Dying Light isn’t quite done. It needs to go back in the oven for another ten minutes or so. It’s not cooked all the way through; nothing is raw but many ingredients simply aren’t complete. It’s one hell of a recipe, too: An open-world survival-based action game, featuring a robust character advancement system, a focus on strategy and timing, and a compelling (albeit predictable) narrative with lots of great side dishes. Developer Techland, while not novice chefs, still aren’t quite to the level of elite designers in my eyes, simply because their meals and presentations are always just a tad disappointing.
Take the graphics, for example. Now, there’s a lot to like here; the post-apocalyptic setting is rife with horribly transformed humans that now thrive on flesh and blood, and the crumbling structures and improvised shelters are atmospheric. The detail you find throughout the suffering city of Harran can be borderline exquisite and some of the bosses are beautifully drawn and defined. The animations are pretty cool, too, although I think we should be beyond rag-doll physics at this point. Then there are the downsides: The lighting can be erratic, the special effects aren’t always spot-on, and the overall world design has some serious flaws. Like I said above, incomplete.
So many times, Techland was on their way to video game nirvana. But each time, they fell short due to a variety of technical, artistic, and/or design issues that never fail to rear their ugly heads. For instance, while we get fantastic voice performances and a pretty solid soundtrack, I’m just not a fan of the effects. The environmental effects are decent but the combat effects are just plain strange in my eyes; they’re brutal without being realistic and both gut-wrenching and comical at the same time. It’s as if the team wasn’t quite sure of the direction they wanted the audio to take. But like everything else in the game, there are lots of quality pieces to enjoy.
If you’re familiar with Techland’s previous efforts – the Dead Island franchise, for example – you’re probably willing to forgive the technical hang-ups that seem evident in all their productions. Dying Light is definitely a step up in terms of ambition and design, because it’s not about slashing through hordes of zombies with increasingly better weapons. It’s about surviving in an intimidating, forbidding world where zombies have taken over, and nobody is ever safe. You start your adventure as a trained military individual but you’ve still got a long way to go before you start to feel powerful. It’s this sense of build-up and progression that lies at the core of the game’s entertainment.
At the beginning, you must be cautious. Equipped with nothing more than a random blunt object (that will likely break in only a few strikes) and little else, you’re faced with a wide open vista of death and decay, and hundreds of zombies are in your way. If you wish to survive, you really need to stick to the rooftops; zombies suck at climbing, as you’re told early on, so if you’re off the ground, you should be okay. That’s not always true, as the game becomes more hectic and dynamic as the adventure progresses, but escaping with your skin usually means going up. Just get up; get on a car, climb a pole, leap atop a lean-to shed; anything to get away from your attackers. And you better be nimble and quick to react, especially at night.
Okay, so the story is loaded with clichés and the main villain seems a lot like the villains in the Far Cry franchise; i.e., colorful yet totally psychotic. The strange part is that some of the best mini-stories can be found in some of the side missions, several of which are excellently produced. They really give the game that necessary dark, edgy vibe, while more of the main missions feel too…directed. I guess that’s the right word. There are just too many times when the developers don’t let the game’s inherent systems work for themselves; they try to direct the player and force him to do something he shouldn’t have to do. If you’re going to let me off the chain, let me off the chain .
Really, though, the heart that beats at the center of Dying Light is the combination parkour/first-person control scheme that really is unique. It doesn’t move quite like Mirror’s Edge (and there’s more of a focus on combat) and it’s not really like any FPS you’ve played. The controls are solid, even if there’s a bit of a learning curve at the start, and climbing becomes second nature after several hours. Still, it’s just not fluid enough. No matter how quickly and easily I clambered atop structures and raced around to avoid the zombies, it always lacked an intuitive smoothness I crave. It’s great that there are so many things to climb, and I love some of the views you get from atop various buildings, but it just doesn’t work as fluidly as it should.
What I most enjoyed is the stark contrast between day and night. During the day, the zombies just sort of wander about and really won’t bother you unless you get close. At night, however, they become downright vicious and they’ll hunt you mercilessly. They just don’t stop, which means you can’t stop, either. You either need to locate a safe zone or you’re likely gonna die; those rampaging hordes don’t lose your scent easily. This gives the game an entirely new dynamic and you begin to fear sunset. You also sort of anticipate it, knowing that in a short while, you’ll be running for your life. In this game, that’s not an altogether unappealing prospect.
Once again, though, we come back to a few problems with the main campaign. You spend too much time doing silly missions that involve fetching something, flipping a switch, checking out this location, etc. And at some point, you just start to get tired of all the zombies, which never want to leave you alone. The parkour elements can’t be the entire purpose of the action for extended periods of time, especially because these elements aren’t perfectly honed. Plus, there are lots of design concepts that just don’t work as well as the developers intended. You sit there, staring at the screen, wondering why in God’s name they would ever implement such a thing; that wonder is often followed by death, which is no good.
Boomeranging back to the fun stuff, the game does indeed get better with time. There’s the grappling hook along with a slew of other abilities you can learn, all of which makes your adventuring easier and more entertaining. Weapons can be upgraded, skill points can be strategically allocated, and blossoming out of this system is a quest that continues to challenge and satisfy. You just have to accept the design deficiencies, some of the minor control eccentricities, and the clichéd nature of the story. If you can do that and press forward enough to the point where your character finally feels capable, you’ll start to enjoy yourself a lot more. Slicing enemies in half with an electrified machete never gets boring.
If you grow weary of striking out on your own, you can always recruit a few friends to play alongside you. The game supports up to four players, so you can tackle some of the bigger beasties with allies, if you so choose. The Be the Zombie Mode is pretty cool and a nice twist on the standard concept, but there’s not much to it. It’s more fun to experience the suspense of being hunted and when playing with others, that suspense is shared. It turns into a quest filled with fast-paced vim and vigor, and it helps if your buddies are tactful and competent. In many ways, the game shines brighter when playing with others, although it does nothing to solve some of the core issues facing the game.
Dying Light has its moments. It has a great concept and that concept is executed relatively well, with a few minor drawbacks. I still say the villain seems awfully familiar and the story is just way too predictable, and some of the main missions feature design choices that are definite head-scratchers. But the day/night cycle is invigorating, the parkour elements – despite a lack of refinement – add a sense of urgency to the game, and playing with others definitely amps up the tension and enjoyment. I also really like the progression mechanic, mostly because it challenges you to be cautious and strategic throughout. That all being said, it’s a missed opportunity on a number of different levels.
The Good: Great overall concept. Some really excellent lighting and shadows. Top-tier voice acting. Day/night cycle adds urgency and contrast. Progression system rewards the cautious and tactful. Many atmospheric and entertaining side quests. Multiplayer can be lots of fun.
The Bad: Effects aren’t anything special. Narrative is predictable and uninspired. Parkour elements aren’t perfect. Some main missions are just plain frustrating. Not the best world design.
The Ugly: “So close to a masterpiece and yet…so very far.”