|Platforms||PC, PS4, XB1, PS3, 360|
|Publisher||Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment|
|Further Reading||First Impressions Video|
I normally begin all of my reviews with an irreverent paragraph that is usually barely related to the game in question, but today as I’m writing this, I got nothing. Maybe something will come to me before this post goes live, and I’ll delete this paragraph of nothing like it never happened. But if you’re reading this then I guess I couldn’t come up with something, in which case you should skip ahead to the actual review.
Dying Light is a first-person action/parkour game from the developers of the original Dead Island. It’s set during a viral outbreak in the fictional city of Harran. As the game briefs you during a pre-start cutscene; the city was quickly quarantined as zombies started taking over and people started dying left, right and centre. You play as Kyle Crane, an operative of the Global Relief Effort, who is airdropped into Harran in an attempt to secure a document that, if leaked, could lead to the death of millions. During your mission you become entangled in the lives of the survivors of the outbreak and ultimately work towards helping these people survive.
Like I said, Dying Light is a parkour game, and we don’t get nearly enough of those. Within thirty minutes of sitting down with the game it’ll be teaching you all the basics of freerunning. Although it’ll take a little bit more time to get truly comfortable with the control scheme and how it all works, within no time you’ll have it mastered, and you’ll be running, jumping and climbing around Harran like those awesome freerunners in those cool YouTube videos. Parkour is truly the best part of Dying Light, and the part of the game that makes it stand out the most. It makes travelling around the open world legitimately fun and neatly sidesteps the potential for repetitive combat that plagued Techland’s previous game Dead Island. There’s only so many different ways you can smash in a zombies head with a pipe after all.
It’s a good thing you’ll be spending most of your time running across rooftops and avoiding confrontations with zombies because, while the freerunning in Dying Light is exceptional, the combat is pretty bland. The game is heavily focused on melee weapons and melee combat, and the weapons you are given do carry a great deal of weight behind them. You’ll definitely feel the impact of each swing as you flail it at your foes, and some of the more powerful weapons have a habit of making zombies outright explode on contact, which is hilarious in a stupid kind of way. But fighting is hamstrung in Dying Light due to several factors…
The main factor being the general health and fitness of the main character. While Kyle Crane can leap across rooftops and sprint for a generous amount of time, it takes just a few swings of a machete to tire the poor bugger out completely, forcing you to retreat from most battles at fairly regular intervals as you completely lose the ability to swing any weapon you’re using. Couple this with an annoying weapon durability mechanic, that sees your most powerful and badass weapons destroyed in a few hits of a zombies skull, and imprecise and messy combat in general, and you’ve got yourself an experience that can be frustrating. It wasn’t long before I found myself simply avoiding every fight I could, preferring the excellent freerunning to the meandering and maddening combat.
Zombies themselves are more obstacle than enemy. You can engage them if you like, but it’s rarely necessary, and most of the time you’ll find yourself running past them, either due to their vast numbers or because you can’t really be bothered fighting. At least in the daytime. However Dying Light has another twist up its sleeve; once the sun goes down and night falls, the entire gameplay experience changes. At night visibility is reduced to almost zero thanks to a lack of electricity in Harran, and that’s when the Volatiles come out. Volatiles are fast moving, deadly hunters that stalk the streets. At night, instead of freerunning, you’ll be carefully moving through the city, trying to avoid these bastards as best as you can.
Volatiles are fast, their paths are unpredictable, they can climb and jump just as effectively as you, and if they catch you they’ll send out a call to their buddies and give relentless, unforgiving chase, tearing you apart if they get even half a chance. Fighting them is suicidal. At night Dying Light becomes a stealth game with some heavy survival horror elements. Pursuits occur when you’re spotted, forcing you to run like hell and try to break line of sight or make it to the nearest safe zone. Night time in Dying Light is intense and scary…the first few times you experience it. Once you realise that Volatiles have AI that is as effective as a cat flap in an elephant house the tension disappears, and night just becomes another part of the game.
