Saturday, May 4, 2013

A long REVIEW - Dead Island : Riptide.

Dead Island: Riptide is a direct sequel to 2011's Dead Island.  Rather like the minor leap between Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City, it retains all of the mechanics of the original game, makes a few graphical improvements, provides a smaller slice of real estate to explore (two large open-world zones instead of three, and Henderson is no Moresby) and continues to suffer from the series' low points - fumbly, counter-intuitive menus, a hit-or-miss navigation system and boring quests and quest-givers who drone on for minutes of unskippable dialogue at a time instead of just saying "go there, do a thing, then come back here."

But that's okay.  No game is perfect, after all, and while Riptide's imperfections are many, there is something that this game (and its predecessor) offers which no other franchise can.  Something special and valuable and so close to perfect that I cannot resist its siren song.

Because, just as it was in 2011, Dead Island represents more straight-up fun than I've had with any other title so far in 2013.  Yes, including Blood Dragon.

If you'd like greater detail on all the ways in which Dead Island: Riptide fails, please consult any other review. Its faults exist and I don't deny them - though a Metascore closer to 70 would be more accurate - but neither do they tarnish the game's place in my heart.  Its flaws are but inconsequential scuffs on a towering monolith of gaming joy, simply by virtue of the unique experience it offers.

Dead Island, for the un-initiated, is an open-world first-person brawler set in a tropical location during a zombie outbreak. With co-op, if you want it.  And it works.

It works on the fundamental, immersive level a first-person experience needs to - perhaps by way of feeling a bit "off" at first.  Your character movement is weird and kinda' slow compared to any other first-person title, to the point that you can almost feel the weight of every step - rather like Dark Souls - the camera slowing and quickening just so, to give a sense of inertia.

It works in the way you can find yourself confidently but nervously picking your way through a jungle trail - birds chirping, light filtering beautifully through the trees - listening for sounds of the dead.  You pick up an apple off a bench as you walk, casually chewing on the flesh - your health meter jumps up - and keeping an eye on the road ahead until you turn a corner.

Thirty yards ahead, a woman in a skirt and wide-brimmed hat stands in the path.  She doesn't move.

She's just standing there.

But there's something... bent about her.  The way her shoulders hang.  The way her head sits at that weird angle, and, as you take a step closer, her attention snaps towards you, and you can tell just from her posture.

She's an Infected.

A chirp of excitement erupts from her throat, her legs spring into a taut, ready position and she raises her face to the sky to belt out a bloody roar before breaking into a headlong dash towards you.

A long, single scream carries her down the path.  Twenty meters.

You pull up your favorite blade.


Aim careful. That scream doesn't stop.

Five.  She hauls her arms back for the assault, but-

-shinnng. Time dilates as the blade sings its way through the Infected's neck.  During this brief second of slow motion, you tap square to loot $135 from the body before it falls, and the head tumbles into the bushes off the trail.

You turn around to check behind you, just in case.  The trail is empty, but there's a basket near where the body fell.  You pick up another apple, bite into it, and chew the flesh as your health jumps up - keeping an eye on the path ahead as you move forward.

That's Dead Island.  And when you perfectly decapitate four Infected in a row mid-dash, it feels incredibly badass.

Its totally-unique first-person brawling is the bedrock the game rests on, and it's miraculous when compared to any other attempt at first-person fisticuffs.  Built like a treatise on fighting mechanics, its fundamentals reflect the classic spatial relationships of Street Fighter. It's all about distance, reach, speed, strength and control - control more than anything else.

And it's fine to break it down like that, but the point is it feels really, really good.

It's about reading your enemy types and understanding their behavior and the effect you can have on them.  The shambling, grabby Walkers.  The shrieking, dashing, crashing Infected.  The creepy-ass Screamers, the belching Floaters and the hulking Thugs.

In the densely-packed urban architecture of Henderson - an upscale town thick with flooded plazas, outdoor fresh markets and tight, claustophobic alleys - the dead come in thick, strong packs.  Stepping in to one of the plazas, things don't look so amiss, at first.

Sure there are bodies strewn about, but you've long since grown used to the visual aftermath of the outbreak.  But there, on the left, one of the bodies movies its arm.  A groan comes, and the thing begins to pull itself up as a half-dozen others come to life throughout the little courtyard - lit alive at the smell of you.

What to do?  Decision time.  Think fast.  Should you run in and attack while they're still down?  Probably - your weapons do a huge amount of additional damage (using the 'impact' statistic) when attacking enemies on the ground, and they can't attack when they're prone - but if you get any closer, you may gain the attention of the Infected standing in the alley down the way.

But it's too late.  They see you.  Their screams echo through the streets, and they're coming. Shit is about to hit the fan - was that the roar of a Thug? - and you use the precious seconds, dashing between the groaning Walkers attempting to come to their feet, bringing down your weapon in single, perfect, crunching blows, ensuring they don't get up again.  You try to keep an eye on the coming Infected, but-

Plkak! the hammer makes a sickly, snapping sound as it thuds into the sternum of a Walker, but there's no time to think - you turn and bring the weapon down again and again as your stamina meter drains and a the Infected crash into you like a wave of rotting flesh and slashing hands as health flies from your life bar.

The hammer swings and swings, bones snapping and broken zombies tumbling away from your fury until you exhaust your stamina meter and wham, one of their flinging fists hits home and sends you splaying to the cobbles.

