Zombie killing has never been more mundane
Dead Island: Riptide picks up after the end of the first game when players find themselves on a military ship somewhere off the coast of Banoi and the Island of Panaloi. Here you discover that not only is there one more immune, John Morgan as an ADF Soldier, but there is also a government plot to continue studying all the survivors with immunities. It doesn't take long for somebody to get bit, and an outbreak on the ship forces you to battle your way off before it sinks.
That's when you get stranded on the new Island of Palanoi, along with a new batch of survivors and a new batch of predicatable plot devices to hack and club your way through. Despite the seemingly new situation and setting, Dead Island: Riptide manages to continue bad habits that wreck havoc on the first game.
One thing I was hoping to see in this sequel is a cast of player characters that develop more in-game instead of just within the menus, but I was quickly disappointed. Every character bio is essentially the same as it was in the first game with a little added paragraph referencing the original Dead Island's events. Players itching to get to zombie killing will find themselves listening to a long-winded narration rather than jumping into the action. Why listen to boring, lifeless voice-over exposition?
What's more, no matter who you begin the game as, Purna narrates the opening recap of events. It's a huge missed opportunity because character-specific introductions and voiceovers would have encouraged replayability. And it could have explained what John Morgan, the newest immune, was doing during the last game. The narrative design is lazy, incredibly hollow, and forgettable.
The side quests bore the player with mediocrity, too. You can earn more XP and money helping other castaways, but every single sidequest primarily involves fetching. There were probably only three NPCs I encountered who weren't just asking me to find something for them. I would often find NPCs in the middle of the jungle atop mobile homes flooded by water or makeshift treehouses in the middle of rivers who would do nothing but stand or sit there, even after I completed their mindless quest. Do these people want to survive or not?
If I were traversing around a remote island, I would never leave someone I encountered stranded after assisting them; I'd probably give them a heads up about a hideout where they might be safer. Every NPC you encounter outside of key characters stays exactly where you find them and it breaks the stranded-zombie-island experience. This oversight ruins the sense of urgency the main plot is trying to convey. If everyone is really in danger, then why can't I rescue the people I encounter by bringing them back to a nearby safehouse?
The most drastic new change made in Riptide is the Team menu, which allows you to activate side quests for your party members without needing to go back and talk to them. This saves you an incredible amount of time. By completing these quests for your allies you help level up their weapon skills so the next time you begin the newly introduced Deadzones, they have more of an edge and you don't have to babysit them as much. Deadzones help to pad the hours in Riptide with rote, Horde mode-like mechanics.
If a fellow survivor dies on your watch, you can fail these tower defense-type scenarios and have to play them over again. Team menu quests help party members become more resilient, which in turn makes Deadzones easier to manage. These wave-based objectives will also earn you bombs, specialized weapons, and lower prices from NPCs with stuff to trade. Other perks, including significantly powerful melee attacks, can be unlocked in the combat skill tree.
In the end, Deadzones are essentially grind zones filled with enemies and at least one minor boss character to defeat. If you want to level up quickly or hone your zombie-killing abilities, you can re-enter these Deadzones as often as you like. At first, the zombie spawn points make for an entertaining distraction, but the areas soon feel out of place due to their supernatural vibe—a theme that's absent in the rest of the plot. Regardless, running Deadzones for special weapons might be preferrable to scouring the island for hidden metal chests. It's up to you to decide whether you want to spend hours grinding or scouting.
I played primarily as the sole new character, John Morgan. One of his unlockable attacks is a powerful stomp where he crushes the heads of zombies when they've been knocked to the ground. Despite the effectiveness of an attack like this, it is so slow to execute that players will find themselves left extremely vulnerable. In fact, nearly all of the special attacks require so much time to pull off, you'll rarely get to use it fearing another brain-biting fiend nearby will latch on. In the end, I died too often during special attack animations, leaving me annoyed and frustrated. The only effective special was a Super Kick that would send enemies flying in the distance. Despite this, if my kick didn't land, I again was left open to attack as with every other special move.
The fact that zombies can do a massive amounts of damge no matter how you level your character was an issue in the first game and Riptide only amplifies it. I started the game by putting skill points into my survival skill tree and still found myself suffering recurrent death by zombies. How can the bastards throw knives at me with such expert precision and kill me in one shot? I understand why they give the zombies weapons, but I doubt the undead have aim this accurate.
The only rock solid parts of Dead Island: Riptide are the co-op experience and the weapon modification system; but not much else can be said about either of these elements except "I can put flames on a shovel and experience the shitty story with a friend".
Maybe you're visiting your favorite game shop with nothing to play now that you've finished Bioshock Infinite, and Dead Island: Riptide's box looks kind of fun. To go from a game where every moment is breathtaking and meaningful to a game where every moment is mundane and devoid of importance would be too much to handle. Perhaps it's unfair (okay, it's totally unfair) to compare the two, but I think it's important to hold narrative design to a higher standard. Riptide just feels cheap, like a DLC cash-in, but at a $49.99 retail price.
Sure, playing online with your friends and killing zombies is fun, but a story this poorly developed and saturated with cliché characters cheapens the experience, leaving players wondering what could have been if more effort went into the product. Dead Island: Riptide once again takes advantage of the zombie genre's popularity instead of actually exploring new ways to function within it. If you loved Dead Island you'll love that Riptide gives you more of the same, but everyone else should use their brains before they turn to zombie chow.