It’s difficult not to draw comparisons between Dying Light and Dead Island, especially when the devs themselves stated that this was supposed to distance them from the latter franchise. To be honest, they should have stuck with Dead Island and in some ways I think they have. The games are incredibly similar: both are open-world survival games set during a zombie virus outbreak and both have a combat system that revolves heavily around crafting. Just like Dead Island, Dying Light also features a disorganised story, sub-par voice acting, bad controls and annoying mechanics – all that’s missing is the tropical setting. If they had called this game Dead Island and just moved the city closer to the location of those games, then I’d likely be calling this a good sequel. As it stands, however, this was a poor attempt at a “new” IP.
Dipping it in coffee doesn’t make it a different game, Techland.
Don’t blink during the opening cutscenes of this game, or you’ll miss an awful lot of exposition. The player character, Kyle Crane, enters a quarantined city under the instruction of a spurious and shadowy government organisation – the “GRE” – to find a terrorist and a file. I had to go back to the beginning and re-watch the opening cutscene to find out why because it’s a good long time before it gets mentioned again. The GRE will consistently brow beat you into following orders during the game by reminding Crane to remember “what’s at stake,” which is fine for Crane but not for the confused player. I find it difficult to empathise with the struggles of a character when they won’t tell me what they are.
The progression of the story also feels like it comes in drips and drabs, with things happening for seemingly no reason. Character motivations are only half explained, especially your own, and not in the “it’s a mystery to be discovered,” kind of way. It’s more like “the writers were running out of time, and a brief outline would just have to do,” kind of way. The antagonist is especially guilty of this, with the majority of his dialogue sounding as though the writers took a cursory glance at what Vaas had to say during Farcry 3 and took note. He speaks in half-baked philosophies that barely make sense, and even the player character is, literally, telling him to “just shut the fuck up” by the end.
Which is about as effective as kicking an angry dog to stop it from biting you.
This is to say nothing of the player character’s motivations, which were poorly defined at best throughout the game. Kyle Crane endures an exceeding amount of bullshit in the story and his drive to push through it all is “to do good.” It’s a noble goal, to be sure, but it doesn’t fit with the “nuanced” vibe the rest of the story is trying to give off. There are several moments when Crane objects strongly to the things that are going on around him; it feels as though the game is about to give you – the player – a choice of what to do. Instead, however, he just shrugs to the tune of “for the greater good” and goes along with whatever he’s told to do by whichever NPC he’s speaking to at the time. There’s nothing more frustrating in a game than agreeing with the antagonist while he taunts you about how much of a pussy you’re being.
The narrative itself is poorly constructed and on at least one occasion relied on Deus Ex Machina to keep things progressing. Despite setting up your main objective for the rest of the game, this plot device doesn’t get explained at all and was immediately dropped after it served its purpose. Your interpretation of fulfilling will also have to be pretty wide for the ending, because it’s certainly not how I would describe it. Aside from a few glaring loose ends, without spoilers, don’t get your hopes up for a grand final boss fight – more on that later. These are the same issues that Techland had with Dead Island’s story and, frankly, I haven’t seen much improvement in the interim.
We don’t trust you, outsider, so can you go get our life saving medicine?
In terms of design, Dying Light had a lot of really good ideas. The day/night cycle actually makes a difference to the way you play; daytime is relatively safe and ripe for zombie mashing mayhem while night time is pants shittingly terrifying. The common infected that roam the around during the day are pretty tame on their own or in small, spread out groups. During the night, however, you’ll be persistently hunted by “Night Hunters,” super-zombies that run faster than you, hit harder than you and will absolutely ruin your… night. The result is a process of scavenging and hunting for items during the day, frolicking about in the guts of your fresh kills and otherwise arsing around. The night time is for hiding, sneaking or fleeing for dear life, and this part of the game could feel genuinely tense at times.