Dying Light wouldn’t be a “proper” open world game without a character progression system and Dying Light features a fairly well crafted levelling system. XP gained is divided into three categories; agility, power and survivor, and you gain experience in each depending on what you’re doing. Power is levelled up by fighting zombies and bandits, agility is levelled up by executing parkour moves and survivor is levelled up by completing missions. Each category has its own skill tree devoted to making you better, so if you favour fighting over running, or vice versa, the game rewards your play style accordingly by allowing you to tailor your character to said play style (a little anyway), with survivor skills acting as more general abilities.
To assist you in dealing with the zombie masses Dying Light features a crafting system (because what game doesn’t feature a bloody crafting system these days?). Aside from scavenging weapons from around the environment, or buying them from traders if you enjoy wasting your cash, you can also craft. Crafting here works exactly as it did in Dead Island, allowing you to upgrade an existing base weapon with elemental damage or by adding nails to it or something. You can only craft a new weapon if you have the blueprint, because no-one would be able to think to add nails to a baseball bat without a proper set of instructions.
Joking aside, the crafting system is actually pretty well implemented. General scavenging for supplies will net you more than enough supplies to craft pretty much anything you want, with traders able to fill in any potential gaps you might have, so there’s no going out of your way to grind that one crafting supply you need for your fire machete. You’re also able to craft helpful equipment, including but not limited to, molotv cocktails, lockpicks, medkits and, my personal favourite, firecrackers, which you can use to district and direct groups of zombies.
And holy crap there are a lot of zombies. Seriously. Looking down any given street you’ll see 10-20 zombies, sometimes more (a lot more). At one point in my First Impressions video I was looking down at around 40 or 50 of them between me and the building across the street. It’s one of the more impressive things about Dying Light, there haven’t really been any zombie apocalypse games that have made me feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of zombies I’ve faced. Until now. Dying Light is the first zombie apocalypse game that feels like it’s taking place during an actual apocalypse of zombies.
That’s an example of a lot of small things that Techland gets right. Both of the maps in the game are very well designed, and when you’re forced inside buildings to take part in missions these levels are also excellent. Side missions, while mostly being little more than fetch quests, actually mesh quite well with the world that you’re inhabiting. Ninety percent of the time when embarking on a side mission you’re tasked with scavenging for vital supplies, like medicine, which is your exact role in the games world. Even smaller things like the fact that Crane’s hand shakes when holding a pistol, or the game snapping your vision to items contained in crates or cupboards you’ve just opened…there are many small touches that show that Techland put a lot of thought into what they were doing while developing the game.
It’s a damn shame then, that they didn’t put as much thought into their story and characters. The story is a non-starter, filled with all the cliches and tropes you’d expect from a “dark” zombie story in a video game. Ask me what the story in Dying Light was all about and I’d genuinely struggle to answer. Something something cure, something something research. When the game decides to end, after putting you through a final level that’s about as much fun as setting yourself on fire and running off the edge of a cliff into a pit of spikes, it simply ends. For no reason. What happens at the end of Dying Light cannot even be described as a cliffhanger or sequelbait. The story simply stops because you’ve run out of game to keep playing.
The cliches, tropes and general forgettableness of the story would be at least somewhat forgiveable if the characters that populate the city of Harran were well written, but they aren’t. The characters of Dying Light fall into one of three categories. They are either bland and completely devoid of any personality, like the main protagonist, attempts at being “quirky” and “funny” characters that make roll your eyes and want to punch something really hard, or they’re caricatures who only exist for one sole purpose and are never fleshed out in any way. What’s worse is because Dying Light is a “dark” story a lot of these characters meet with a terrible fate, and the game seems to think the player will be emotionally invested enough to give a shit, without actually giving you any reason to actually care.
Dying Light is a game that isn’t trying to be exceptional at anything, seemingly content to simply be good. For everything the game gets right it gets another thing completely wrong. The parkour is tremendous fun, but the combat is a chore. The world is very well designed, but the story and characters are terrible. In the end you’ll have a lot of fun with the game, but you should be prepared for some frustration to go along with it. Much like its pre-patch PC performance, Dying Light is a wildly inconsistent experience, and while I would say that I enjoyed my 20+ hours with the game overall, it definitely has some deep lows to go along with its highs.