Focussing on only one zombie game franchise at a time is not enough for developer Techland.
Next to their established Dead Island franchise, Dying Light marks the first of Techland's new game franchise set once again in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by the living dead. With the big new focus in Dying Light being the flexibility of parcour movement and the approaching terror of the night, is Dying Light a worthy twin game to the upcoming Dead Island 2? Or is it only more of the same in disguise?
Players assume the role of Kyle Crane (Roger Craig Smith), an undercover operative sent to infiltrate the quarantine zone in the fictional city of Harran, based off ancient Turkey, as his mission is to find Kadir "Rais" Sulaiman (Michael Hollick), a rogue agent who has a file that could destroy the reputation of the agency. But when he arrives, he must choose between completing his mission or helping the other survivors led by Harris Brecken (Stephen Merchant). Watch as the rules that govern civilization crumble to dust.
You are put into the shoes of the agile protagonist Kyle Crane as you are dropped into the middle of the middle-eastern/south american city of Harran, which is isolated from the rest of the world due to a virus outbreak that turns people into zombies. Hired by a humanitarian group, Kyle's main goal is to track down a secret document and the person who stole it. On his quest Kyle eventually uncovers multiple conspiracies whose roots range from shady survivor groups all the way to the evil local crime lord.
With that said, Dying Light's story delivers a respectable premise to build a solid story ontop of. It's just sad that the game's mostly monotone mission designs, bland characters and extremely clicheed storyline don't give players much reason to get invested in the happenings of the story at all.
Whereas the overall mission design is servicable enough in the longrun, missions (and therefore gameplay) nevertheless especially in the first half of the game focus way too hard on fairly boring errand tasks: go from one side of the map all the way to the other to hit a switch and come all the way back. Dying Light sure does have its good share of set-piece moments but they take a long time to show up, are fairly scarce and far apart from each other. It doesn't help that Dying Light's story relies very heavily on generic zombie movie tropes and clichees: from the main goal of "having to find a cure", over "the friendly guy who gets bitten but hides it by saying that it's just a cut", all the way to "an underground arena in which survivors are forced to battle against zombies for public entertainment". Narrative innovations or new ideas in the zombie genre are nowhere to be found in Dying Light's story.
|"We have to move on to the next clichee, Captain."|
All this is followed upon by Dying Light's very generic and uninteresting characters. Aside from uninspired (and again very clicheed) dialogue, characters rarely manage to stand out as memorable personas but rather as functional parts of the already boring and straightforward storyline. Making matters worse is that not only is basically every single character in Dying Light only there to serve as his or her specific stereotype for the zombie-storyline (like the love interest aka only hot chick in the camp, the mentally torn leader of the survivors, the bad crime lord antagonist, the scientist, etc.), but Kyle Crane himself has absolutely zero backstory. Oftentimes it even comes off as if he could've just been silent the entire game and nothing of value would've been lost.
On a visual level, the story's unspectacular nature is further underlined by many of the characters somewhat looking into blank space during conversations (mostly avoiding eye contact with you), their very limited facial expressions and the developer's decision to use the exact same character models on different people in the game multiple times. Sure, many game's reuse the same enemy models to a certain degree, yet in those instances it comes down to basically faceless goons that don't have anything to tell you anyway. Dying Light on the other hand uses the same face models on multiple different story-related characters (with a few minor alterations like different hair or skin color) so many times that it quickly and painstakingly becomes obvious...and as a result, a lazy testament to the developer's work (at least to some degree). With all of the other presentation in Dying Light putting so much work into a realistic depiction of a zombie apocalypse, it's sadly surprising how radically the immersion shatters through such laziness on the developer's part.
Overall, Dying Light, just as many other games, is another one of those games that you primarily play for its gameplay mechanics rather than the forgettable story it has to offer.
|Generic bad guy is generic.|
Core Gameplay - "Parcour for a Cure"
Dying Light's core gameplay fares much better and more consistently though compared to its story.
