Developed by Techland. Published by Warner Bros. Released January 27, 2015. Available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Review copy provided by Publisher.
Development of Dead Island may have been handed off to another developer, but that doesn’t mean that Techland is out of the zombie games business. Instead, they’re starting fresh with a brand-new IP: Dying Light. Dying Light might not be the next Dead Island, but it does have a lot of the same DNA, and unfortunately, a lot of the same problems.
In Dying Light, you’re dropped into the jump boots of Kyle Crane, a contractor sent to the fictional city of Harran. It’s been a few months since a strange disease broke out in Harran, and you’re on a mission to recover some stolen information. To that end, you parachute in, immediately finding yourself surrounded by hostiles, both living and undead. Ingratiating yourself with the locals means that you need to gain their trust, and that means it’s time to do some missions.
Dying Light is a game about avoidance, or at least that’s how it’s presented. There are zombies, but they can’t climb very well. To avoid them, you’re going to learn to be an expert at parkour, but don’t expect Titanfall / Mirror’s Edge wallrunning here. Climbing, jumping, and running are your entire arsenal.
The game’s system for parkour is a bit strange. Rather than approach a wall and jump, or leap in the direction you’re facing, Dying Light has you look at the ledge you want to grab, and then jump. At first blush this sounds simple enough, but in practice, it’s awkward as can be. Since I was reviewing the PS4 build of the game, that meant running with the left stick while trying to turn and orient the camera with the right stick, which was far more difficult than it should have been. Pressing the right shoulder button to jump, I found myself missing the mark and falling far too often. I’m not sure, but I feel certain it would have been much easier with a keyboard and mouse.
Luckily, falling is not always the end. As long as you’re not too high up, you’re not dead, you’re just stuck dealing with the undead that are just about everywhere. In the resource-starved city of Harran, guns are hard to come by, and ammo is scarce. If you want something reliable for dealing with the zombies, you need to find a melee weapon. Luckily, debris is plentiful, and improvised weapons, like pieces of pipe or lumber, can be found without much trouble. You’ll also get help finding gear from the allies you make in town. Most importantly, you can drop kick the zombies. Yes, you can drop kick them into all sorts of hazards, whether it’s off the side of a building, into spikes, or into whatever deadly debris is lying nearby. The drop kick is your most potent ally for keeping zombies at arm’s length, and you’ll use it a ton.
Unfortunately, any weapon you find will start to break down as soon as you begin using it. This is one of the more frustrating parts of the game, as that metal pipe you just grabbed disintegrates after two hits, leaving you with nothing in hand to deal with the now-agitated enemy. You can improve durability as you progress through the game, but the unpredictability of it is definitely a turn-off. Even worse is the stamina meter. Especially early in the game, you get only a few swings with your weapon before you’re too winded to fight. It makes little to no sense when your “special-ops guy who just parachuted alone into a zombie-infested city” character is too winded to fight back against the undead monster in your face, and it definitely breaks down the character and the narrative when it happens.
Simply put, the combat is a little clunky. First-person melee combat is hard to get right, and like most efforts, Dying Light can quickly become an exercise in frustration. I died on numerous occasions simply because I thought my weapon would hit a zombie, and it didn’t. Even when it works, it doesn’t take long for the novelty of hitting the zombie with the pipe to wear off. You’ll also frequently end up grabbed by zombies and facing that most-dreaded video game foe, the quick-time event. Perhaps a better word for it is tedious.
Compounding the problem is a quest system that is filled to the brim with fetch quests that send you all over the map to retrieve items and bring them back. Sometimes, you’ll be sent to find a clue, that leads to a clue, that leads to an item that you have to bring back. There’s very little variety in the missions, causing them to quickly feel repetitive. Adding to that is the fact that you end up running back and forth across the map in nearly every mission, since there’s no fast travel system.
Outside of killing zombies and running fetch quests, there are plenty more things to do. There’s a fairly basic crafting system that lets you make items like medkits and flares. There are radio towers to climb, items to collect, and all the things you’d expect to see in an open world game. It’s just that none of them are done in any unique way. They feel like filler; items that were added in to make sure they were there to fill the box on a checklist.
It’s a shame that these problems exist, because they distract from what could be the core of a great game idea. For all its faults, there are a lot of interesting ideas in Dying Light. The day/night cycle is a nice addition. Nightfall brings out the Volatiles – pale, naked zombies that are faster, stronger, and more dangerous than their peers. They’ll also alert other zombies to your location. Once the sun goes down, the choice to venture outside is a much more deadly one. It’s more rewarding, though, as experience points are doubled at night, meaning you’ll be weighing the risks each day at dusk.
The parkour system works well when the controls cooperate, and the idea behind it is solid. Rather than make a game about fighting zombies and parkouring around the city, Techland may have been better served to focus on the navigation and avoidance that feels so good here and less on the “fighting zombies” action sequences. Much like Dead Island, Dying Light just breaks down a bit once you’ve played if past the 15 -20 hour mark.
In the end, it feels like Dying Light is a 15 hour game that was stretched out to 40 hours. There are good points in the game; they’re just buried under a lot of unnecessary busywork. I was hoping for Mirror’s Edge with zombies, but I ended up with Dead Island with parkour.
Bottom Line: Dying Light isn’t a bad game, it’s just one that feels like it goes on a bit too long, and was too invested in the trappings of an “open world” to make itself really stand out.
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of zombie games, liked Dead Island, or are really into parkour and open worlds, you’ll have fun with Dying Light Just don’t expect anything new and groundbreaking.[rating=3.0]