A promising game, brought low by its own lack of ambition.
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: January 27, 2015
Copy provided by publisher
When I played Dying Light several years ago at PAX Prime, I was impressed. While clearly woven from the same cloth as the janky-but-decent Dead Island, the scenario seemed promising and the atmosphere was something else. As I dashed over cars, scurried up walls, and jumped from rooftop to rooftop, I had to arm traps during the day while the Sun gradually set. By the time I was done, night had come and the sluggish zombies around me started to scream, then transform, as they mutated from dim-witted undead to sprinting, violent monsters. Rightly terrified, I initiated a panicked scramble back to home base, as the infected shrieked around me and a fight looked hopeless. I triggered the traps behind me, slowing my pursuers down while yet more burst from doors and alleyways. It was tense, and I was damn near ready to fill my pants. This little slice of horror informed my excitement for Dying Light, an excitement I’ve carried for over two years.
Dying Light is one of the reasons I don’t do previews anymore.
The game is not bad, let’s confess to that straight away. It’s not bad. It is, however, nowhere near as exciting and unique as the cherry-picked slice of gameplay had made it look. What we instead have is a factory-standard open-world game that ticks every obligatory box on the checklist, mimicking or outright copying almost all of its ideas from more established games, while its one central gimmick – the day/night cycle – becomes little more than a slight tactical alteration than a true game-changer. No, Dying Light isn’t bad at all… it was built in too unambitious and guarded a fashion to be notably poor.
Or, indeed, notably good.
It doesn’t take long to get a distinct Far Cry feel from the entire affair. The one playable character (even in four-player co-op), Kyle Crane, is a mighty whitey stereotype, parachuting down into zombie-infested Harran to save the locals who couldn’t save themselves (and when you meet the leader of the survivors, you find out he conforms to this trope as well). You perform missions for Harran’s citizens, while taking guidance from the human relief group who put you there – the GRE, an organization that couldn’t be more “heartless command stereotype” if it tried. The large and indistinct world map is littered with repetitive sidequests and collectibles – safe houses that need to be unlocked, radio towers that can be climbed (Ubisoft’s school of design isn’t just for Ubisoft), survivors fighting off zombie attacks, boxes that need to be opened via a lockpick mechanic lifted wholly from The Elder Scrolls. As with so many open world games of late, there’s a ton of generic brand “content”, but it exists to fill a map, rather than provide fresh experiences.
Navigating the city of Harran is relatively fun, especially when you upgrade and get to bolster your abilities. Parkour is the main mode of travel, as players press a single button while running to leap, climb, and hop across gaps and over obstacles. The more you parkour around the world, the more agility points you gain, which can be spent on increasing stamina and gaining cool new moves. With a little grinding, you get to jump off a zombie’s head or slide-kick one in the knee to break it’s legs, and I’ll cheerfully admit that such tricks are yet to get old. The parkour has its problems – sometimes Crane will fail to grab ledges he should have been able to reach, and some of the animations can glitch out, leading to visually painful camera jerking. For the most part, however, navigation works far better and more consistently than I’d have expected in a Techland game.
Combat is a different matter entirely. As with the studio’s previous undead effort, Dead Island, fighting is a delicate mixture of flailing wildly and hoping for the best. In fairness, you get a dodge move with some leveling, and as you gain power points through battle, you can invest in power attacks and finishing moves, but ultimately, the entire affair feels even rougher and less flexible than what Techland has produced before. Zombies incessantly try to grab you with a grapple that requires button-mashing to end, often forcing you into flow-breaking QTEs that occur in rapid succession. The zombies take a ton of effort to put down, which would make them threatening if they weren’t so silly – falling over constantly, and resembling weird bald dolls (which I admit could be creepy, just not the way these ones look). Their only real threat comes from cheap shots, landing annoying swipes on the player from behind, and generally getting in the way when they’re least needed. This is most true of the faster, “runner” type zombies who, once agitated, seem to psychically know where you are at all times, and will never stop chasing you until you’re forced to engage with them. I tried shaking one off to see if it ever gave up, and despite it losing track of me several times, it eventually magically found me no matter the distance between us, and pursued me halfway across the map. Again – this was not scary. The zombies aren’t threatening. They’re just irritating.
Almost as irritating is weapon durability, which can see heavy steel wrenches break apart after a few hits and even make your favorite gear permanently fall to bits. Can I just take this opportunity to point out that, 90% of the time, weapon durability is NOT a fun idea? Like, it’s simply not enjoyable. It’s an inconvenience that gets in the way. Dying Light already constrains you with a limited stamina bar, ensuring you only get a couple of swings before Crane’s too winded to fight, and piling weapon breakages on top is like covering a bed of nails with bullet ants – two crappy flavors that enhance each others’ crappiness. The lifespan of weapons can, like other hindrances, be improved with leveling up, but I’d still warn you not to get married to your favorite electrified toxic sledgehammer.
