Ambition is perhaps the most finicky aspect of video game design. If a project is too ambitious for its own good , it could wind up a technical mess or an exercise in potentially tasteless storytelling. A game that isn’t ambitious enough fails to differentiate itself from the pack, leaving players wondering if said title is worthy of taking up their time. Dying Light presents perhaps the most fascinating — and troubling — case of quirky developer ambition we’ve seen in quite some time. If one were to simply play through a number of Techland’s outstanding side missions, they might find themselves astounded by a series of boundary-pushing mini-narratives. However, when combined with a fairly predictable main story, an open world that seems to do its best to discourage exploration, and perhaps the most blatant villain ripoff the gaming industry has ever seen, Dying Light winds up merely being a solid game that could have been so much more.
Players take the role of Kyle Crane, an undercover operative of a mysterious humanitarian organization known only as the GRE. Crane is sent into Harran, Turkey with the task of recovering a file containing information on a partial cure to the city’s overwhelming zombie virus with potentially devastating consequences. A number of allies and enemies pop up in the process (the majority of which don’t have Turkish accents), and Crane winds up getting more and more emotionally invested as he tries to cure Harran of its apocalyptic problems. Without spoiling anything directly, everything you think is going to happen in the main story ends up happening. There are ample opportunities for Dying Light to have its “Would You Kindly?” moment, complete with tense music setting up each potential twist, but in the end, that special moment never arrives. This is an apocalyptic tale built around a single survivor, rather than the story of a single survivor living in the midst of devastation. A twist or two away from having a decent story, Dying Light is instead left with a tale that would have been pretty good in 2005.
One can’t discuss Dying Light‘s main narrative without discussing the Far Cry 3 sized elephant in the room. Rais, the main villain that consistently impedes Crane’s progress, and, coincidentally, has the file he’s looking for, is a psychopathic foreigner with a penchant for torture, protagonist-manipulation and long-winded rants of delusional insanity. Sound familiar? If you’ve played the aforementioned Ubisoft title, you’re likely to get more than a few shades of the legendary Vaas whenever Rais shows up. Whether or not Techland made the conscious decision to make Rais a seemingly obvious knock-off of one of the greatest video game villains of all-time, the fact remains that anyone who has played Far Cry 3 might find themselves asking some awkward questions. After all, what makes Vaas such a great villain was how dynamic and original he was. How can Rais be original and dynamic when he feels almost identical to someone we spent time fearing over two years ago? Rais’ value as a villain is immediately lessened by the fact that he feels to similar to someone the world has already seen before, making every line of his dialogue feel slightly weaker than it should be.
Dying Light‘s lackluster story is redeemed by some downright fantastic side missions. In these bite-sized chunks of content, we get to witness Techland flex its narrative muscles and tread lines that often seem to be off-limits in video games. The first of these missions take Crane on a journey to gather anti-seizure medication for an ally disguising a brutal head-wound. The only known location for said medicine is in the house of a severely mentally-challenged man who has completely dissociated from reality following the death of his mother two years prior. Even though his mother is long gone, he continues to visit the local pharmacy to pick up her anti-seizure medicine, as he is simply unable to comprehend the truth. Crane is sent off to gather chocolates and a video in order for this gentleman to celebrate what can only be described as the most depressing Mother’s Day ever. If you think that sounds a bit heavy, you’re spot on. Most video games wouldn’t dare to insert a blatantly mentally-challenged character into such a bleak scenario, let alone have him deal with the death of the only person he loved, yet Dying Light does so gracefully. Add this to the mission where Crane searches an abandoned apartment building for an orphan child’s lost “friend,” one where a player stumbles upon a kind soul who initially appears to be a pedophile, plus a lunatic convinced that aliens caused the outbreak, and you have the makings of some truly exciting moments. It’s a shame that Dying Light hid its most emotional themes inside missions many players won’t even see, as there’s a lot to like here. It’s always been puzzling to consider how games portray apocalypse survivors as completely level and sane when so many of us would collectively lose our damn minds. What’s even more depressing is that these quests show that Techland had the ability to create a central narrative that was risky, emotional, and novel, but instead decided to play it safe.
Much has been made of Techland’s decision to feature parkour in combination with classic Dead Island-style melee combat. While those looking for an almost Titanfall-like experience will find themselves wondering why Dying Light feels so slow, an extremely rudimentary Far Cry meets Mirror‘s Edge meets Dead Island comparison does the gameplay complete justice. Before leveling up the three respective skill tiers (Survivor, Agility, and Power) by completing quests and tasks, free-running, and damaging enemies, respectively, players will find themselves severely under-powered. This isn’t the type of game that sets you off with all the coolest abilities and gear from the get-go, which may be disappointing to those who made their purchases based on trailers and early gameplay footage. Dying Light‘s parkour essentially comes down to climbing, jumping, sliding, and hurdling over enemies, and while movement feels good, it often feels a bit less exciting than it could be. Whereas Sunset Overdrive created a world where Fast Travel seemed like a crime, Dying Light‘s movement can often lead one to think, “Well, here we go again.” There’s certainly some pleasure to be had from escaping hordes of super-charged zombies in the midst of nightfall, but there’s often a sense that you’re basically just climbing on stuff. A bit more emphasis on wall-running and mid-air maneuvering would have taken Dying Light‘s parkour from good to special.
