch the undead.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has played the initial foray into Dead Island’s world, a truly janky game that gained a cult following on the merits of its own stupid fun. Unlike contemporaries in Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising, Techland elected to minimize the consequences of death and made respawning as painless as possible. Rarely does death truly serve as a setback, just pushing players back a few feet with ten percent of their collected money lost.
As a result, survival takes a distant backseat to killing in Riptide. Customized weapons get more and more deadly in their execution, character traits build to bigger and better things, and the vast legion of shambling ghouls starts to fall apart quickly. Checking the stats on my session reveals that I saw an average of three zombie kills per minute. While this ignores the existence of cutscenes, dialogue, and other occasions of enemy-free downtime, that well represents the brutal cadence of death as the cast plows through paradise.
Paradise, in this chapter of the Dead Island franchise, is represented by Palanai—a sister island of the original’s island of Banoi. Palanai is waterlogged from massive flooding, making traversing the island difficult at first. Buggy map boundaries with regards to water and fencing don’t help, as moving over such hazards (instead of around) can sometimes lead to unexpected death. Sometimes even the weather is buggy, leading to a capricious climate which is sunny at one moment and monsoon rains the next.
Water hazards and lusher jungles aside, Palanai suffers from a feeling of similarity. Prior to Henderson, the city that sparks the game’s third act, Riptide wanders through the already-familiar rickety city, biological lab, and Japanese war relic tropes set in the first game. Even the game’s plot parallels the first, with the prerequisite twist being exactly the same.
What Riptide brings new to the table, however, are a handful of tower defense missions that almost work. Almost, as in the tension is palpable the first time setting up fencing and mines and other preparations is undertaken. Halfway through the first wave, the strategy fades away as the realization a rage attack can thin the herd faster and more efficiently than any proper tactic. From there, it’s all downhill as nothing but new-to-Riptide enemy Screamers pose much of a threat to the player's swath of destruction.
Even through all of its flaws, this is exactly the game I wanted when I first saw Dead Rising in early 2006—a stupid gorefest of a game that only slowed down for perfunctory maintenance. An open world of opportunity and action, easily digestible in a short, occasional spat of play. Something that didn’t require thinking, that went straight to the lizard brain and delivered the oft-maligned blood and guts Pavlovian stimuli that drove Joseph Lieberman nuts.
Mortal Kombat was that game. Carmageddon was that game. Grand Theft Auto was that game. Dead Island (and, by extension, Riptide) is that game. Stupid, objectively mediocre games that tap straight into your inner desires to cause destruction. Only difference is, Dead Island’s issues and quirks that make it a cult hit aren’t due to technical limitations. And I realize that.
That sort of ambivalence is a dangerous footing. There are good games that aren’t fun, bad games that are fun, average games that just swing onto retail shelves with no rhyme nor reason. It’s games like that which, regardless of hype, are amazingly difficult to write critically about. How does someone convince the gaming populace to part with their hard-earned paycheck on a game that delivered personally—but probably won’t for the typical gamer?
You’ll probably recall the oft-abused stanza of “fans of the genre should enjoy this, all others should try before you buy” in at least one writeup you’ve read. Regardless of phrasing or medium, the gesture is a cop-out custom-built for situations like this. Usually, the sentiment is prefaced with a rundown of features. Typically a stalwart march through the graphics, sound, control, and fun factor. Always a nonconfrontational view of the game.
Truth is, regardless of the game’s quality, I’m starting a second playthrough immediately after submitting this review. As bad as it may be on technical and artistic levels, there’s a certain broke and busted charm that makes Dead Island: Riptide almost endearing. Even the Romero downer ending backed by Chamillionaire’s raps couldn’t shake the smile I had after finishing the grind through nearly seventeen hundred ghouls.