Video Game Review: ‘Dead Island: Riptide’ Pulls You In

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CHICAGO – Much to the chagrin of practically everyone I know, the idea of “relaxing” is a bit…underwhelming (which is probably the point). Even with the crash of the waves, warm sand, girls in bikinis, surfing, snorkeling, and the ability to re-enact those Corona beer commercials, well, not to sound ungrateful to the Barbadoses and Bermudas of the world, I’d be bored in 10 minutes. But if you give me an arcade, or a golf course, or a football, or, well, thousands of undead zombies, as is the case in “Dead Island: Riptide” suddenly we have ourselves a ball game. Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0
Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0

“Dead Island: Riptide” is the sequel / expansion / upgrade to 2011’s “Dead Island”; a game that was the Frank Abagnale of a game’s mouth writing checks it’s ass couldn’t cash. By now most gamers know the story: an incredible trailer was released, played in reverse, featuring the destruction of a nice family (and their little girl), at the hands of the undead. It was touching, brutal, heart-wrenching, went viral, and was completely computer generated - featuring zero gameplay. There was absolutely no way the game would live up to it. And it didn’t. Instead you got a pulpy, open-world, skyrim-esque zombie adventure that was received lukewarmly by folks whom the trailer had interested. However, this time, “Dead Island: Riptide” seems a little under-hyped and under the radar, giving it a chance to meet, or exceed, tempered expectations.

Dead Island: Riptide
Dead Island: Riptide
Photo credit: Deep Silver

However, first impressions are not great. After selecting one of a half dozen characters with special attributes, the game opens with a serviceable Sega light-gun-shooter-esque cut-scene with hammy narration and characterization explaining the plot of the first game, before locking you in an tanker, introducing you to a couple of evil military and business types, then challenging you to escape it before it sinks. Comparisons to “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare”’s opening mission notwithstanding, this sequence serves as a decent tutorial, and a terrible introduction to “Dead Island: Riptide”’s appeal, as you meander down corridors stopping every few seconds to backtrack long enough to thwack a zombie with some ridiculously low-powered crow-bar or police baton. The mission goes on quite a while too, and once you make it to daylight, thinking there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it goes on for another ten minutes. Worse, once you complete this tutorial mission, you wash up onshore with literally none of the equipment you took time looting on the tanker - the game literally tricking you into wasting your time.

Dead Island: Riptide
Dead Island: Riptide
Photo credit: Deep Silver

But fret not, following the loot-stealing shipwreck, “Dead Island: Riptide” starts to build steam from these initial missteps. For starters, you’re presented a relatively massive open world, teeming with weapons, items, vehicles, survivors, nooks, crannies, houses, trailers, caves, tree houses, and the walking dead. The zombies themselves are mostly of the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” variety; fast, vicious creatures that hiss and ominously gargle on unseen Listerine as they try to feast on your brain. Killing these zombies is immensely satisfying, if not a little embarrassing due the carnage on display. Playing in my living room, surrounded by family members, I couldn’t help but notice the look on my mom’s face as she watched her college educated, gainfully employed, 27 year old son stomp yet another zombie’s skull into chiclets with carnal joy. Of course, my mother didn’t understand how frustrating gruesome death at the hands of the undead horde could be, and that the nature of the combat made those skull stomps the survival horror equivalent of NFL touchdown dances.

And what nature is that? An unforgiving one. Combat requires a good amount of precision, as backing away from enemy attacks and moving in, just in time to connect with a well placed jab or stab is the name of the game. Running in, weapons swinging, screaming at the top of your figurative lungs can net you some success, but tactical choices are encouraged, especially when it comes to managing your stamina bar that depletes with each swing, swipe, or stab in the face of a lot of enemies. Besides weaponry, “Dead Rising: Riptide” gives you a couple of fairly intuitive ways to combat enemies. Right trigger is your standard attack, sure, but supplementing this is the left bumper, which allows you to give enemies a quick boot that knocks them back, or stuns them. In moments of desperation, you can also hurl weapons at enemies using a combination of the left and right triggers. Using these skills in unison is imperative to success in “Dead Island: Riptide” when facing literally hordes upon hordes of zombies in the most difficult missions. It’s a blast, too. I realized combat had a bit more than meets the eye during a heartwarming side mission that tasked me with scoring coke from a zombified drug dealer. After dying at least seven times, throwing every weapon I had at the guy, I started to dodge his attacks, move in, stab, move back, dodge, move in, stab, and I eventually killed…well, re-killed, the undead menace - it was at this point that “Dead Island: Riptide” sunk its teeth into me - I was, officially, a fan.

