Dead Island: Riptide [PC Review]
I didn’t like the first Dead Island by the time I was done with it. I did at first, as I was really impressed at how they’d made the zombie into a dangerous creature again, but by the time I was finished I was so sick of constantly dying and the incessant need to repair my weapons that I just couldn’t care about the game anymore. I went into Dead Island: Riptide hoping that the developers had seen these problems and taken care of them, and I was impressed with how many of them they fixed. I didn’t have to constantly repair my weapons any more, quests could easily be accepted in one convenient spot, and the game just felt a lot faster on its feet. It might not change your mind about the series if you really hated it before, but if you have any interest in the series then this is the definitive version to play.
The game opens up so close to when the last one ends that it kind of makes the whole thing feel like an expansion pack. You’ve only just barely left the island from the last game, your helicopter running out of fuel and landing on a boat that takes you right back to another island that looks an awful lot like the first one. After the game’s opening scenes, you might just find yourself shaking your head once you find yourself standing outside of a hut on a tropical beach, trying to endure the overwhelming sense of deja vu. That’s assuming you didn’t already feel like you’d seen all this before when you were selecting your character, as the game uses all the same people from before. It adds one more person to the mix, but overall this really does just feel like an extensive expansion pack.
It controls pretty much the same as you’d remember it, if you played before. If not, there’s a short tutorial that runs you through everything all over again. Also, the experience system has returned from the last game with pretty much the exact same perks and bonuses. It’s not a bad thing if you only tried out one character from the last game, but I suspect a lot of people will be stuck playing the one new character just to get some variety. Luckily for me I only tried one character in the last game so I still had a lot of new content to try out.
What was also nice was that the game starts you off at level 15 of its experience system. You can choose to let the game pick your level perks for you by selecting what sort of play style you like, but I prefer to make my characters unplayable all on my own so I opted to customize everything. This gave me a lot of freedom to pick some really great perks as soon as the game started, making it so my weapons degraded slowly and giving myself some huge bonuses to damage and critical hits. Everything I’d seen so far made the game look like it was going to be a carbon copy of the last one, so I figured I’d need help in the exact same areas as the previous one and took my perks accordingly.
As far as weapon degradation went, I’m beyond happy to say that I was wrong. In the last game I think I had to repair my weapon every couple of hits, and when I heard there was a glitch that let me dupe weapons you best believe I used it. The weapons in Dead Island: Riptide last a whole lot longer than they used to; meaning you won’t need ten or eleven high-powered weapons just to finish a single mission. I could get most of the way through a mission with one weapon as long as I stomped on heads whenever I could and didn’t go looking for trouble. It felt so much better not to be constantly worrying about where the next repair bench was going to be, and I could actually concentrate on the missions and enjoy them.
The leveling in this game is a lot faster than the last one as well, or at least it felt that way. It seemed like I was gaining a new level every ten or twenty minutes, so I was always working toward whatever new perk I was interested in. This was particularly nice as the first area of the game, the jungle, can start to get really repetitive when you’re running out into the woods looking for ten of whatever item you happen to need so that you can set up the next item chase. Getting a new level and perk broke these missions up and made sure I knew that I was always making some kind of progress.
Feeling like you were just on one long fetch quest was another big problem of the last game. It just felt like I would run out and grab some item, bring it back, and that would allow me to go out and get the next item. Most games can be boiled down to this sort of action, but Dead Island never managed to frame its quests in a way that made me feel invested or interested in them. All I could think of was how I was going out to find a bunch of soup so I could eventually have permission to go looking for cans of gas. Dead Island: Riptide does a much better job by making a few key changes, although it doesn’t always avoid that feeling altogether.
It mainly fixes the feeling by involving the side characters you help right from the beginning. One of the first missions you do is to hunker down with a group of survivors and help them defend their area against a horde of zombies. Not only was this a really great fight that broke up the way combat tended to play during the rest of the game, but it made me feel a small amount of attachment to the characters I met. During this fight little symbols would show up over characters’ heads, letting me know when they were in danger and needed help. I’d have to dash over to save them, and I’m proud to admit that I never let one die.