The first-person camera wobbles with the impact, blood clouds your vision - but you can see your left hand reach out and plant itself firmly on the ground.  Your courage swells as your stamina meter fills and a tiny bit of health regen kicks in to tic up your life bar as you pull yourself to your feet.  As your vision clears you lash out with a wide, sweeping blow of your mighty hammer and send both attackers off-balance for long enough to leap into the air and deliver a brutal kick to the face of the nearest Infected, which tumbles away and lands flat on its butt.  A simple shoe to the face of the next one pushes it back, but not far enough.

As it regains its balance, you pull the hammer back and shove the heavy head into the monster's chest.  It reels from the impact, stumbling backwards, tripping over itself and falling on its face, but the first Infected is trying to get up, so you put the steel into it until it stops moving.

The other one is almost to its feet, so you pull the hammer up, aim careful, and bring it down again.

Your breathing steadies, but your blood still races.  It was ten-on-one, and any one of them could've killed you with three good hits - but you survived.

You check behind to ensure nothing's crept up on you in the excitement, and - stepping carefully across the plaza's new carpet of splattered blood and broken bodies - you pick up an energy drink from a picnic table and take a sip to top off your health before continuing on towards your ultimate objective.

That's Dead Island.

Even a few of the drunken, shambling Walkers are enough to send you to an efficient grave if you're not paying attention - and it doesn't take them a minute or two to get the job done.  Offer a pair of walkers an entire two seconds of opportunity, they'll kill you with it.

This razor's edge risk-reward balance heightens the intensity of every battle in the game, where enemies only get stronger, more terrifying and more vicious - and because death is always so very possible, victory feels all the more glorious.

It's so easy to die, combat ends up having a bit of Demon's/Dark Souls vibe to it.  On the bright side, death only costs you a bit of cash (which you need to buy, upgrade and maintain your weapons) and respawns you within twenty or thirty yards of where you died - so while it hurts the ego and the wallet, it tends to have zero impact on the pacing and flow of the game.

Well... okay, once it respawned me into a blind alley from which there was no exit and I had to reload a Chapter Checkpoint in order to escape - but, again, Dead Island: Riptide is far from a perfect experience.  For example, the main storyline is a total yawner - but sometimes the side-quests can prove pretty entertaining, like the coke junkie who's less interested in the zombie apocalypse unfolding around him than getting his next fix, or Pierre.

Pierre, a smooth-talkin' Frenchman who ten seconds ago was beggin' me to save him from the zombies clawing at his gate, is now trying to convince me through his chain-link fence that I should get his store up and running by fetching a few gallons of gas.

"You'll want what I have," he promises, seductively.  So off I go, to the nearby station.  In passing, he mentions "if it's not there, you'll have to travel to..." but I stop paying attention.

It wasn't at the nearby station.

An hour later, I've been to hell and back, wading through the reanimated corpses of a hundred vacationers. I'm four levels higher and lugging a few gallons of gasoline away from a gore-spattered jeep, making my way back up the steps to Pierre's shack.

He takes the gas and tells me his store's closed, as he's decided he needs all his supplies for himself.

"Open this door!" Xian Mei, my avatar, growls at him, but he just goes inside his shack and turns on some... very loud music...

Out in the brush, I can hear them coming - attracted by the sound.  My grip tightens on my fire axe.

One thing at a time.

This screenshot is ridiculous.  Xian would never drop a katana.

Riptide's comatose narrative ensures the player doesn't give a crap about why they're walking across the open world towards the next waypoint - unless the reward for the quest is a high-quality weapon that compliments their avatar - but that doesn't matter.  I don't care about that.

I don't care that the minimap on the HUD is regularly useless and that the navigation system will sometimes show the way to your next objective and other times just... won't... for seemingly no reason whatsoever.

Dead Island: Riptide is a profound argument for the separation between what a gamer experiences and the actual "quality" of a game.  The menus, the quests, the system interface, the auto-saves - they're the stuff you need to deal with in order to play the game.

And the game that you actually play is so far removed from all those little problems that they just bleed away into background noise - ignored and forgotten, in the face of the next fight.

I don't understand why so few screenshots of this game are in first-person.

Dead Island: Riptide's unique, thrilling, valuable strength is more than enough to push all of its flaws into "inconsequential" territory.  Riptide, like its predecessor, trips over the extraneous details but gets the important part righter than any other title I can name - and it's a video game.

The important part is what it feels like to play it, and Riptide's exquisite combat - combat that constantly feels weighty and physics-based, thoughtful, visceral, strategic and just intensely involving - is one of the most exciting, satisfying and immersive experiences in modern gaming.  Combat where you can feel every swing of the hammer and sense every slash of your blade.  Combat that can be mastered to the point where, having reached the level cap with my blade goddess Xian Mei, I feel like The Bride in Kill Bill.

Holding a long, curved katana tight in my hands, I am a reaper of dead souls - master of any situation - and no cut is wasted.  Kicking, slashing and mowing my way through a pack of infected may seem like chaos from afar, but it's the most beautiful, violent dance I have yet experienced in first-person.

It looks how it should look, sounds how it should sound and feels how it should feel.  And that last part separates Dead Island from so many triple-A games that tick all the bullet points but end up feeling like something less than they should have been.  It achieves this sublime beauty that nothing else can quite... touch.

Dead Island: Riptide is a beautiful game, but its beauty isn't in the voice work or the writing or the menus or the game's budget.  It is entirely in the playing of it.  It's in the moment you turn a corner and see the Infected.  The way your gut hitches.

If the point and purpose of video games is to have an adventure - to become engaged and lost in another world, breathing foreign air and experiencing all the tension, fear, excitement, pride and desperation of your player-character, Dead Island: Riptide is the best game 2013 has seen yet.

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