Beyond the combat, “Dead Island: Riptide” is essentially an open world action-RPG in the style of Bethesda’s “Elder Scrolls” series, minus the pretentious nature and massive development budget. You’ll accept a ton of quests from cardboard cutouts, journey through the island, kill monsters, complete side quests, level up, rinse, repeat, over and over and over again. It’s actually pretty entertaining, and for the right kind of gamer, “Dead Island: Riptide” is probably more appealing than “Skyrim” anyway, due to the change in setting, visceral combat and emphasis on multiplayer features.

Dead Island: Riptide
Dead Island: Riptide
Photo credit: Deep Silver

Multiplayer features that missed an incredibly huge opportunity by not supporting same system co-op, by the by. Online, I completed several missions with a buddy over a bizarro combination of Xbox Live, Skype, and Facebook chatting, and it certainly added to the enjoyment of an already very enjoyable game, and horde mode is always good for some high-stress moments. The online multiplayer focus is welcome and seamless, as even when playing single player, random folks can join your game to help you complete missions, kill zombies, or insult your mother over headset. But still, the inability to sit next to someone in real space, and get my zombie smashing on, socially, is sort of unforgivable, considering “Borderlands”, “Call of Duty”, and even “Portal 2” contained same-system multiplayer features. Thus, a PS3 owning buddy of mine and myself ended up taking turns in the single player, lamenting how much fun we’d be having if we played together, system limitations be damned.

While I’m feeling sour, there are a few other negatives I’d like to address, Deep Silver. The game’s economy makes absolutely zero sense, as the tropical island you live on apparently has the world’s only supply of coin-operated workbenches. A big part of “Dead Island: Riptide” involves upgrading and crafting new weapons, which is neat, but the idea that you somehow have to pay money to repair and build things is a little silly, especially when something as simple as a Machete takes an upwards of two thousand dollars to repair. I understand why it’s in the game, to add another RPG element to the action / rpg formula, and to give space for some creativity, but as it stands, the economy makes zero sense. Additionally, of this writing, I haven’t really experienced any of the glitches I’d been promised by gaming message boards and chats with fellow owners of the game - but I’ve heard they’re there. My friend claimed that he’d be swinging away with one weapon, then suddenly be fighting with his bare fists for no reason, but that was something I couldn’t personally duplicate. My other complaints are more issues with this style of game, somewhat copy-pasted looking environments, cardboard characters, lots of back-tracking, inventory management, irksome weapon selection screens, and so on are present in most games in this genre, not just “Dead Island: Riptide” specifically.

What is specific to “Dead Island: Riptide” is its B-movie personality, relatively unique combat mechanics, and how well they combine to make for a surprisingly compelling experience. While ultimately derivative, I think certain gamers will find much joy in this software. In much the same way some people prefer “Mass Effect” over “Dragon Age” due to the Sci-fi setting, I prefer “Dead Island: Riptide” to “Skyrim” because zombies and sickles and tropical islands are more appealing to me than ogres and wizards and dwarves (oh my!). To be honest, as a journalist, I try to approach games with an open mind, but as an avid gamer, fan of the industry, and a media sponge fully aware of how overdone zombies are, I fully expected to hate “Dead Island: Riptide”. Instead, I kind of loved it in that, feet-up, brain-off, Corona-on-the-beach, sort of way.

“Dead Island: Riptide” was released by Deep Silver on April 23, 2013. The version reviewed was on the Xbox 360 but the game is also available for the PS3 and the PC. video game critic Paul Meekin

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