Video games sure are weird. I mean, only in this bonkers industry could something like Dying Light even exist. It is, for all intents and purposes, the sequel to 2011’s Dead Island in all but name: it’s developed by the same team, it has the same kind of zombies, it has the same pseudo-RPG first-person gameplay, and it even has the same ridiculously stupid weapon degradation mechanic. It isn’t Dead Island 2, though, because that’s being developed by Yager (those’re the guys who made the excellent Spec Ops: The Line) and will be released later this year. So I hope for the sake of both games that they’re not as similar in reality as they look to be on paper, because otherwise the most oversaturated genre in media today will be further saturated by two versions of the exact same game.
Still, Dying Light does indeed exist, so as a fun little exercise let’s try talking about it without mentioning Dead Island every couple of minutes.
For a start we’re no longer fighting zombies on a tropical island. Instead, we’re fighting zombies in a quarantined Middle Eastern city called Harran – which is incidentally based on ancient Turkey, and just before the events of the game was preparing to host a global athletics event which was definitely not the Olympics in the same way that Resident Evil 4 definitely wasn’t set in Spain. This isn’t hugely relevant, but it’s actually a rather smart way of putting an incredibly broad range of characters in play without the wobbly accents seeming too out of place.
Speaking of characters, you’ll be playing as Kyle Crane, a generically-named undercover operative who is airdropped into Harran by the Global Relief Effort to recover a file of some kind from a rogue political figure. Whatever’s in the file is important to the GRE for reasons I’m not sure I entirely absorbed, but what’s more important to Crane is that the whole place is infested with hordes of the ethnically-diverse undead – that, and the fact he gets himself infected within seconds of his bungled landing. He’s not the most competent operative, to put it mildly.
Now that I think about it, that’s the thing I actually rather liked about this guy. Many people have complained about him being a bit too generic, but there was something about him being so consistently lost and out of his depth that I found quite charming. He’s certainly more interesting than any of the selectable characters in Dead Island, as he actually has a proper personality, with goals and conflicts and stuff. His arc is rather predictable – you don’t get any brownie points for guessing which side of the battle between innocent survivors and self-serving government entities he ends up on – but I can’t say I particularly disliked him.
It’s just as well really, because Dying Light is a big, unnecessarily long game, and you’re going to be hearing an awful lot of Crane’s opinions throughout it. I didn’t find the writing to be as catastrophically terrible as folks would have you believe it is, but then again it certainly won’t be winning any awards – particularly not for the main narrative, of which Crane is tellingly the most interesting aspect. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by every bland genre staple you can possibly imagine, or that the primary antagonist is so elaborately, unnecessarily evil that it frequently borders on parody. The aforementioned excessive length is a big problem too, primarily because most of the big story beats are so predictable that you can sometimes see them coming literally hours before they actually occur, which leads to a lot of the awkward time-killing filler missions feeling like exactly that.
Surprisingly, Techland seem to have buried their more ambitious storytelling in the many sidequests which Harran’s survivors are keen to clutter your journal with. All of the interesting characters seem to have taken up residence off the beaten path, which is irritating when you consider how well they’d have served the central conflict. It seems as though a lot of the developer’s nuttier writers were allowed out of their cages to scrawl the ancillary content, and so a lot of it is darkly humorous in the same knockabout way Dead Island was, but there are some genuinely moving moments sprinkled in there as well. It’s a shame most players will miss this stuff, as unless you really, really like Dying Light – which you probably won’t – there’ll come a point when you’re determined to do whatever you can to shorten the experience rather than lengthen it.
You certainly won’t be shortening anything by fast-travelling though. Harran isn’t as big as it could be, but only being able to move around on foot makes it feel an awful lot bigger than it should be. Of course it makes sense, both in the established context and in service of the mechanics, but if it’s all the same to you, Techland, I’d rather have the option there just in case I want to get your game finished before I die of old age.
The lack of a fast-travel option is clearly in service of the new semi-eponymous day/night cycle more than anything else, which is really what differentiates Dying Light from its spiritual predecessor. And to the game’s credit it does work rather well as a result. See, when the sun is up, zombies are more of an annoyance than a genuine threat; they pose problems when they gang up on you, but they’re easy enough to avoid (if surprisingly difficult to kill, but we’ll get to that). At night, however, all bets are off. Their senses become heightened, they somehow develop a keen understanding of parkour, and they take Harran’s curfew incredibly seriously. The night only lasts about ten minutes as opposed to the hour or so of daylight hours, but it’s surprising how slowly the seconds tick by as you scramble around mere yards ahead of your ravenous pursuers.
