Most Zombie movies and games are, if nothing else, thoroughly grounded. That is to say, people seem to mostly stick to the pavement and dirt, whether it's The Walking Dead or Dawn of the Dead. What if you didn't have to worry about other survivors dragging you down and had the freedom to take to the rooftops?
This is exactly the question Dying Light asks. The game takes you to the fictional city of Harran, some sort of South American/Old European city, quarantined from the rest of the world as it's ravaged by a zombie plague.
We've played a million zombie games – that might not be an exaggeration at this point. Does the addition of parkour and a large open world breathe enough life into a tired video game trope to make it feel fresh again, or is Dying Light another zombie game better left for dead?
The Floor is Lava
I think Dying Light succeeds on a lot of fronts. This game has its problems, which we'll touch on in a bit, but, for me, there were two major points that made it enjoyable while I played.
First, and the most obvious, is that this certainly is a pretty game. The particle effects, the city itself, the lighting and the general art design all work very well together to create this wonderful illusion. It's fun to take a break and look around at times, and Techland deserves some applause for that.
The other thing is that the parkour works to add an extra layer of rush to the game. I don't mean "rush" as in quickening the story, I mean "rush" as in exhilaration.
You're encouraged to constantly move, run and climb in this game. It's your most imperative tool. And the animations and method of reaching for ledges and pulling yourself up takes situations of escape and makes them more tense. It isn't scary by any means, but the parkour here keeps things elevated in suspense when they otherwise would have dropped.
The parkour does work, and it's absolutely crucial. The world of Dying Light is a big place and it's entirely free of any kind of fast-travel. If it wasn't fun to get around, it wouldn't matter if anything else worked.
Admittedly, it took me a bit to get the hang of it. Free-running in first person is disorienting to start with; even more so than in something like Mirror's Edge. I spent a lot of time hopping up and down in front of walls at the beginning before things finally clicked. Once they did, I enjoyed trying to pick out a line across the tops of some buildings or a string of cars and trying to keep as close to that line as possible.
I had some issues with the combat – which we'll get to in a bit – but in a weird way, I think that actually added to that rush you mentioned. Fighting the shambling hordes can get frustrating and quickly overwhelming, and more often than not, it's better to just keep moving. Standing and fighting is very rarely the answer.
Did you get to try the grappling hook?
I did, yes. It comes much later in the game than I personally think it should (it comes around rank 12), but that's largely because I was tired of traversing the huge world by the time I got it.
There's no fast-travel in this game, as you mentioned. I normally don't mind that in open world experiences as I'm the type of player who likes to walk about and experience the environment from moment-to-moment. However, all of Dying Light's missions are fetch-quest oriented, and they'll send you to the far corners of the large and hard to traverse map constantly.
The grappling hook makes traversal very, very easy. I recognize that Techland likely held this off until later in the game in order to keep difficulty up, especially during the night sequences, but it's such an item of convenience that I sort of wish it came sooner.
You're able to zip to the tops of buildings, cross large gaps and even pull enemies towards you for combat. It's solid.
I think Techland should have either introduced the grappling hook early or included fast-travel in the game at the onset. Fast-travel doesn't really make sense in the lore of the world, so the former solution likely would have made all the fetch-questy stuff more bearable.
Exactly, yeah. As much fun as the parkour is, each side quest asks you to do a lot of running around, and the grappling hook eases that. I'm actually glad I held off on doing a lot of the side quests, because with addition of the grappling hook I'm actually looking forward to some of them.
I also had the chance to group up with another reviewer for some cooperative multiplayer. It's worth mentioning, especially in light of all the broken games in the last year, how well Dying Light works. Not only was the game itself quite solid for an open world – and largely glitch free – the multiplayer worked flawlessly as well. Grouping up was fast and easy, our connection was consistent and lag free. The mechanics worked as well in multiplayer as they did in single player.
You'll be three or four of the same dude running around, which looks a bit silly, but co-op might be the best way to play this game.
On Leveling, Crafting and Combat
As you progress through the story and side quests in Dying Light, you'll also progress your character by leveling up abilities and crafting items. There were some elements I really liked about this system, actually, but others I found endlessly frustrating.
To level up your character, there are three avenues: Agility, Survivor, and Power.
Because running around is fun, leveling up Agility is fun. You level just by running around and clambering up and down stuff. It's a simple and effective reward system to keep you off the ground.
Leveling up Survivor, on the other hand, is incredibly frustrating. I'd like to take a moment to say that I've played many, many hours of Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2. I'll explain.
Leveling up your Survivor skill tree is how you get the aforementioned grappling hook as well as many of the other cool elements of the game. The Survivor tree is built on a risk-reward system, though. The idea is that going out at night is very dangerous. Slow zombies are out during the day while fast, dangerous zombies comes out at night and will chase you endlessly. You can gain tons of experience and level quickly, but if you die, you will lose a bunch of survivor points. You can't actually de-level, but it can be a huge setback.
The problem is that this ends up discouraging experimentation. You want to see if this strategy will work? Or try exploring somewhere? Experiment with different strategies? You certainly can, but not without some serious punishment.
Which let's me transition us smoothly into talking more specifically about the combat and night time stuff.
Techland made this game. Techland also made Dead Island. A lot of gamers have actually said that Dying Light is essentially Dead Island with parkour. That's not exactly the case. They share similarities, sure, but Dying Light feels like an overall better and more focused effort.