I don’t know if they would be permanently gone if I let them die during these sequences or if it would just give me a game over, but I still felt like I wanted these people to live. I genuinely felt like I was protecting them and that I was involved in their survival because the game was making me actively help them. I wasn’t just finding them some painkillers or bottled water; I had to actually beat hostile zombies off of them. It’s just a matter of presentation, as beating up zombies to protect them in this sequence wasn’t really all that different from fighting zombies in the woods to get some item they requested. It was still just me hitting zombies and doing something for the NPCs, but it was framed in a way that made me feel far more involved and interested. At least it added some variety in between the constant fetch quests.
What I really liked was that doing sidequests made the NPCs stronger during these defense missions. It’s nice to help someone out and get a new item or some money, but seeing an NPC get a better weapon and be able to help out more during a defense mission was so much better. If you complete a simple sidequest or two you can dramatically increase an NPC’s usefulness, and that’s going to make your life a lot easier the next time you end up in a big fight. It felt more like I was outfitting an army than just building myself up, so it gave me this fun little side project to work on when I was playing the game.
It helps a lot to outfit the other characters, because those defense sequences are easily the hardest missions in the game. You’re tasked with defending an area from a set amount of enemies, and they’re in much larger groups than you’ll ever run into on your own. Since you have backup from NPCs, the game will throw a huge amount of enemies and high-powered special zombies at you at once. You’ll often see multiple versions of enemies you’d be afraid to fight if you ran into one on your own, creating these incredible battles that you’re just barely surviving due to the help you’ve got.
Let’s say you drop, though. Maybe you get careless and a couple of enemies take you down. Maybe you die while defending one of the NPCs. At that point, all you can do is wait the seven or so seconds to respawn, losing a percentage of your money with no real setback. This was, and is still, my biggest problem with this game. For all of the work that’s been put into making this game more player-friendly, this was the one time that something should have been made more difficult. Yes, losing some of your hard-earned funds is aggravating, but failing to lose any progress from dying still makes the game too easy.
I hate systems where you don’t lose progress when you die. It feels like there’s no real penalty for dying, or at least not one that matters. Losing money is a nuisance in Dead Island: Riptide, but that’s as bad as it can get. Most of the time I just spend all of my money on upgrades and repairs, so the small percentage I lose of my accrued stockpile just doesn’t end up being all that much. Even when it is a lot, that sort of thing just feels like the game isn’t depending on any kind of skill any more, but rather on attrition. Games where you don’t lose progress upon dying are games where you will win if you just bash your head against the buttons for long enough.
Modern games are a lot easier than older games, but even there I would say that you have to have some level of skill in order to beat them. Generous checkpoints in many games make them simpler, but at least when you die on the way to that checkpoint you have to repeat the area. You don’t just get a free ride where death doesn’t mean anything. This feels more like the zombies just wanted to rifle through my pocket for a couple of bucks to go clubbing for the weekend, and that the entire island has been flooded with half-decayed moochers. It doesn’t feel like I’m in any actual danger, making death an inconvenience at worst. It’s not something I even try to avoid a lot of the time because of how little it affects me, and that’s where a lot of the game loses its charm.
Techland has listened to the complaints people had about the original game and created a new one that is tighter and more player-friendly than the last. It is a lot easier to enjoy given the new emphasis on building up your camp of survivors, and getting through the forests and cities is a lot more tolerable with faster leveling and more durable weapons. If death would only mean something more than a couple of lost dollars then I could completely recommend this game. Not being able to meaningfully die takes a lot of the joy out of playing the game after a few hours, though, so while you do have a strong game it’s got a large problem that sucks a lot of the fun out of it. This game stays fun for a lot longer than its predecessor, but with death only being an annoyance that fun still doesn’t last as long as the game does.