In which we hit things in the face with stuff. A lot.
Hands up if you remember your first great zombie experience. Was it one of George A Romero's classic sub-genre defining films? Was it a late-night early 80s b-movie grindhouse style gore fest? Or was it running through a pitch black sewer system with three of your friends, very little ammunition, and hordes of flesh eating infected humans swarming at you from all directions? If it was the latter, chances are - if you were having a really great time - you were most likely playing either of Valve's Left 4 Dead games, and not the original Dead Island. Had you been playing the original Dead Island, the chances are your experience would have fallen somewhere between the "ho-hum" and "not all that bad" instead. It wasn't an awful game, but it certainly did not live up to the hype of its remarkable add campaign (dat backwards trailer, oh my...), nor the impressive quality the games that had raised the bar before it.
After the first 10 minutes or so spent playing Dead Island: Riptide's preview code, the main impression it made was that nothing very much had changed. It really didn't seem to be trying to distance itself from the original in ways that mattered, like it was the same old thing transposed to slightly different settings. Upon reflection, it certainly was trying very hard to be something. It had Zombies (lots), co-op (4 players), weapon crafting (why was I paying money to an unmanned table to upgrade gear?), and lots of other things that are standard to a game being playable, like... a control system, and... instructions...
When I write about a game I try to remember scenarios that installed a sense of, well, anything! Atmosphere, excitement, hell, even frustration or outright anger, any reaction that could stir something in me, but Riptide didn't even leave me with enough to inspire a fun comparison between my lack of emotional response and feeling like some kind of decaying shambling horror in dire need of fresh human brain for sustenance.
I'm really struggling...
The problem with Dead Island: Riptide is that it does everything it needs to, but without doing anything particularly well. Melee combat is the main focus, and there are plenty of items you can acquire. The system has depth, in that items degrade as you make use of them, and you can craft more with materials you gather, but the actual act of smashing things in the face with stuff just isn't particularly fun. It's imprecise, shallow, clunky, and it feels like there's no real trick to it. Simply approach dribbling undead thing, smack in face with item in hand, back peddle as it lurches at you, rinse-off the congealing brain matter, and repeat...
And you will do this a lot, alongside up to three others doing the same thing. And the first time it happens it feels kind of hectic, like some kind of exciting panic, sort of intense... but after mindlessly smashing the hit stuff button over and over for the first few minutes, back-peddling every now and then, you've experienced the mechanics that will make up the brunt of your game time.
At one point our group came across an abandoned Jeep and we all clambered aboard. I was designated to drive, and the next few minutes spent foot nailed to the floor guiding myself toward the undead like a heat seeking missile of righteous fury was actually quite fun. Getting out of the Jeep and walking away from it was probably the saddest thing that's happened to me in a long time. I remember it sitting there, engine purring softly “remember me”, but knowing I'd cheat on it the second I saw another unnamed vehicle tempting me with its slightly more enjoyable gameplay.
There were objectives, things that forced players to walk to a place together and do stuff in unison, but really all it did was slightly vary the place you need to stand for X amount of time while you bash X amount of things until everything trying to make you dead stops trying. From the brief time we spent with the game, this really did appear to be all there was, and the overall feeling was of rushed out DLC content rather than a quality standalone product.
Will the game do well despite what it lacks? Possibly... Whoever handles the marketing for this particular franchise certainly seems to have a knack for getting attention. The original game's aforementioned add campaign was one of the most effective in recent times (which may have actually worked against the review scores in the end as exceptions were maybe a little too high), and the controversy drummed up by Riptide's Zombie Bait Edition (which features a bikini-clad decapitated, blood stained torso with severed arms and a rather ample bosom) will probably work in the game's favour. Whether or not the game itself will leave an equally noticeable impression remains to be seen,
Dead Island: Riptide has everything a game needs to be a game by standard definition, but unlike the decomposing creatures that shuffle mindlessly about until human contact sparks them into a frenzy, I doubt even hooking up with three of your favourite people will breathe life into this place.