My chief complaint, though, comes from the nature of combat. It's boring. Weapons can be upgraded with fire and leeching, sure, but the core component of combat is swing, swing, swing, take a break and swing some more. It never extends beyond that repetitive refrain, and that brings every mission and every encounter down by around hour eight or nine.
You won't even be halfway through the game before you're terribly bored of the combat.
Things change a bit at night, like you mentioned Eric, but only because the focus shifts towards evasion and escape. You're not really too interested in combat at night because you're trying to stay quiet and hidden from the actually threatening Nightmares. These guys turn Dying Light into an open world parkour stealth zombie game, and I'm not entirely sure I liked that.
The daytime let me run and explore while occasionally being threatened by zombies in tight spaces. The night time basically forced me to keep quiet and focus solely on making it back to a safehouse or completing a mission. I just didn't find these segments fun.
As with all zombie games, humans are the real monster, so you have to fight a bunch of mean people who want to take your stuff. When we were discussing the game, you called them "zombies who block," and you're not far off. The only real difference is that if you point a gun at a human holding a melee weapon, the human will actually hesitate and back off. I liked this, but it's a small upside.
My other issue is that there's no stealth to speak of despite the game presenting tons of situations where stealth would be a great strategy. I often found myself wishing I could take down a guy silently without any really good way to do so.
Similarly, the core idea behind crafting is fun. Building new weapons to use can be pretty fun, and finding the right blueprint can add a new flavor to combat, at least for a bit.
The crafting doesn't feel terribly deep, though. There are lots of things to craft, but nothing is terribly different or remarkable. The two crafting systems that come to mind for me as points of comparison are The Last of Us and Fallout 3. In the former, crafting was a matter of survival. There were only a few items, each with their own use, built from pretty sparse supplies. The latter had you building things like a weapon that could launch any item – all kinds of weird stuff. In Dying Light, you mostly just make things that are some combination of electricity and fire on a blunt or edged weapon.
Crafting systems seem to go hand-in-hand with zombie games, even as far back as combining herbs in Resident Evil, but here it just doesn't have much staying power.
On the flip side, I sort of really liked the crafting here. I think its accessibility sort of let it only get in the way when I wanted it to. If I wanted to take a break and look at the blueprints I had for crafting, I went to a safe house and did so. I never felt like I absolutely had to sift through this unbearably boring crafting system. Instead, I needed more firecrackers and took a break to find the stuff and make them.
I get that there are those out there who really love a deep, fleshed-out crafting system complete with a levelling dynamic in and of itself. I didn't really feel the need for that here, and I liked the system's ability to just sort of be there for my exploration and nothing else.
Dying Light's depth isn't really in its weapon building like Dead Rising, and I was totally okay with that.
A Critic Splitting Story
I might ruin this for Eric, but he totally hates the plot line in Dying Light. As we were both playing through this game, he mentioned several times how terrible it is. I've staved his criticism off for a while knowing that it would be good fodder for our discussion in this review, and here we are. He has a chance to tell me why it stinks.
But first, a summary of the setup. Gamers play Kyle Crane, a government (I assume) operative dropped into a region overcome with a zombie outbreak. Crane infiltrates the survivors in order to recover some files and track down a rogue agent.
You know, after typing that out, it does sound pretty cliche. I get your groaning, Eric, but I wasn't that annoyed by the story while I was in motion with the actual game.
Why is it bad?
Part of it is, indeed, that it's cliche. I'm used to cliche stories in games. I often even like them when they're well done.
Dying Light feels like it was made from off-the-shelf video game parts. Grab a government operative (who happens to be yet another brown-haired white dude, voiced by someone who sounds exactly like – but isn't – Troy Baker), a conspiracy, throw in a couple people who are super casual about death, a tough-as-nails female character who doesn't take any crap from anyone (who is frequently described using exactly those words) until she of course gets kidnapped and has to be rescued… you get the idea. There's absolutely nothing even remotely original, and what's there isn't well done.
Every plot point is telegraphed hours ahead of time. You can describe the vast majority of the game's story after the opening minutes. None of the characters are developed even slightly. Techland had made a big deal about saying they had a female writer help with the female characters, but it doesn't show. Everyone is just doing the things those characters do in those roles. None of it is believable or entertaining. The only reason to stick around through cutscenes is to make sure you know what your goal is.
I think I agree with you, but my issue comes from how hard on the game you're being because of its plot.
I just wasn't weighed down by those problems while I played. Dying Light's overuse of tropes and predictability didn't really bother me like it apparently did you.
My problems stem from the boring quest lines and combat, not so much the cliche character types and plot points. Those are there, sure, but they didn't bog my experience down at all. Maybe that's because I turned a blind eye to them, but I never really cringed over the story.
Dying Light presents fun mechanics and a gorgeous world, but that comes with often boring quests and combat.
There's a huge, fun game to be had in Dying Light. If it hooks you, you'll have tons to do and it'll take you a long time to do it, especially if you have a friend alongside.
Boring combat, frustrating progression, and a paint-by-numbers story hamper the fun that comes with climbing all over the massive, detailed city Techland has crafted. If you're really itching for a new zombie game, you can do a lot worse than Dying Light, but you can do a lot better, too.
Disclaimer: We received two copies of Dying Light for the PlayStation 4 from the publisher.
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