Combat on the other hand, ranges from clunky to passable, and is never more exciting than simply running away. For the first eight or so hours, players will often have to hit enemies upwards of five times to finally get a KO, and while some may appreciate this methodical approach to fighting, it feels at odds with the sense of speed Dying Light is shooting for. In a game where the story, environment, and movement feel entirely built around the player, it seems strange to have a single aspect in which the protagonist is lacking. The good news is that players are eventually treated to more powerful weapons and modifications (which are accessed through a simple and very well-designed crafting system), as well as an expanded Power skillset as Dying Light progresses. Being able to throw exploding throwing stars at hordes of undead is certainly dumb fun for everyone, and it’s hard to hate swinging an electrically-charged machete at a ten-foot tall zombie. Tense moments are frequent during the occasionally frustrating, but generally awesome, chase-heavy dynamic night sequences that play host to stronger and faster enemies. Still, there isn’t a moment where melee combat feels particularly fluid, and every moment that involves cover-based first-person shooting feels lackluster at best. This isn’t to say that Dying Light isn’t a fun game to play, as it certainly has instances of genuine excitement, but it succeeds at being passable in every area of its gameplay while being exceptional in none.
Dying Light‘s open world, whose PS4 version is met with moderate aliasing and occasional texture pop-in, is a bizarre combination of exciting and puzzling. On the plus side, nearly everything in the environment can be traversed, allowing players the freedom to maneuver about the world in the way in which they see fit. If a certain ledge appears climbable, it likely is (this is doubly true for the grappling hook that is available later on), which spawns a number of creative paths from Point A to Point B. If we’re grading Dying Light solely on how well its open-world caters to player movement, this would almost certainly be one of the best games in recent memory. However, a great deal of variables go into open-world design in 2015, and Dying Light fails in a major way when it comes to distraction. Those who have spent any amount of time with Far Cry 4 know that something is always happening. You might be wandering down the side of the road when a major shootout occus, causing you to flee into a den of tigers, which causes another firefight and escape sequence before the start of a new side mission. It’s incredibly easy to fool around in Kyrat and forget that a story is even taking place; in Harran, every design decision seems to force players back onto the main path. Side missions and important events are designated with a white exclamation mark on the map, but characters marked with said exclamation points could also trigger worthless two-line dialogue exchanges, thus making questing a chore. Random survivors needing assistance will pop up from time to time, but the rewards gained from saving them are often just as good as those gained by looting the endless supply of corpses and chests. Supply caches can be taken from Rais’ soldiers, but the gunfire necessary to kill them could signal an insurmountable horde that outweighs the Survival Points gained. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Techland’s design decisions actively discourage players from attempting to locate some of Dying Light‘s best content. Sure, after completing the main story, you could go back and experience a great deal of this content, but that assumes that you found the campaign interesting enough to keep playing after its conclusion.
Dying Light should be considered a primarily single-player experience, but online options exist for those looking to get some cooperative and/or competitive action in. When the standard 2-4 player cooperative mode is working, it not only gives players the chance to tackle quests as a team, but it introduces intriguing dynamic competitions. For instance, the option to start a contest designed to see which player can kill the most zombies or collect the most loot will often appear, prompting each player to opt-in shortly afterwards. These friendly contests are a great way for players to prove they’re the best version of Kyle Crane, though it’s not uncommon to see competitions fail to begin due to general apathy. Unfortunately for those seeking a fantastic online co-op experience, the PlayStation 4 iteration of Dying Light‘s cooperative mode is met with frequent framerate drops whenever the action starts to heat up. If players are surrounded by zombies, its not uncommon to see the framerate dip to a consistently unplayable 20 frames-per-second. For a game already running at 30 frames-per-second (even lower if there is a fair amount of fire on the screen) in single-player, this is certainly less than ideal. “Be the Zombie” mode introduces a number of unique traversal and combat mechanics into a five-hive tower defense mode, but connection issues render the experience broken in its current state. Through a combination of matchmaking disfunction and a low number of available games, getting into a match is essentially impossible, meaning Be the Zombie will require patching to be playable. This is truly a shame, as playing as a Night Walker feels more novel and exciting than playing as Crane.
Techland’s latest title is by no means perfect, nor is it one of the best zombie games, but it’s solid enough to warrant a playthrough. Even though its story will leave most players unsatisfied and its open-world design is questionable at best, its phenomenal side stories and often entertaining gameplay will prevent distaste. This isn’t the next The Last of Us, and its narrative comes nowhere close to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but the framework is in place for a generally good time. If Techland had simply expanded upon some of the risks it took with Dying Light‘s side missions, this could have been a truly special experience. In fact, those side missions are the single biggest reason to sink your chompers into this open-world adventure. Unfortunately, for every two steps forward, Dying Light takes a solid step back. Still, if you’re looking for the game that Dead Island was supposed to be, you could certainly do a lot worse.