Night time shakes things up a little bit, but not in any particularly brilliant way. When the Sun goes down, the volatiles emerge from whatever dank hole they’ve been hiding in. Volatiles are large, nude, pale zombies with mandibles. They’re fast, strong, and they alert all 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 fantastic fun – in practice, it’s a fairly limp stealth system whereby you simply avoid the volatile’s cones of vision on the minimap and try not to make excessive noise. If you are spotted, it’ll be rather frightening the first two or three times, and then you’ll suss out how incompetent the enemies’ AI is, and just how easy it is to shake off the pursuit. You’ll then actively try to be spotted by them, because evading a pursuit nets you a big bonus in agility points, turning a once-terrifying prospect into just another way to farm Videogame Funtime Score Points.
As noted, there’s drop-in co-op, allowing up to four Kyle Cranes to shimmy about the place. It doesn’t particularly change much, it’s just the same game with some people hanging about, which seems to constitute “cooperation” in games these days. One cool little addition 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. Nothing hugely influential, but the option for light player challenge is there. Co-op at least works rather seamlessly, allowing folks 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 a UV flashlight, but able to catch human players unawares with a one-hit kill. If this simply meant that a dangerous, player-controlled zombie could pop up unexpectedly, that would be one thing. 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 amount of times – and it takes bloody ages. It is also significantly more fun for the invader than the invaded. Rather than feel the fear of an invasion, one simply rolls their eyes as gameplay is fully disrupted, and whatever – inevitably more important – task you were doing is abandoned. You can turn zombie invasion off in the settings, and I did after successfully beating a night hunter in a sixteen minute game of cat-and-mouse and got rewarded with another invasion literally five seconds after the first wrapped up. It doesn’t feel intimidating or spontaneous, it’s just a blatant multiplayer game awkwardly forced in. As with so many of the features in this game, the kernel of a great horror-fueled idea is turned into something overly codified, easily quantified, and so very generically VIDEOGAMES.
If length is your bag, then at least there’s a lot of chew through with Dying Light. After spending 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 (and if you’ve an issue with that, have a word with Warner Bros. about withholding review copies until it was too late to produce a launch day write-up). Dying Light boasts hours upon hours of stuff, but like the games it’s aping, this stuff consists of a handful of ideas repeated over and over, while the story running through it is forgettable, melodramatic, and features people I don’t care about doing stuff that doesn’t concern me. “I know you were close,” one character tells me after something terrible happens to one poor guy – a guy I’d met only recently and exchanged maybe fifty sentences with. The script is absolutely awful, full of these attempts at tragedy, so overwrought and preposterous that it comes off like a sociopath trying too hard to mimic human emotions. The voice acting doesn’t do a lot to sell it, either, especially since most of the cast members showcase some of the worst affected accents this side of an Outback Steakhouse commercial.
I do love the soundtrack, however. The music carries a distinct 70s/80s horror movie feel, with menacing synth drones and thudding heartbeat rhythms. I’m not fond of the one track that has wailing vocals, as it blends too seamlessly with the background noise and makes me think zombies are coming, but otherwise this is one of the better musical presentations I’ve heard from a big budget title in a while. Visually, I’ll say this is probably the best work Techland’s ever done, though that’s not exactly saying much. Lighting is nice, but the physics leave a lot to be desired, and the zombie designs range from unimpressive to simply comical. On PS4 the game runs pretty well with only minor audiovisual glitches to contend with, but the PC version is currently a carnival of nonsense. A patch was recently introduced that broke everything, leading to awful stuttering and framerate dips. Overall, the PC version seems very poorly optimized, and I’d recommend giving it a miss on the ol’ computer until that’s sorted – by modders, if not by anybody else. Let’s face it, the modders would probably do a better job.
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 it and needing a break from its bullshit. That parkour is a lot of fun indeed, and while it doesn’t exactly balance out all the ways in which the game pisses me off, it’s done enough to keep me going back. That’s all it does, however – it has my attention, and then does nothing with it. I’m just running from place to place, picking up random detritus for a fairly remedial crafting system, or rescuing the dozenth “random” survivor from a pack of undead, as Techland paints by numbers and never dares do anything too unconventional or interesting, lest the lowest common denominator get turned off.
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 completely to stand out in its own way. Even the inclusion of parkour isn’t particularly special these days, since so many games are throwing it in. We have a game that shamelessly cribs its elements from Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, and The Elder Scrolls while significantly toning down anything original, almost deliberately, to conform to homogeneous “AAA videogame” standards. Far be it from me to speculate, but I can’t help thinking Techland had something with more spontaneity in mind, something more radical and consistently closer to what I played over two years back, before Warner Bros. stepped in and told them to OBEY the 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 #587,000.
Parkour. Open world. Zombies. Online co-op. Crafting. Radio towers. Zombies. Collect-a-thons. Zombies. Zombies. Dying Light desperately tries to be all of the videogames in a bid to impress everybody. If only it had tried as hard to be its own thing, we’d have had an amazing horror game on our hands. Instead, we just have another indistinct jack-of-all-trades to throw on top of the ever growing pile.