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Dead Island: Riptide is a zombie game still searching for brains (review)

Zombies are everywhere these days, making it harder and harder to actually use them in a new way. Publisher Deep Silver launched Dead Island in 2011, and the title tried to make its mark by combining first-person-shooter and role-playing elements. But the experience had a few too many issues to really revolutionize its genre. Now, original developer Techland is back with Dead Island: Riptide (available on April 23 for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360), and while the studio claims the game is more of a spin-off than a true sequel, it still carries on the same plot and hopes to correct some of the first release’s missteps. Unfortunately, some of those missteps are the fault of using the undead as an enemy in the first place, which means Riptide has to prove itself not only as an improvement in the Dead Island franchise but also as a worthy entry into an already overcrowded gaming space.

So is Dead Island: Riptide a survivor, or should you avoid it like a corpse-reanimating plague?

What You’ll Like

It’s the complete zombie experience
Zombie-related media tends to feature a handful of tried-and-true story beats related to living through the apocalypse. A small group of survivors will almost always encounter other survivors. They’ll go scavenging for supplies. Maybe they’ll get in a vehicle and run over a few creatures. And then, they’ll have to fortify some type of area in order to hold off waves of the living dead. If that’s something you want to sample for yourself, then Riptide certainly comes through. It’s a first-person-shooter-meets-role-playing hybrid that is all about foraging for equipment. Most of Riptide’s 13 chapters end with you and your band of survivors — who include other player-controlled characters — defending a small space from a hundred or so infected islanders while you wait for a water pump to clear out an underground tunnel or whatever.

Dead Island: Riptide bus

Riptide even takes special care to include the different types of undead that have appeared in pop culture over the years. Do you like 28 Days Later-esque screaming runners or director George Romero’s shambling animated corpses from Night of the Living Dead? Both are in the game, and these enemies are known as Infected and Walkers, respectively. You even fight a few Left 4 Dead-style fancy monsters that spit at you or tackle you with super strength. This was all mostly present for the original Dead Island as well, but Riptide understands that it doesn’t need to change something that the first entry got completely right.

Plus, you can experience the whole game in co-op, either with friends or via level-based matchmaking that pairs you with people at a similar point in the campaign, which is always a plus.

Melee combat is consistently satisfying
As you can expect from a title called Dead Island: Riptide, you spend most of your time killing zombies. You cut off heads. You smash heads. You shoot off heads. It’s all cheery, family friendly stuff, but the point is that almost all of it is a blast. The combat doesn’t have much depth beyond improving weapons and choosing when to deploy your super attacks (character-specific moves powered by a “rage meter” that fills up as you get more kills), but it never feels too limited or boring. That’s the great strength of using a horde of zombies as the antagonists: Smashing them to death is a lot of fun. Of course, part of that fun comes from learning the benefits of the different weapon types and seeing which fit with your play style the best. Blunt objects, like baseball bats or hammers, have stopping power that will make it easier for you to get hostiles to the ground (where you can get in an insta-killing head stomp) while blade weapons can slice off limbs and are easier to retrieve after you throw them. Speaking of throwing weapons, they are easily the most fun part of the combat. It’s completely badass to throw an electrified samurai sword at a giant zombie, then charge at the beast with a meat tenderizer covered in nails, then rip the sword out and hack the monster to death. That is easily one of my favorite ways to kill a video game enemy ever.

The game’s firearms are considerably less fun to use, which is a shame since they become more and more common as you progress through the story. The gun mechanics are passable, but they aren’t powerful enough to justify how scarce ammo is. Thankfully, Riptide barely forces you to use guns, so it’s not a big issue. You can always go back to your ironic firefighter’s axe that sets things on fire.

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