Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Dead Island: Riptide

I recently did my review of the first Dead Island game where I pretty much described it as "fun, but completely broken."

I was yet to try the sequel, Dead Island: Riptide, because I didn't really know a whole lot about what was new to it.  It had the same cast of characters, you could import your previous character, but it did promise some new locations, new enemies, and new challenges.

Hopefully there were no missions involving "recovering necklaces" or "finding someone's husband so they could say they were having more fun in their "end of the world orgy" and wanted us to break his wife's heart by saying he died."

So a few of my friends grabbed some baseball bats and shovels and headed out for another island filled with zombies to kill.

But there was one thing going through my (and, I believe, my friends as well) mind: was this really a sequel, or just an expansion?

I actually had to do some research, because there are times I'll hear a lot of complaints from the gaming community about how a new game in a series is really just an "expansion pack they slapped a full price tag on."  This has puzzled me for years, because I come from a generation where most sequels were, essentially, "exactly the same game, just with some different levels."  The early Final Fantasy games, the early Contra games, the Street Fighter series...

I mean, for Pete's sake, there were six different games that all started with the title Street Fighter II.  And we, the public, were supposed to just keep buying them.  But did we complain?

You better believe we complained.

See, there were lots of games that managed to tweak and twist the former and add enough new content to justify calling itself a "sequel."  Nintendo was pretty good at this for a long time, with each Super Mario Bros game being different from its precursor in pretty significant ways.

But a lot of games didn't change, because what some people wanted from a series was just more of what made the original so much fun.  A majority of the Mega Man franchise is, essentially, the same game, just with a few graphical updates and the introduction of a few new characters along the way.

I think the most blatant example was when Sonic & Knuckles was released as an actual "expansion pack" for Sonic 3, a cartridge you could attach to another cartridge, letting you play the original full story as intended.  Of course, it also was neat to plug in the previous game in the series and play Knuckles in that one as well.

It was blatant.  But it was fun.

So why does one game get ripped apart for being essentially the same game with a few tweaks while others are commended for "staying true to what made the previous one great?"

Maybe it's just the type of fan, or the expectations based on what other developers are doing with a a similar property.  Maybe people just like to complain.

Either way, it meant I was looking really carefully at Dead Island: Riptide as I played it.

Picking up from the last game, your new or newly imported character finds himself or herself on a military vessel out in the ocean, detained and experimented on for a while by scientists ordered by a guy who was pretty much doomed to be a villain from birth by his parents giving him the last name "Serpo."

The game does change things up by giving you a regular cast of survivors that you take around with you across the island, making your way from one base of locations to another as you attempt to get to a rescue site.  The game introduces some new game play mechanics, such as needing to defend said base from zombie attacks, setting up fences, moving machine guns to cover new areas, and keeping an eye on your allies to make sure none fall to the horde.

There are new zombie types, new allies, new enemies, and a lot more intrigue as you attempt to figure out which characters are on your side and which ones aren't.  One of the most fascinating, for me, anyway, was Harlow, a character who discovers your body towards the start of the game after you wash up on a beach and...well, I'll just say she provides some controversy as the game progresses.

Spoiler alert: I actually think she was right the whole time, but just picked really poor ways to express her ideas.
The game also introduces a new playable character in "John," a hand to hand expert who has possibly the most "broken" move in the game, a huge "boot to the chest" move that sends enemies flying back.  Older characters get new skills to unlock, with the level limit being lifted up to 70.

There are new weapons, and I think one of my favorite things about the sequel is that the "mods" that change the weapons you wield are more specialized this time.  Instead of simply attaching everything onto a machete, the game provides you reasons to try new weapons and fighting styles.  There are also "weapon levels" you can increase as you practice and wield different weapon types (or bare fists) for extended times.  You might not be as good with bladed weapons as another character overall, but you won't be useless if all you can find is a kitchen cleaver.

Another interesting addition are "Dead Zones," small playable areas that tend to have one "named" super-zombie running around in them.  They're also the location where most of the rare "collectible" items are located, namely the ones you need to modify your weapon with the best "mods."

(One glaring thing, however, was the fact that apparently the blueprint for making shotgun ammo somehow managed to get lost when the game was developed, and nobody felt the need to release a patch to put it back in.)

A lot of the game glitches from the last game were cleaned up (but not completely removed, there were a few times my character would try to jump onto a dock just to wind up at the top of a flag pole), and a new "death from above" attack that characters unlock can get rather glitchy if the zombie takes a few steps in any direction while you plummet at them.

And then there's the boats.

For some reason, the developers thought it would be a good idea to make you and your allies travel around in small motored boats, essentially a four person rowboat with a motor at one end.  One person steers (obviously), and the others can wield their weapons to knock zombies away, but it's all too often that a zombie will grab hold of someone and pull them out of the boat while you're speeding along, making you stop, back up, and then fight a zombie horde while everybody tries to get back in.

They're...pretty obnoxious.

Overall, I think Dead Island: Riptide does offer enough new experiences to qualify itself as a "new game" and not just an "expansion pack sequel."  Yes, there's a lot in common with its predecessor, but that's like complaining that every Assassin's Creed game is just "run around on rooftops and stab people."  The core game play was mostly unchanged, but the new skills, new combat techniques and game play styles, and new ways of building and using weapons gave it enough "freshness" to let it be "new."

Granted, it's still more fun to play with friends than by yourself, and there are still some rather frustrating things about it, but all in all it's much, much superior to the original.

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