Release Date: January 27, 2015Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: TechlandPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentGenre: Survival horror
When talking about the open-world zombie survival game Dying Light, it’s all but impossible not to make comparisons to Techland’s 2011 flagship title, Dead Island. This is because, for all intents and purposes, they are essentially the same game, just slightly recostumed and polished up a bit. Now, I personally happened to like Dead Island despite its many glaring flaws. But by stripping away the humor and the sunnier tropical resort setting, Dying Light emerges as the game’s broodier second cousin who just happens to have a knack for parkour. Unfortunately, even the good ideas the game brings to the table aren’t enough to mask the same formula that failed to impress four years ago.
Dying Light is not so much a spiritual sequel to Dead Island as it is just another tired extension, much in the same way that Dead Island: Riptide was. Map icons, quest progression, and the item system have all been cut and pasted here. Even the different classes of zombies are nearly identical to the ones we fought in Dead Island, from toxic zombies that projectile vomit, to larger “thugs” and zombies that explode upon impact. Sure, there are a few tweaks that make inventory management a bit easier (like the fantastic option to dismantle your weapons for spare parts or to craft new ones from blueprints on the fly), but remove the parkour mechanics and the day/night cycle and surprise! It was Dead Island all along.
You play as Kyle Crane, the epitome of generic male protagonists and a secret operative of the GRE. Crane has been sent into the overrun city Harran on an undercover mission to bring down a rogue GRE agent and protect the integrity of the bureau. But after a horribly botched parachute jump into Harran, Crane is immediately bitten before being rescued by a group of infected survivors. Crane must then assimilate himself into this group of parkour-endowed people, or “runners” as they are called, all while maintaining his cover. A good chunk of this storyline revolves around Antizen, an increasingly scarce resource that slows the infection process, but does not cure it entirely.
It’s an interesting twist to the typical survivor narrative, but its implementation into the actual gameplay makes the whole setup pretty irritating before long, especially in the first dozen or so hours of the game. For instance, after every single significant event, you’ll need to climb to a nearby rooftop so Crane can relay the newly learned information back to HQ. This happens more times than you would think, and the overt somberness of the story translates into a lot of slower talking moments. I would rather be out exploring. Most of the characters don’t seem too concerned about wasting daylight with their jargon.
Thankfully, the graphics are rather impressive, and the game ran smoothly and glitch-free for me on PS4. The city of Harran is a sprawling urban metropolis with a huge attention to detail and a wide array of buildings, rooftops, and dark crevices to scrounge through while looking for the best loot. It’s a pretty grimy place to explore (especially the first map, aptly named the Slums), with just enough unique locations and set pieces to offset the repeating assets and identical rooftop setups I began to notice after only a few hours of play.
But the more I continued to play Dying Light, the more I found myself disliking the game, as I got bombarded with dozens of trite and tired side quests alongside the long-winded story missions that just never seemed to end. When you’re not talking to HQ or listening to your companions drone on and on about Antizen, you’ll be spending most of your time helping anyone and everyone with their trivial zombie apocalypse problems, as per the open-world status quo. The majority of side quests are a lesson of the inane, as you’ll have to run halfway across the map, talk to a random survivor, and then run all the way back to claim your reward.
And where Dying Light dares to step outside its core Dead Island influence, it freely borrows a few ideas from the Far Cry camp, specifically climbing radio towers that function as vertical platforming puzzles. You’ll also have to secure numerous safe zones across the map (a la Far Cry’s outposts) and complete a handful of optional challenge scenarios that test your speed or your ability to lay into the undead with a specific weapon. Finally, a number of radiant quests or random encounters round out the package, but these near-identical “rescue the survivor” tasks serve more as a distraction than anything else.
As you probably know already, there are two main selling points to Dying Light’s gameplay: the day and night cycle, where ruthless zombies called Volatiles emerge after the sun goes down, and the Mirror’s Edge-like parkour movement. The night sections encourage stealth-oriented gameplay as you try to quietly maneuver around the heightened and deadlier breed of zombies. If the Volatiles see you, then it becomes a breathless sprint to the nearest safe zone. These things are fast and can do some serious damage if they catch you. Luckily you can utilize various UV light traps placed throughout the city to blind hordes of zombies and help make your getaway go smoother. It’s a nice inclusion, but you often have the option to avoid these night sections altogether if you want (except when certain mission objectives require it) by resting until morning in a safe house bed. This makes the overall night mechanic feel more like a plot device, rather than a dynamic and organic inclusion.
The incentive to going out at night is that it offers a double XP boost, one area where Dying Light truly shines. You have three separate skill trees to upgrade as you play, and each one is tied to a specific style of play: Survival, Agility, and Power. For instance, performing ridiculous parkour feats will boost your Agility bar, while completing quests and helping survivors will rank up your Survival tree. The skills themselves are also very spot-on, and work wonders by subtly upgrading the ways that Crane moves and fights entirely. But there’s also a catch: if you die, you risk losing a portion of the Survival experience points you just earned from completing that last quest. This system heightens the importance of scrounging for supplies everywhere that you can, and it really gives a strong incentive to ensure your own survival in the game.
I was actually impressed at first with the parkour mechanics, after getting over the initial shock of using R1 to jump. All you have to do is look towards the next ledge or structure you want to jump to, push the button and away you go, often pretty fluidly. However, the same system can also feel restrictive at times, too. Descending from various structures after you’ve climbed them is incredibly awkward and cumbersome, as you can only jump down if there is a car or a pile of garbage bags to absorb the impact. Furthermore, figuring out the singular and obtusely designed pathway to enter the next building through the roof slows the parkour action down to a crawl, and highlights the overall pacing issues that undermine the total Dying Light experience.
Given the emphasis on forward momentum in the game, you’d think that Dying Light would place its focus on avoiding zombies, rather than confronting them. But sadly that isn’t the case here. I lost count of how many times a quest objective forced me to clear out an area of zombies or simply threw me into a scenario where I had no other option but to fight my way out. This wouldn’t be a problem if the combat system wasn’t so atrocious. Stealing more pages from Dead Island’s book, the melee-heavy frenzy is sporadic and clunky, where wildly flailing a broken pipe at a zombie’s head in hopes of a critical hit is often more frustrating than fun.
The game is also in desperate need of a fast travel system, as leaping across identical looking rooftops on your latest fetch quest across the map just wasn’t fast enough to offset the boredom. This is remedied somewhat by the game’s co-op functionality, as players can essentially warp to one another’s position in the event of an important mission milestone. Playing through the game with up to three buddies or randoms does help to liven up the experience a bit, and quest rewards seem catered to each player’s respective skill level. The other multiplayer mode, Be The Zombie, offers a refreshing step back from the core Dying Light experience, as you get to assume the role of a powerful zombie and seriously screw up another player’s game at night. It’s a fun little diversion, but not something I see myself coming back to time and time again.
Whether or not you’re already disillusioned by the Dead Island franchise, Dying Light still struggles to step out from the overly large shadow cast by the other games it tries so hard to emulate. And even when taken at face value, Techland’s latest feels like a chore to play through. It’s a longwinded and repetitive adventure in more ways than one, with sloppy combat, inconsistent pacing, and a numbingly boring story. While moving around the rooftops can be fun, and the night sections and skill trees offer good incentives to explore the different playing styles, the whole experience largely resembles one enormous fetch quest, rather than a game that strives to bring something new and refreshing to the zombie survival genre.