Published on February 27th, 2015 | by Joseph Saulnier3
When I played Dying Light a couple years ago at PAX Prime, I was impressed. While clearly cast from the same forge as the Dead Island series, the main plot of the game seemed promising and the atmosphere intriguing. As I leapt over cars, scurried up walls, and jumped from rooftop to rooftop, I had to arm traps during the day while sunlight was gradually dwindling away. By the time I was done, night had come and the sluggish zombies around me started to scream and wail, then transform, as they mutated from the classic dim-witted undead to active, hyper, and violent monsters. Rightly terrified out of my gourd, I fervently scrambled back to home base, as the infected closed in around me and a fight looked hopeless. I triggered the traps I laid, slowing them down while more and more burst from doors and alleyways. It was tense, stressful and I was damn near ready to fill my pants. This little slice of horror built my excitement for Dying Light. One that still fueled my anticipation two years later.
Dying Light makes me not want to review games anymore. The game is not bad, per say. It is, however, nowhere near as exciting as the finely tuned slice of gameplay I got to play with developers two years ago. What we have instead is a factory-standard, open-world game that runs down the checklist of every game in the genre. Dying Light mimics, if not outright copies, almost all of its core ideas from well-established games, while its one central gimmick – the day/night cycle – becomes little more than a slight tactical alteration than a true game changer. But no, Dying Light is not bad… at all. It’s not ambitious enough to be notably poor. Or even notably good.
The one playable character (even in four-player co-op), Kyle Crane, is a walking, talking, mighty whitey stereotype. He parachutes down into a zombie-infested Harran to save the locals who couldn’t save themselves. You perform missions for Harran’s population, while taking guidance from the human relief group who sent you in to help. The large and indistinct world map is littered with repetitive side quests and collectibles – radio towers that can be climbed, safe houses that need to be unlocked, boxes that need to be opened via lock pick (that is really reminiscent of The Elder Scroll), and survivors fighting off zombie attacks. And in what seems to be common place in open world games as of late, there’s a ton of generic brand “content” that only exists to fill a map rather than provide fresh experiences.
Navigating around Harran can be fun, especially when you upgrade and bolster your abilities. Parkour is the main mode of travel, as players press a single button/key while running to leap, climb and hop over obstacles and across gaps. The more you parkour around the world, the more agility points you gain, which in-turn can be spent on increasing stamina and gaining cool new parkour moves. With a little grinding, you get to jump off the heads of zombies or slide-kick them in the knee to break legs. But these get old, and the parkour has its problems – like sometimes Crane won’t grab ledges he should be able to reach. For the most part, however, navigation works far better and more consistently than I would have expected from the developer (Techland).
Combat is a different matter entirely. As with Dead Island, fighting is very delicate mixture of flailing wildly and hoping of the best. In fairness, there is a dodge move with some leveling, and as you gain power points through battling, you can invest in power attacks and finishing moves. But ultimately, the entire experiences feels even rougher and less flexible than what Techland has brought to the table in previous games. Zombies incessantly try to grab you with a grapple that requires fervently mashing buttons to counter. The zombies take a ton of effort to put down, too, which would make them threatening… if they weren’t so silly. They are constantly falling over. They resemble bald dolls. Their only real threat comes from cheap shots, landing annoying swipes on Crane from behind, and generally getting in the way when they’re least needed. This is most true of the faster, “runners” who, once agitated, seem to psychically know where you are at all times. And the never stop chasing you. You’re practically forced to engage them. This is not scary. This is not threatening. The zombies are, simply put, irritating.
Almost as irritating as the durability of the weapons in the game. Heavy steel wrenches break apart after just a few hits, and your favorite gear just seems to fall to bits. Can I just say, the idea of weapon durability is just not a fun idea? It’s just not enjoyable. It’s an inconvenience and gets in the way. Dying Light already constrains you with a limited stamina bar, ensuring you only get a couple of good swings before you get too winded to fight. Throwing weapon breakages on top is like covering a bed of nails in salt. The lifespan of weapons can, like other hindrances, be improved as you level, but don’t get too attached to your favorite electrified sledge.