The parcour elements and controls in the game, which play an incredibly big role in not only how you traverse the map but also how you deal with critical situations, are very intuitive and easy to get into. In fact, climbing and navigating the environment through the parcour movement is so well done that it even surpasses Mirror's Edge's FPS parcour controls (though to be fair, it has to be said that Dying Light's parcour moves are far more basic in comparison). Even though the game overdoes it a bit by letting you run tediously often very long distances from one mission objective to the other, Dying Light's two big maps are not overly big and seem to have just the right size and structure to make parcour still the most fun and quickest way to get around (at least before you get the grappling hook). With the parcour in Dying Light working out so surprisingly well and not frustrating, hot pursuits, evading dangerous zombie crowds and zombies in general becomes very easy. And occasionally though...even too easy for the game's own good, meaning that especially hunting for weapon modifications becomes rather unnecessary since free running itself is always the most useful tool period.
|Alright, my mission objective is somewhere on the other side of this.|
But running away is not always an option in Dying Light. Therefore, combat is of course also a big part of the gameplay experience.
Aside from various zombie types, human foes also join the roster of enemies in Dying Light. Watching other human characters interact and struggle with the undead hordes in the open world themselves is always a somewhat nice sight that makes the game feel very organic and vivid since it emphasizes that you are not the only human walking around in the undead landscape, yet when you actually have to fight against other human enemies...it get's quite a bit awkward.
Fighting off other human enemies with melee weapons feels very clunky even though the game does a fantastic job in delivering a realistic feel of great impact and struggle when you have to swing and hit an enemy with your weapon multiple times to finally take him out. But enemy A.I. is unfortunately most of the time very idiotic and makes a complete immersion in fights impossible. Seeing enemies idiotically swing at you with the same move over and over again (making their attacks mostly easy to avoid) far too often tends to completely pull you out of the game-flow as if to basically shout "YOU ARE PLAYING A VIDEO GAME!".
When not fighting with melee weapons, Dying Light also offers players a respectable arsenal of guns to take out enemies with. Gun combat in Dying Light is far more of a functional than of a fun nature, meaning that ammo is mostly very limited and gun handling itself feels a bit sluggish although not terrible. But to be fair, keeping in mind that Dying Light aims for a bare bones survival game feel, the awkward gun feel somehow seems to fit the game's main focus quite well. (But even then, this also takes a hit when the game at certain missions makes it very clear to you that you are supposed to beat certain segments of the game by shooting your way through it.)
|Get ready for intense yet clunky awkwardness.|
Night Time Gameplay - "Fear of the Dark"
However, another big sellling point of the game is the day and night cycle that supposedly radically changes how you approach the game's open world.
At night, zombies become far more aggressive while additionally far more vicious, quicker and generally more powerful zombies roam the streets basically patroling them. Even though you can see the vision-cones of those "more powerful zombies", called Volatiles, avoiding them is quite a bit tricky and gives traversing the map at night a very welcome sense of tension. Volatiles are all over the map at night and staying clear of their sights, keeping very quiet while moving around and only turning on your flashlight when absolutely necessary makes night time indeed feel much more dangerous than daytime. This great tension peaks when hordes of zombies suddenly spot you and chase after you through the dark streets.
What unfortunately pulls the teeth out of these night segments of the game, is the fact that you can skip night times through a simple press of a button by simply staying the night over in one of your safe zones. Therefore, even though daytime realistically passes when you do missions in the game, there's never a truely good reason to do any mission during the night when it can also be simply done during the day. Sure, there indeed are some missions that can only be done during the night and your XP rewards are doubled during the night, but even then, night time is a cool and tense part of the game that sadly doesn't give you enough motivation to endure when you can just so easily skip it. The game would've probably been improved a lot if skipping night time wasn't possible so that you actually had to cope with the terror of the night until it's finally over ("I am Legend"-Style).
|Night time is fittingly exhilarating and dangerous...yet always skippable.|
Upgrade System - "Useless Better Weapons"
Through upgrades or mods you can acquire a stronger arsenal of weapons and abilities by completing missions, breaking into treasure chests scattered throughout the map or beating down rival foes.
