Monday, February 9, 2015

Game Review: Dead Island: Riptide (Xbox 360, 2013)

In my mind, Dead Island was a fantastic example of a game left in mediocrity when a fabulous premise met repetitive execution.  Exploring a beautifully rendered resort during a zombie apocalypse is a brilliant proposition, but the game wears on for much too long and every battle with undead hordes feels the same, making for a mindless grind after the first few hours of play.

Being a direct sequel, it's unsurprising that Dead Island: Riptide is similar.  Sadly, those similarities make it feel like a disappointing expansion pack to an already borderline disappointing game.  Here's why:

Riptide picks up right where Dead Island left off.  The four survivors of the first zombie outbreak escape only to get thrust right back into it on a new island with a few new zombies and one new playable character  It's basically the same plot: the heroes are just trying to escape, and they'll do whatever they need to earn the help of other survivors.

Where story is concerned, Riptide doesn't do a whole lot.  Yes, you'll meet a bunch of characters along the way, but none of them are very interesting and the major conflicts feel more like tedious tasks than plot points.

To make matters worse, the script and voice acting are bland.  Some of the lines feel forced, the main characters seem pretty dumb at times, and the voice actors don't anything to bring life to the game.

But the worst offender may be in the game's graphics.  During normal gameplay, everything looks great - zombies are diverse and appropriately creepy, environments are reasonably populated with various doodads, and distant terrain reveals a beautiful world.  The problem lies with the human characters; their reasonably expressive faces keep them from falling totally into the uncanny valley, but their eyes are completely lifeless.  It makes cutscenes and conversations feel off, and I found it to be a surprisingly jarring distraction from the narrative.

It's a pretty disappointing attempt at a story.

The gameplay brings similar disappointments.  It is built on the solid premise of 4-player coop zombie stomping and plays a lot like a first-person shooter, although there is heavier emphasis on melee weapons than your typical FPS.  You'll run through zombie hordes, shooting, slicing, and beating your way to your next objective.

For the most part, the control scheme is pretty fluid, though there are a few hiccups.  I felt that the game ate my inputs pretty often while sprinting (and occasionally at other times), so there were times that I was frustrated because I couldn't complete some precise maneuver.  There are also lots of waist-high obstacles that you can't pass despite being able to jump. Even after completing the game (which took me a little over 15 hours), I never had a good intuition for which obstacles I could scale and which ones I couldn't.

On top of that, melee combat can get a little disorienting, with the camera swaying wildly as you swing your weapon; that one's a little more forgivable, though, as it may be an added layer of realism.  The sound effects are a little frustrating, too.  You'll often be able to hear zombies growling, but their volume doesn't change with distance, so you can't tell if they're right behind you or 30 feet away.

Aside from those annoyances, though, the basics are as advertised, and the zombie crushing can be a lot of fun.

Like Dead Island, Riptide also has some RPG elements.  You earn experience by destroying zombies and completing quests, which allows you to upgrade three skill trees.  Most of the skills just buff damage with certain types of weapons or enhance consumable items; the only really unique bit is that each character has a special activated ability, like a brief bloodrush that allows you to rapidly stab enemies.  Those abilities definitely set the different playable characters apart, but they still feel like relatively minor differences in the grand scheme of things.

While the leveling system provides some degree of customization, it mostly just forces you to upgrade your weapons occasionally as the game progresses, as weapons have level requirements.  It ends up being a lot like a loot-based dungeon crawler with very simplistic skill trees.

Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and I think it works with the horror premise pretty well.  I just wish that some of the skills had more impactful effects.

For Dead Island veterans, there's not much new here.  You can import your Dead Island characters, which will only bring over their skill trees.  Riptide introduces a few new skills and pushes the level cap to 70, but there's nothing game changing; it's really just more of the same.

In fact, Riptide is even more repetitive than its predecessor - there are lots of areas to explore, but they aren't nearly as varied or interesting as the areas in Dead Island; there are a couple new breeds of zombies, but they don't require different tactics than all the others; there are numerous quests to complete, but the vast majority have you go through the same motions as quests in Dead Island.

The one notable "innovation" in Riptide is the hub defense.  Several times throughout the story, your band of survivors will need to defend their base of operations from waves of zombies.  Your NPC allies will help dispatch monsters until the helpful "horde strength" indicator on the screen falls to zero.

These defense sequences are a cool idea, but the implementation is awful.  First off, I found the NPCs to be almost totally worthless.  Yeah, they'd fight, and they'd do some damage, but they rarely defeated even the most basic walkers without my help.  As a result, these sequences felt incredibly tedious, as I had to wander around the area to clean up after each wave.  (I admittedly did this with an imported character from Dead Island, so maybe this wouldn't be as much of an issue with a fresh one).

Second, these defenses are incredibly easy.  I never failed one, and I actually never felt like I ever came close to failing one.  That was largely due to the incredibly forgiving death mechanic - anytime you die, you're resurrected nearby within ten seconds; the only cost is a fraction of the cash you have on hand.  There was never any tension during these hub defenses because I knew death wasn't permanent.

The ease combined with the tedium make these parts of the game feel much longer than they needed to be.

A third disappointment comes in the form of optional quests to aid your allies.  Each NPC has three related fetch quests to improve their weapons or the stock in their stores.  While these quests improved merchants quite a bit, it seemed like they only had cosmetic effects for the ones that actually fight.  The improvement quests hint really cool design possibilities (like optional quests that may change base layouts or add different types of obstacles for you to use), but as it stands, they feel pointless.

I could certainly ramble on about the rest of the failed potential, but you probably get the gist: Riptide feels just like the original Dead Island, but its world is more limited, it has mind-numbing defense sections, and the story falls completely flat.  Slaying zombies is often a lot of fun (though it, too, can get tedious), but pretty much everything else disappoints.

If you enjoyed Dead Island and you're looking for more of the same, you'll find it in Riptide; otherwise, you're much better off playing the original.

My Rating: 4/10 - mediocre.

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