Night time shakes things up a little bit, but it’s far from brilliant. When the sun goes down, the volatile zombies emerge from whatever dark hole they’ve been hiding in. Volatiles are large, nude, pale zombies with mandibles. They’re fast, strong, and they alert all of their friends when they find you. Due to the threat they pose, all agility and power points are doubled at night, encouraging a risk-and-reward system where one can significantly boost Crane’s leveling endeavors by staying out after dark. In theory, this is all fantastically fun. In practice, it’s a lacking stealth system where you simply avoid the volatile’s field of vision on the minimap and try not to make excessive noise. If you are spotted, it may be rather frightening the first couple times, and then you’ll learn just how incompetent the AI is, and just how easy it is to shake pursuit. Once you learn this, you will actively try to be spotted by them, because evading a pursuit nets you a huge bonus in agility points, turning the whole endeavor into a farming campaign.
As mentioned, there’s drop-in co-op, allowing up to four Kyle Cranes to run amok. It doesn’t particularly change much; it’s mostly the same game with some people hanging about, which seems to constitute “cooperation” in games these days. One cool little addition to co-op is the ability to set up quick competitions throughout the game, allowing opportunities to kill more zombies than the other players, or reach a supply drop first. It’s not hugely influential, but the option for some (very) light player challenge is there. Co-op at least works rather seamlessly, allowing players to hop in and out at any time without disrupting the game. The same cannot be said for zombie invasion, a competitive element that can have players gatecrash you at any time and take on the role of a powerful night hunter that’s sensitive to UV light, but that are able to catch Cranes unawares with a one-hit kill. If this simply meant that a dangerous, player-controlled zombie could pop up unexpectedly, that would be fine. Instead, the entire game shifts into a “versus mode”, where you’re tasked with destroying zombie nests while the hunter has to kill you a certain number of times – and it takes forever! It is also significantly more fun for the invader than the invadee. Rather than feel the fear of an invasion, once simply rolls their eyes as gameplay is disrupted and whatever task you are doing is abandoned. You can turn zombie invasion off in the settings, which I would recommend. It just doesn’t feel intimidating or spontaneous. It’s just a blatant multiplayer game that was awkwardly forced in. As with so many features of this game, the kernel of a great horror-filled idea is turned into something overly codified, easily quantified, and so very generic.
If length is your bag when it comes to videogames, then at least there’s a lot to chew through with Dying Light. After spending (almost) literally all day, for two days, with the game, I must confess I’m not at the end. And I don’t know when it’s coming. Dying Light boasts hours upon hours of stuff, but like the games it’s mimicking, this stuff consists of a handful of ideas repeated over and over and over, while the story running through it is (at best) forgettable, melodramatic, and features characters I don’t care about doing stuff that just doesn’t concern me. The script is absolutely atrocious, full of attempts at tragedy, so preposterous and overwrought that it comes off like a sociopath trying too hard to mimic emotions of a fully adjusted human. The voice acting doesn’t do it any justice, either, especially since most of the cast members showcase some of the worst accents this side of a Pace Picante commercial.
Despite all this, there is something that’s dragging me back to Harran, even when I end each session having run out of patience with the game and needing a break. The parkour is a lot of fun, and while it doesn’t exactly balance out all the ways in which the game disappoints me, it’s done enough to keep me coming back. That’s all it does, however – it has my attention, and then does nothing with it. I’m just running from point A to point B, then to point C, and so on, picking up random items for a fairly remedial crafting system, or rescuing the um-teenth “random” survivor from a pack of walkers.
Dying Light has all the tools to be something special, but it’s so insistent on playing it safe and mimicking other successful games that it fails to stand out. Even the inclusion of parkour isn’t particularly special these days, since so many games seem to be throwing it in. We have a game that shamelessly “borrows” elements from Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, and The Elder Scroll while significantly toning down anything that might even be remotely original. It almost seems deliberate. Far be it for me to speculate, but I can’t help but wonder if Techland had something with more spontaneity in mind, something more radical and consistently closed to what I played at PAX Prime ’13, before Warner Bros. stepped in and brought with them mass market trends. Whatever the motivation, the result is a game that has all these wonderful ideas crammed into the pedestrian shape of Big Budget Game Release #672,313.
Parkour. Open world. Zombies. Online co-op. Crafting. Radio towers. Zombies. Item farming. Collect-a-thons. Zombies. Dying Light desperately tries to be all of the videogames in a bid to impress everyone. If only it had tried as hard to be its own game, we’d have had an amazing horror game on our hands. Instead, we have just another indistinct jack-of-all-trades to throw on top of the ever growing pile.
2.5 stars out of 5