Dead Island: Riptide isn't just one of the most tastefully marketed games of 2013, it's also the semi-sequel to one of the best-selling games of the last couple of years. Yes, Dead Island was an absolute smash hit, because everyone wants an open-world zombie survival game. Or wanted, at least. Hmm.
Here's wot I think.
Dead Island: Riptide is some more Dead Island. How much more? About the same again. It gives you another character (and the characters from the original), and plays out the whole silly drama again on the next-door island. After the obligatory linear tutorial bit, which is set on a sinking ship this time, you head off into a tropical paradise full of reanimated rotting cadavers. Videogames!
I had a lot of fun with the original Dead Island, even though the entire thing was clearly ridiculous, and did little to shore up its own credibility. There are plenty of commendable notions in there, giving us the kind of game that we've come to demand over the years: a great big open-world structure, broken up into various levels, upgradeable equipment, lots of melee-heavy work, exploration, gathering of all kinds of junk to survive, and a mix of linear mission stuff with the general open-ended questing of the rest of the game. While there are issues with all aspects of that, as a loose skeleton for a game, it's a broad and handsome one. Techland's Chrome engine handles it all with some fancy visuals, too.
The issues with the original game came along two lines: firstly there were the bugs. It was riddled with broken things, some of which were patched up later, but many of which were left hanging out, like the intestines of an unfortunate tourist. Then there was the mad lack of logic with regards to anything in the game systems. If you paid thousands of dollars to fix a baseball bat, you'll recall the sort of thing I mean.
Riptide seems to address the first of these issues fairly well. Aside from a couple of odd glitches, I found the game to be in a fairly polished state. I imagine this is because it was so heavily scaffolded by work on the original game that they had little trouble in putting a few extra lines of code in there to fix the creaky bits. So that's reassuring.
As for the logic of the rest of the game, well, it remains in the realm of design that does not seem to give a damn about consistency. And okay, I get it, this game is really an excuse to indulge your desire to explore an island and club undead things to death – preferably with a bunch of friends – and this provides that (I want to stress that I REALLY like the overall island design, and exploring it on foot, in a car, or on a boat, is a pleasure). But there's still the nagging feeling that the designers probably could have got around that thing were you need a blueprint to “upgrade” a baseball bat by putting nails through it. Or that thing were an NPC wants to sell you an energy drink for $3534. Or, indeed, the reality-warping discomfort of you selling them a stick you found in the same room for $100. It's all artifice, I know. We don't have walking magic shop people in the real world, we don't have zombie invasions in the real world... but there must have been a better way to do this.
Then there's the lack of flair in character design, quest design and, well, pretty much everything outside the environmental work. The game just doesn't have enough life or colour to keep you interested in its setting. Even the capacity of the new guy to kick baddies as if he had a third leg made of pneumatic donkey doesn't do it for me.
It's better with other people in the game, yes. It goes from being a grim solitary skull-thumper to something entirely more manic, something with possibilities for working together against groups of zombies in a way that I can't recollect in other games. But it still didn't keep me bobbing up over the threshold of the truly interested.
The fundamental, bone-breaking problem I have with Riptide, then, is that while it's arguably more polished than its progenitor, it does nothing to fix the shambling design issues that gnawed at our ankles the first time round. I've outlined some of those, but there's also the issue of the poor writing, and the general lack of imagination. Technically it's very close to be one of the great. Conceptually it's very close to being one of the greats. The design really only falls a few yards outside the great Venn Diagram circle of greatness. But that's far enough. The net result of all this is a game that cannot win on any front. Even the combat makes me wonder about how much better it could have been. Does it really make sense to take that long to get up? Should upgraded cleavers really better than shotguns? Hmm.
Dead Island: Riptide carries a mysterious virus that it is tough to cure: boringness. It's a virus that it and its predecessor will no doubt transmit to other games, thanks to being so successful. Game designers will assume that This Is What They Want, and make more of its like. But I've killed a lot of zombies in my time, and this was no highlight in the struggle against the digital dead. I could say this in more flowery ways, and I could spend more time glossing over the bones of it, but in all honesty I feel like there's so much else humankind needs to play. There's so much else you could spend your money on. Yes, zombie slaughter is quite funny, and better with friends, but this game is not enough. Perhaps it never was.
And a score? I give this expandalone One Flimsy Hacksaw Blade Out A Decomposing Human Nostril. And not a micro-percentage point more.