Review: Dead Island: Riptide

Techland haul its curious co-op success-story into 2013 with Dead Island: Riptide. Humble anticipation saw Dead Island build a substantial fanbase out of nothing, but that fanbase now boasts  loftier expectations. Heartbreaker? 

Dead Island Riptide

The upward stroke leading to total cranium divorce from torso is my favourite Dead Island dance floor maneuver. The act itself demands little dexterity or poise, an insouciant flick of the analogue stick in a skyward direction is all it takes. But while the upward stroke leading to total cranium divorce from torso is painless enough that an orangutan on ketamine could convincingly mock the motions, executing the move in the midst of pandemonium is a true test of mettle. As Dead Island’s familiar marauding meat-puppets arrive screaming from the periphery, it takes true grit to wait… wait… wait until your quarry is within tickling distance before THWUNK!

That wonderful electric volt travelling from screen to controller to thumb to brain, born from Dead Island’s ludicrously clumsy melee-combat, remains its greatest asset. Everything else… well everything else ranks closer to omnishambles, to coin a popular English neologism.

Like 2011’s Dead Island, Riptide is a first-person, role-playing game with the vaguest of horror overtones. Dead Island’s zombie apocalypse was unique in as much that, far from borrowing from classic apocalypse fiction, Techland opted to paint their end-world in glorious Hawaiian hues. The same is true of Riptide. The sequel also takes up tenancy somewhere between Left 4 Dead and Borderlands (a combination of the two writ small on a paradise island would be a rudimentary but fair appraisal).

You take the reigns of one of five survivors caught in the throes of the apocalypse, with support for up to four player co-op online (no such luck for those holding out for split-screen shenanigans). Each of Riptide’s disagreeable chumps is practiced in a distinct school of warfare with bladed and blunt weapons, firearms and throwable weapons the mainstays, although you’re free to use all regardless of which character you vote for.

We reconvene with perhaps the least likeable protagonist posse since the cast of True Blood as they flee from the island of Banoi. And, much as the saying goes, ‘out of the frying pan, back into the frying pan’ because within moments our miserable troop find themselves ashore the paradise island of Palanai. As far as story is concerned, it’s all so blank and expressionless you could play racquetball against it.

Dead Island Riptide 3

The island of Palanai is much like Banoi, at least at surface level. It’s a verdant Valhalla made up of a number of monsoon ravished settlements connected by wending jungle arteries that cut through the thick foliage. It’s open-world, sort of, with boats and cars scattered liberally throughout the more expansive areas of the map. Yet it’s notably more claustrophobic than the hotel resort and later urban districts of Banoi and a hell of a lot smaller than, say, the world of Borderlands 2. It’s also a hell of a lot less exciting.

There’s been very little effort dedicated to making Palanai a world worth puttering about in. At its utmost the atmosphere conjured teeters on Left 4 Dead territory, but mostly Palanai is a place starved of character with almost no sense – bar the proliferation of discarded suitcases and the odd ropey audio diary – of it ever being a functional, interesting world prior to becoming the staging ground of a gigantic pinata party. Banoi’s hotel resort was a far cry from Fallout 3’s DC wastes, but it at least warranted one thorough tour to soak up a bit of back story. The only thing encouraging an excursion through the blood-blotted boonies of Palanai is the lure of XP, or an unremarkable assault rifle.

Combat is once again anchored in melee, although there is a greater emphasis on firearms this time out. Throughout Palanai are littered thousands of weapons and much like in Borderlands most of them are of no use whatsoever. Snapped sticks and paddles perform admirably at the offset but enemies level up in sync with you. Suffice to say, the paddle used to off undead beachgoers early on has limited stopping power during the later acts.

Combat on the default digital setting is a tedious case of bashing R1 and watching as your lumbering avatar swipes and lunges with the precision of a drunken toddler armed with a maraca. With analogue settings turned on though, the combat transforms entirely. Holding L1 primes your weapon and roots your feet to the floor, freeing up the right analogue stick to control the direction in which you swipe. Analogue controls grant you a degree of autonomy entirely absent when the game is played in digital mode.

That it’s still not the default setting is, frankly, preposterous. There’s precious little as satisfying as waiting with an axe primed as one of the quicker corpses hurtles your way, waiting to carve his head from his neck in one bone-shattering swing. With head some twelve feet in the sky he’ll carry on running, momentum keeping the headless half-wit from slumping like a meat sack. It’s crass and brutal but wonderfully tangible and the killing blow, if timed perfectly, often pans out in slow motion.

Dead Island Riptide 2

Three-quarters through and for the most part this could so far be a review of Dead Island. There’s no escaping the fact this is a repackaged deal. Techland have tweaked the difficulty, making Riptide a better game played solo than Dead Island, but it’s telling that that was about the most meaningful alteration I had noticed across fifteen hours. Unfortunately, despite the few features fixed and a handful of new ones (the best of which is the Black Ops-like horde mode scenarios peppered throughout the campaign), there remains an appalling roster of pernicious bugs and niggles hungover from the first game.

Spearheading a substantial list is the frame-rate, which stutters somewhere between flick-picture book and amateur stop-motion movie at the worst of times. I’ve stood and watched quest-enemies tumble through floorboards, met my demise as a result of punches taken through walls and lost weapons after fast-travelling. The analogue-combat lock-on feature is a terrible team-player too, making a habit of honing in on corpses as marauding people-eaters perform amateur keyhole surgery on your face just inches away.

Then there’s the field of view, which is needlessly restrictive, as well as characters who lumber through the world awkwardly. And yet, despite that, Techland seem to take pride in providing a half-dozen or so opportunities that demand you heave heavy machinery around; an act that prohibits you from engaging in combat and grants you the turning circle of a dormant volcano because, hell, that’s fun, right?

No.

What strikes me most about Riptide is the untapped potential that remains, and how little of it Techland have sourced. This second entry in the Dead Island franchise is unforgivably ramshackle, beset by a host of galling bugs and an uninspiring tale of human survival. More than anything though, in a climate in which Borderlands 2, Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 3 and The Walking Dead are all fondly remembered, it’s bewildering just how little has improved over the course of nearly two years.

5/10

This review was originally published on BeefJack.

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