It starts promisingly enough: a mad dash off a sinking ship, a military coup, and a zombie horde just aching to be shown the business end of a shotgun. And then, just like that, the promise is taken away. Dead Island: Riptide teases far more in its opening minutes than it ever manages to deliver across its lengthy campaign. There's no drama, and little excitement. Instead, there's a rehash of old ideas, combat that's fun for all of five minutes, and a seemingly never-ending slog of repetitive missions filled with characters that have the emotional depth of a wet sponge. If there were ever a video game equivalent of smacking your head against a brick wall, Riptide would be it.
The story--and that's using the word generously--is filled with the sort of terrible dialogue, hammy voice acting, and cliches you'd expect to see in an awful zombie spoof, or at best, a trashy B movie. But there's no sense of humour or self-awareness here: to Riptide's detriment, it takes itself very seriously. And that seriousness is hard to swallow when you have to look after a bunch of shallow, argumentative characters who utter irritating swears every few minutes and prove so unlikable that you're willing them to be torn apart by the zombie horde, just so you can have some peace and quiet. Then there's the plot itself, which endlessly meanders between government conspiracy, sci-fi, and human interest, without even the slightest sense of direction.
This all makes it so very hard to care about anything that happens in Riptide. By the time you drag yourself through to the disappointing ending, apathy has taken over to the point where you wouldn't bat an eyelid at even the most grand of revelations. And that's only if you can muster up enough energy to make it that far. Riptide's sandbox island of Hanoi isn't filled with the fun zombie-killing adventures you might expect. Instead, there are fetch quests: lots of fetch quests. And within those fetch quests are yet more fetch quests.
Nearly every single one of the main missions and side quests requires you to head over to a part of the island, find an item, and bring it back to base. Often, before you can retrieve said item, the game makes you fetch something for the person who holds the item, thus creating a fetch quest within a fetch quest. What's more, the narrative reasoning behind each quest is questionable. Why some stranded villager might be after a few measly bucks when the entire island has been overrun with flesh-eating zombies that threaten the very existence of humankind is puzzling.
To make matters worse, the combat that ties the whole thing together remains largely unchanged from that of Dead Island, which is to say it's massively frustrating. The focus is on melee weapons, ranging from blunt objects like baseball bats and shovels, through to blades like carving knives and sickles. Most can be upgraded using items scavenged from around the island, with hidden blueprints giving you access to wilder designs. And initially at least, bludgeoning a zombie to death with an improvised, nail-covered baseball bat is amusing, thanks to the resulting blood splatters, severed limbs, and grisly sound effects.
The limitations of the combat soon become clear, though. Attacking zombies still feels wildly inaccurate, slow, and very dull, making it difficult to truly master. The result is that the combat quickly deteriorates into a repetitive mess as you kick a zombie backward, flail randomly at it, back off while it attacks, and then repeat the whole process ad nauseam. A stamina bar ensures you can't just spam an attack--particularly when you're using heavier weapons that drain the bar faster--but rather than giving the game a more realistic feel, it just further enhances the dull combat.
The vast majority of the zombies you face attack in the same way, rushing towards you until you knock them back with a kick to start the dull attack process. There are some special zombies that remain unchanged from those in Dead Island, including charger, spitter, and boomer types; they have slightly different movesets here, but you end up tackling them in exactly the same way, because your options are so limited. For a game so focused on combat, it's galling that you spend most of your time wanting to avoid zombies, just so you can spare yourself the resulting tedium.
Using a vehicle to get around takes some of the edge off of that tedium, because ploughing through groups of zombies in a jeep or cutting through them in a rickety old boat is far quicker than melee. Inevitably, though, you're still forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat once you reach your destination. Guns do arrive much later, but the weedy, inaccurate shooting isn't something to look forward to. Neither are Riptide's few horde missions, where you must protect your base from an onslaught of evil zombies. You can put up fences, lay mines, and take on a few side quests (of the fetch variety, naturally) in order to strengthen your defences, but it's all moot: just repeat your trusty "kick, swipe, back off" pattern a few hundred times, and the job's done.
Your reward for the hard combat slog is experience points, which are used to level up your character and unlock new skills, such as increased weapon accuracy and faster recovery times. Not that they make a whole lot of difference to the way the game plays, mind: it's all about keeping your level up to that of the zombies around you so you can fetch those items for other characters. Fortunately, levelling up is swift thanks to generous XP allocations, frequent checkpointing, and a death system that gives you unlimited lives, with the only penalty being the loss of cash you may have earned during missions or scrounged from the environment.
Riptide's role-playing game elements mean that as much as you might want to, you can't avoid combat entirely. But then, even if you did, what you'd be left with is a shallow husk of a storyline and an irritating cast of characters that you'd much rather see turned into a bloody mess than offered rescue. Not to mention that if you played the original Dead Island, there's not much new to see here. There's so little to like in Riptide that mustering up the enthusiasm to reach the lacklustre ending is a challenge for only the most hardcore of zombie fans to take on.
And don't try enlisting a few friends for some four-player co-op: it doesn't make the game any more exciting. Sure, having a few friends around makes those hordes disappear a little faster, and there are some extra quests you can take on, but the core experience remains as glacial as ever. Riptide is dumb, and mind-numbingly slow, and somehow manages to make the art of zombie-slaying feel like utter tedium. And if slaying zombies isn't fun in a game that's all about slaying zombies, why bother?