Dying Light for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Linux
Dying Light is a much more interesting game than it first appears, but significantly let down by it’s stubborn refusal to abandon AAA gaming norms. The open world zombie genre is not a new one any more, but Dying Light manages to breath new energy into the genre, even if it’s not the masterpiece we see glimmers of.
The fictional Turkish city of Harran has been overwhelmed by the outbreak of a zombie virus on the eve of hosting a major Olympics-esque sporting event. The city is quarantined by the rest of the world, with aids packages arriving from the GRE (Global Relief Effort). After a GRE agent goes native in Harran with a file filled with sensitive information, Kyle Crane is hired and sent into the city. Initially simply using the local survivors to achieve his goals, Crane soon comes to suspect that the GRE are not telling the truth and begins to relate more and more with the locals he should be deceiving.
As a concept, the story isn’t particularly unique but certainly has potential. The execution leaves a hell of a lot to be desired though; the characters are flat, twists predictable and machismo overwhelming. If I were asked to demonstrate the most ‘AAA gaming’ story I know, this would be it. It’s strange, the whole plot seems based around choices; GRE or the locals, save this person or that person, this short term good for long term safety etc. I kept expecting the game to let me make a decision and then it…didn’t. That’s not to say every game needs a branching story; if anything it’s an overdone trope! The whole story seems so based around choices that I suspect that there was a branching story early in development which was scrapped; it would explain why Crane is such a blank slate of a character. I could be wrong, but regardless of the reason the story is fairly poor. There is some decent writing in the side quests, where the game lets itself be a lot sillier and stranger than it does in the main story, which makes me suspect that, as with a lot of this game, the talent for a good story is there but was held back by a rigid adherence to AAA tropes.
Dying Light’s big addition to the open world zombie genre are it’s traversal mechanics. Maybe things will change when Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst comes out next year, but for now I’m confident in saying that Dying Light has the best ever first person parkour in an open world game. It achieves that fine balance between being easy to use and allowing you to move swiftly and elegantly and not simply being an Assassin’s Creed style effortless autopilot. You can mess up and mistime jumps and you will die, but the whole thing works incredibly well. Running from zombies is a genuine thrill and you can upgrade Crane with new moves using the skill trees, giving you a palpable feeling of development, with my favourites being a grappling hook and the ability to hop on zombies’ heads as you run past. The parkour ties in really well with the mechanic which gives Dying Light its name; during the day time you’re relatively safe, but at night incredibly dangerous creatures come out and begin to stalk. They’re very difficult to take out in a fight, so you essentially have to run if one spots you. The twist is that all experience points are doubled at night and the longer you stay the larger EXP bonus you get at the end, offering a tantalising risk/reward balance. It’s a simple, clever system which works very well.
Not quite so edifying is the combat. It mostly consists of pressing the right trigger to swing a melee weapon with some simple dodging and power attack mechanics. It’s…fine. It works ok when taking down the odd zombie and there is a visceral and slightly embarrassing thrill to bloodily decapitating a rushing zombie just before it gets you. The problem is that combat should be a last resort, if you end up boxed in and unable to run, but large amounts of the latter half of the game involve monotonously slaying dozens of zombies before you can progress. The weapon crafting system may have been meant to alleviate the boredom, but fundamentally you either have heavy or light weapons and they pretty much handle the same. My only incentive to build better weapons was to make the fights go quicker. Much worse are the gun fights; the guns handle horribly, which would be fine if you only fought zombies, but there are a fair few encounters with other armed human enemies and Dying Light goes into FPS mode. The problem is that if Dying Light was an FPS it would be one of the most basic and dull that I’d played in years. Don’t be an FPS Dying Light, be an open world parkour zombie game, you’re good at that!
You can’t accuse Dying Light of being a slight experience. Dying Light pulls the Far Cry trick of coming to a conclusion before revealing an entire second map, so there’s a lot of game here. The story is lengthy and contains some great set piece moments, particularly the final mission which involves climbing a huge tower whilst being pursued by a zombie horde (even if it does all culminate in a spectacularly anti- climactic QTE). There are many side quests, and while some are simple ‘collect 5 herbs’ type deals, some are really interesting with their own narratives which often eclipse the main story. There are parkour and combat challenges if you’re into that sort of thing too. Dying Light follows the ‘Ubisoft’ formula in many ways (despite not being a Ubisoft game), but one area where it does do better is in the side quests, somewhere Ubisoft hasn’t done particularly well in lately.
Dying Light is a good looking game which runs smoothly. Harran is a cool setting, not really quite like any other open world settings I’ve been unleashed in before. We see a cool variety between the two halves of the map, something lacking when Far Cry games do the same thing. The first half is a shanty town, all rickety shacks and slums. The second is an older, more historical and beautiful side with taller buildings. This commitment to variety goes a good way to making each half feel valuable, rather than a way of artificially making the game seem bigger than it is. The voice acting is fine, although no one particularly stood out, least of all Crane himself. The music is interesting, with a combination of Vangelis-esque synths and Middle Eastern style vocals. Dying Light is refreshingly glitchless and the whole thing all works rather well.
Dying Light is a good game which shows glimmers of a great one. It is a compromised vision, trying to beat the biggest in gaming at their own…well, game. If it had stuck to the purity of its core principles, Dying Light would be a much more fondly remembered experience. Dying Light has two possible futures; in one, it is forgotten and fades into obscurity and in the other they take those core ideas and make a sequel which throws out the AAA crap and gets to the core of what made this game interesting. Fingers crossed for the latter.