Night-time is interesting because it not only radically alters the game’s tone, but also to a certain extent it’s actual genre. For the most part, Dying Light is a survival game. Sure, it has combat and light role-playing elements, but the crux of the gameplay is scavenging, crafting and just generally staying alive – usually by avoiding conflict altogether. When the sun goes down, that changes, and in the darkness Dying Light’s much more akin to overt horror titles like Amnesia than anything else. Whenever you’re given some contrived reason to actually venture outside during the nocturnal hours, you’re forced to rely on stealth, distractions and inevitably a mad sprint back to the nearest safe house when it all goes tits up. It’s tense, certainly, but also one of the very few things which haven’t been pilfered directly from other, often better games.
Parkour, for instance, which is the other thing Dying Light brings to the table that’s ostensibly new – unless you’ve played Mirror’s Edge or Assassin’s Creed. Like the former, it’s the kind of free-running system which works rather well in big, open spaces, but kind of falls apart whenever you’re required to do anything with real precision; and, like the latter, there are big piles of trash scattered around the world which function just like the hay carts – often with similarly predictable results. I’m still not convinced that first-person platforming isn’t just an inherently terrible idea: there’s really no way to avoid getting a face full of wall whenever you’re trying to scale something, and it’s annoying having to peer around from a bit of piping like some curious sloth just to figure out how close you are to the next bit of climbable geometry.
Admittedly, Dying Light does give Crane a lot of welcome physicality. His head bobs around, and the animations actually acknowledge the presence of his arms and legs, which is more than I can say for a lot of first-person games. Climbing really does feel like climbing, especially when you’re forced to clamber up giant radio towers to impress Techland’s mates at Ubisoft. There’s a very distinct sense of height and vertigo, which is helped along by the fact that Harran is a gorgeous place to look at (at least when the textures have all loaded). Peering across the city from several hundred feet in the air feels like a momentous experience, despite how irritating it probably was to get up there in the first place.
What’s also irritating is the entirety of the early game, for a number of different reasons. The very first thing I did upon leaving the Tower – which is the first of the game’s big hub areas – was sprint over a nearby wall, leap onto a ramshackle hut, drop off the other side and immediately die from fall-damage. That was annoying, considering I could have literally made the jump in real life, but it was made even more so by the fact that Dying Light strips away a chunk of your experience points as punishment for death – sometimes quite a lot of them. I’m not entirely opposed to in-game failure having long-term consequences, but taking away XP is a pretty cheap way of doing that, as it removes any sense of constant progress and just feels like the game is actively going out of its way to waste your time.
And you’ll probably die a lot during the opening portion of the game. For an elite undercover operative Crane is remarkably squishy; he can’t take much punishment, and until you unlock a number of better skills and weapons he’s not too great at dishing it out, either. Combat is much the same as it was in Dead Island, with Condemned-style melee brawling being the focus, an irritatingly-slim stamina meter ensuring you can only take two or three swings before breathlessly collapsing, and the same illogical degradation system giving your big metal crowbar the hardiness of a breadstick. What’s worse is that there’s now much less scope for crafting crazy electrified super-weapons, and a limited number of times you can repair each one before it becomes completely unusable. Don’t get attached to any of your gear in Dying Light, because you’ll inevitably have to bin it sooner rather than later.
Thankfully the ridiculous kick move makes a welcome return, which uses no stamina at all and remains a constant source of amusement throughout the entire game. The best course of action against regular zombies is always to kick their legs out from beneath them and then constantly tap dance on their faces – just be prepared to do it for a while, because Dying Light has remarkably resilient enemies. Beating them over the head with whatever you have to hand certainly speeds the process up, but I stopped doing that eventually, as I was starting to feel like the dude from The Human Centipede 2 when he batters his mother in the dining room.
Crafting is still a thing, but I only really used it for making medkits and Molotov cocktails. Building – or buying, for that matter – really resource- or money-intensive weaponry seems faintly pointless when you consider it’s just going to break at some point, and there’s plenty of stuff littering the environment which does the job perfectly well. Not to mention some of the late-game skills drastically increase your survivability and overall effectiveness, though it’s puzzling that they’re gated behind so many hours’-worth of XP.
That’s the main problem with Dying Light: everything takes too long. The main story is nowhere near interesting enough to justify it, and the repetitive mission structure just exacerbates the issue. Elsewhere, the gameplay itself really isn’t all that fun until a certain amount of progress has been made through the skill trees, and even then I’m not entirely sure any are worth the time and stress investment of actually unlocking them. Your mileage will of course vary depending on how sold you are on the central idea, and there’s certainly some intriguing stuff on the periphery which is absolutely worth checking out if you’re willing to devote yourself to it. Just don’t expect Dying Light to radicalise the zombie apocalypse genre or even do anything you haven’t seen before. It’s essentially Dead Island but better, though being better than something that was already shit four years ago isn’t exactly worthy of too much praise.