"Though there haven't been any major changes since the original title, all of the little ones are enough to make this one worth playing."
When Dead Island first hit shelves in 2011, it was obvious that developer Techland had some ideas that didn't quite match up with their budget. However, their game was a smashing success in the marketplace, and Koch Media has since put some significant cash behind their games publishing brand, Deep Silver. This seems to have paid dividends with Dead Island Riptide, as every aspect of fighting zombies on Palanai has been improved over Banoi. However, despite a smoother difficulty curve, less finicky weapons, fewer bugs, and tighter controls, the overall experience feels much like its predecessor.
The premise is a simple one: after escaping the zombie-filled paradise of Banoi, where you fought zombies, traveled to a city, fought more zombies, and tried to uncover a conspiracy, the nearby island of Palanai is next. On Palanai — you guessed it — there are zombies to fight, a city to travel to, and a conspiracy to uncover. In some instances, you might have even convinced me that I was playing the exact same game I reviewed back in 2011. Don't expect any sort of real character development — everything is made up of one-liners and soulless NPCs. The narrative feels like a shell that's there only as a focus for zombie slaying. Certainly, Riptide introduces new characters, new zombie types, new weaponry, and all the other trappings that gamers have come to expect from a sequel to an open world game, but none of it is particularly substantive.
Luckily, while the plot and improvements aren't particularly inspiring, the combat remains the stand-out of Dead Island. Take the structure of Diablo or Borderlands — fight a bunch of guys, get their loot, level up, repeat — and place it in a first-person game with melee weapons and a ton of zombies. And though there haven't been any major changes since the original title, all of the little ones are enough to make this one worth playing. There are better contact points for breaking limbs or slicing off legs, better targeting zombies' heads for decapitations or crushing blows, and when you finally get your hands on a gun, it's not worthless. Console players shouldn't worry, either — playing with a controller works just fine, with few niggles.
As well, difficulty and cash flow have been greatly improved. Where Sam B might find himself going through 8 weapons in a 30 minute sojourn from base on Banoi, weapons from Palanai are significantly more resilient, and the island has workbenches almost everywhere. So no longer are you spending all of your cash on a single weapon that you've upgraded; now you're encouraged to have weapons of all types for every situation, and each of them feel different. Also returning are all sorts of weapon modifications — you can light your weapons on fire or attach spinning saw blades to them, amongst other things. When you slice off a zombie's head off with an electric katana, then watch it fall over and electrocute other zombies in a pool of water, a bit of a smile will touch your lips.
The RPG elements of Dead Island have all returned almost identically to its predecessor. There are skill trees, unique abilities for each character, and stats on all the weaponry. There's nothing particularly unique about any of these — the only thing specific to Dead Island is the "rage" tree, which lets you build up your berserking powers. But other than to strike enemies with your fists for a few moments every now and again, it's all the same humdrum content we've seen before: functional but unimpressive.
Quests follow the same path — almost all of them require you either to go on a fetch quest or to slay a certain beast. Fortunately, this is all made worthwhile because of a few elements. One is that combat is incredibly entertaining; another is that there are enough different monster types to make the game challenging without being brutal. However, the most important is that Dead Island Riptide is as long as you want to make it. Looking to head down the critical path? Because of scaling enemy levels and mostly-optional quests, completion might only be ten hours away from setting foot onto Palanai. If you're looking to explore the city of Henderson and its surrounding jungles and want to slay every zombie in every hut you can find, there's easily double or triple that amount of content.
Exploration is fantastic, as well, due to the lush environments of the game. While Riptide isn't the most gorgeous game I've ever played, both the environments and character models animate well. That's not to say that there aren't little things wrong — for the first few hours of the game, it seemed like everyone had at a lazy eye. As well, playing on the PC with all of the shadow settings turned up can make dialogue a little bit weird — the constantly shifting light patterns were quite distracting. Still, the quality has been ramped up a fair amount, making these complaints ultimately minor.
The sound is a little more average, though. With the exception of Sam B's more-than-a-little-stereotypical quips, most of the voice actors are merely passable. Additionally, I can't remember a single song that might have played during this game, except when Sam B's new single blasts to distract some zombies. It's not as good as "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch." Luckily, the crunches and slices coming from the weaponry more than make up for the subpar music, especially with little zaps from electric weapons or the whirl of blades.
Dead Island Riptide is essentially what the original should have been. It's lighter on bugs, it's more playable, and it's got prettier graphics. If you were a fan of the original game, have at the sequel, but know that it's not much more than "more Dead Island." For the uninitiated or, like me, those who weren't so impressed with the original, this is a chance for Techland and Deep Silver to make amends. It still might not have that perfect sheen of many AAA titles, but Dead Island Riptide is improved in almost every way.