With craftable mods you can add damage bonuses to your weapons like fire or electricity (giving Dying Light a comicy touch resembling Dead Island). Also, since melee weapons wear off after frequent usage, you can repair your damaged weapon multiple times with necessary metal parts to make it a functional killing weapon again. It all sounds basic but fairly cool and welcome on paper, and even though there is no denying that modded weapons are way more effective than un-modded or standard ones, modding weapons or even buying weapons from vendors feels ultimately very unnecessary during the course of the game.
Without any big problems, the entire main story and all of the side missions in Dying Light can be beaten without even modding a single weapon. This is due to the fact that undamaged and new melee weapons are scattered around or dropped by human enemies so frequently that tweaking and modding weapons in most cases isn't really worth the effort. Another big ("unlucky") aspect that makes upgrading weapons useless comes in the form of the game's weird and overly generous saving system, which we will talk about in further detail later.
However, not only your tools but also your character himself is able to get more skilled in avoiding death and killing enemies through levelling up three separate skill trees: Survivor, Agility, Power.
Whereas Survivor XP is gained through looting airdrops and finishing missions, Agility XP is gained through running, jumping and climbing, and lastly Power XP is gained through killing zombies and other enemies. Dying Light offers players quite a large number of skills to unlock and while about half of them comes off as fairly optional and unimportant, others however tend to really change the game's pace.
Most importantly the grappling hook cuts traversal time in half making the very tedious constant running from point A to point B a thing from the past (yet still, tedious on-foot traversal is heavily present during most of the game).
|When you think a normal bat doesn't hurt enough - an electrified baseball bat.|
Saving System - "Taking 'em Out One by One"
Dying Light's aforementioned saving system is a really weird aspect of the game, since it does make the game to some extent less frustrating but also redundantly easy at the same time:
When you succumb to your injuries, you wake up in the nearest safe zone, specific camp or locations of shelter spread out over the map. These man made forts can be restored or activated, meaning that it is up to you to unlock safe zones to get less distance between you and your mission objective after fails. Though this sounds pretty fair at first, the kicker here is that enemies that you killed or items that you picked up before you died/failed still stay dead and items are still in your inventory even after your fail of the mission. This often leads to the situation that tricky parts of a mission with for example too many enemies to handle at once devolve into redundant affairs with the strategy of "killing as many enemies as you can before dying, then waking up at the nearest safe zone, making it back all the way to the mission objetive to finish off the remaining enemies, if there are still some left after you died, just go back there and finish them off till you can continue".
With that said, Dying Light's really forgiving saving system is another factor that takes a big hit on the game's aimed for realism and makes the game still offer some challenge but also a kind of "unfair" feeling constantly available tactic to overcome it: redundant repetition.
|No problem. I'm just going to kill you after I died.|
Dying Light offers lonely players the ability to play the game with a partner in co-op. Cooperative play in Dying Light works surprisingly well and very smooth. There are rarely any weird animations from your co-op partner and action and overall dealing with enemies in missions is far more fast paced and fun with friends. Co-op is not an essential or overly great addition to Dying Light's overall gameplay experience but definitely a welcome addition.
Furthermore, gamers who pre-ordered Dying Light or bought the DLC extension, can invade other players' game sessions as a zombie. Since the Left 4 Dead franchise already showed us what it felt like to play as a zombie, the "play as a zombie"-DLC mode doesn't offer that much more than a nice diversion to annoy other players during their game and offers little true longlasting fun.
|Killing zombies with friends is expectedly more fun.|
Visually, Dying Light's biggest strength is without any doubt its very immersively presented environments. Especially the weather effects and lighting are some of the best this console generation has yet to offer. From wind realistically blowing through palm trees, over particle effects from glowing bits of ash from a nearby burning car wreck, to smoke trails always showing where the centres of chaos are located. Quickly it will get clear why the last-gen version of Dying Light got cancelled, considering how much processing work all the stunning environmental effects in the game require.