The weapons and crafting system is also pretty great, with all of it being done on the fly without needing to find a work bench of some kind. The same goes for repairing your weapons too, which can only be done a number of times per weapon before it breaks completely and makes scavenging all the more important. The only let down to this is that there’ll never be a time when you’ll find yourself in dire straits because of a lack of supplies. Broken weapons can be recycled into repair materials, which you’ll also loot from every second zombie, and medikit ingredients are littered all over the city. This overabundance of supplies being showered all over you wherever you go has a tendency to detract from the difficulty of the game somewhat.
At least two of these per building, on a bad run.
While the intended difficulty isn’t very high, the irritating gameplay creates more artificial difficulty than you can throw a controller at. The map itself is well laid out, with survivors having turned the place into a veritable parkour playground following the apocalypse, traversing it can be a mission in itself. When the free-running works, it works well; dodging and avoiding zombies using free running is a lot more fun than straight up combat. There are more than a few things, however, which will quickly put a stop to any fun-having, and I’m not just talking about Dead Island’s boring, recycled quest-system.
For instance, if zombies begin their lunge attack within a certain distance from you, you’ll be forced to stop before they’ve even touched you. You just have to sit there and watch them lick their lips for a second or two before the face eating actually commences because of… reasons? Zombies can also stop you from running if they hit you, but only sometimes. So far as I could tell, there was no discernible way of knowing when this was going to happen or stopping it from happening. There’s every chance you’ll stop yourself from running too since the button to stop running is the same as the one used to start. Admittedly, I was playing this on a PS4, so the issue likely isn’t prevalent on PC. I died with maddening frequency, however, because of accidental commands for Crane to stop running and become a hot meal.
I had this same expression for most of the game.
Grabbing onto ledges is sometimes a gamble, initially in the beginning, since you can’t just simply grab onto any edge and those you can aren’t exactly highlighted. Even after I felt I’d gotten the hang of it, I could be rubbing Crane’s face directly into the concrete of the roof I want to grab onto, and he’d still sometimes miss. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the exploration mechanics because, where possible, I avoided the combat whenever I could. If traversing Harran’s rooftops could be unpredictable, it’s to say nothing of Dying Light’s “swing and it might hurt them” combat. If a game has combat, I assume the boss fight will as well and that the entire game is leading up to a test of those abilities. This proved too hard a concept for Techland, ending Dying Light with an appropriately disappointing, half-assed Quick Time Event.
As far as presentation goes, there really isn’t much to say. Despite being a modern reimagining of an ancient city, Harran looks pretty standard for your average metropolis. The games overall appearance is lacking in thematic style, save for the ever-present “Hollywood Grain” filter. There’s also an awful lot of stereotypical, middle-eastern “warbling” music, some woman drawing out a stubbed toe over a remix of the Mummy Soundtrack. This music had me confused for most of the game because, of everything they’ve included, it’s the one thing that doesn’t really belong. Harran’s culture is never explicitly or indirectly discussed, despite its setting, and middle-eastern nationality as an identity isn’t a theme that is explored. It’s literally a case of “we have a Middle Eastern setting, so let’s lazily use some vaguely Middle Eastern music.”
This is especially strange when the voice cast of the game runs the full gamut of accents across a surprisingly ethnically diverse cast of characters. The voice actors themselves couldn’t sound less enthusiastic about their roles, with Roger Craig Smith (as Kyle Crane) sounding like Troy Baker giving a casual practice reading of his lines. Much like the rest of the game, Techland clearly had an idea of what they wanted Dying Light to look and sound like, but couldn’t settle on a consistent theme.
Except, perhaps, for excessive grit.
Techland set out to make a triple-A game that distanced themselves from Dead Island, and what they made was a slightly better version of the same game with a different name. The inclusion of free-running as a mechanic is not enough to make Dying Light feel significantly different in comparison to its spiritual predecessor and the game offers precious little else to make itself stand out. It has a lot of good ideas but doesn’t seem to focus on making any of them properly work. The result is a fun idea that’s annoying to play and, when coupled with the shoddy story, it just isn’t a good game.