Thus, it's easy to lose yourself in this god forsaken city of Harran right from the start, and it only slowly shows that Dying Light is generally a very great looking game but sure enough not a flawless one.
The aforementioned frequently copy-pasted character models, generic and bland looking character designs, and some major clipping and game-breaking glitches (mostly occuring when using the grappling hook at an unnlucky spot) tend to throw you out of the game as quickly as you lost yourself in it (or throw you out of the game world...literally).
Still, Dying Light is far not as much of a buggy mess as games like Assassin's Creed: Unity, but it sure is a game with a very impressive surface that just happens to show some cracks here and there and lack of polish beneath it at certain parts.
(It has to be said though, that most of the reported and encountered graphical bugs and glitches primarily tend to occur in the game's PC version!)
Voice acting in Dying Light ranges from servicable to overdone. Therefore, while most scenes are fairly well acted even though nothing too special, very dramatic moments in the game often are built up not patiently enough so that emotional outbursts of characters appear so suddenly that they come off as overly melodramatic and overacted. This gives some moments often an unintentionally comicy vibe even though the game itself definitely aims for a much more adult and serious tone though. Still, while the writing leaves quite some things to be desired, especially Roger Craig Smith as the voice of Kyle Crane stands out clearly as the legitimately strongest of the voice actors.
Sound effects are very well done in Dying Light without any notable flaws. Grunts, screams and moans of zombies differ quite a lot between the different zombie types and zombie moans in the distances always remind you of the constant danger you are in when in Harran.
Last but not least, the game's score is an excellent choice for the game since it does a great job in resembling the classic soundtrack of the old George A. Romero zombie flicks (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead) from the 70s and 80s with their menacing and moody synth beats. A very nice and notable artistic touch.
|Especially the particle-, lighting- and weather effects are very impressive.|
In the sum of all things, next to the Dead Island series, Dying Light comes off as Dead Island's more adult and serious oriented counterpart. Aside from the additional updates like the parcour movement and dynamic day and night cycle, Dying Light incorporates pretty much everything that Dead Island's gameplay experience has to offer, yet with a more grounded and realistic tone...at least that is what Dying Light is aiming for.
Though Dying Light sure enough will deliver many hours of fun for fans of FPS games and especially fans of Dead Island, in the end, Dying Light comes off as a game that is "a jack of all trades, but a master of none". The game has multiple very interesting ideas and features that aim for a great sense of realism in order to immerse you into the game's world, yet unfortunately there is not a single aspect of the entire gameplay experience that Dying Light is flawlessly pulling off. Seemingly at every turn there are weird occasions and awkward mechanics that instantly break said intended immersion: a very predictable and clicheed storyline, redundant enemy A.I., unnecessary weapon modifications, skippable difficulty and challenges (by skipping night time or exploiting the generous saving system), and a very inconsistent presentation are the biggest downsides that prevent Dying Light from getting a rating as a "good" game.
One easily gets the feel that the developers at Techland got so involved in their ambitious and (legitimately) very interesting ideas that they seem to have rushed them through without carefully designing and planning their effective implementation in the game. Resultingly, Dying Light's aimed for realism is undoubtedly obvious but never consistently achieved and ever so abruptely destroyed in the final game's gameplay experience.
Still, Dying Light makes for a nice yet imperfect foundation for a potential game franchise to build and improve on top of. Smashing and slicing up zombies and simply parcouring around in the city of Harran definitely offers some fun even despite the game's several inconsistencies. Yet Techland still needs to put quite some more polish and care into the Dying Light franchise, if they want to make its coexistence next to the Dead Island series feel justified.
Final Verdict: 6 out of 10