Ever since Techland announced their follow-up to Dead Island, after breaking off from Deep Silver, it seems lady luck took the phrase “rage against the dying of the light” far too literally. Dying Light has gone through almost every imaginable obstacle, from delays to platform cancellations, all with the pressure of fighting through a reputation of releasing buggy, unpolished products.
But here we are, and Dying Light and Techland have entered the fray with its head above water (shady review copy practices notwithstanding).
While we weren’t exactly hungry for another open world zombie survival, that might be because there hasn’t been a good one in a while. In fact, the last decent entry in the genre must have been Dead Island and its subsequent expansion. While the games are similar in many ways, Dying Light substantially improves upon the formula.
A Compelling Story
For one, Dying Light has an interesting plot, something Dead Island tried and failed to accomplish. In Dying Light, you play as Kyle Crane, a special agent contracting for an emergency response team called the Global Relief Effort, which is tasked with containing the virus and aiding those still inside the fictional and infected city of Harran. Crane’s task, however, is to retrieve a stolen document belonging to the GRE by embedding himself with the various factions of survivors in the quarantined area.
Crane is bitten, but before symptoms start to show, he is rescued and injected with antizin, a maintenance medication, similar to Zombrex in the Dead Rising series. Thus begins a whirlwind of conflict between the greater good motivations of the GRE and the individually focused motivations of the survivor groups, and Crane is caught right in the middle.
Running in the Dark
All told, it’s a premise with lots of possibility for twists and turns, but it’s still just a vessel for Techland to deliver on its promise of intricate and dynamic parkour-inspired gameplay. And delivery hasn’t been this satisfying since the days of “30 minutes or less” pizza deals.
Without the presence of a fast-travel system, moving around in Dying Light needed to be an entertaining experience. Techland’s revolutionary, real-time-analysis approach to the free-running mechanic removes the “chore” designation from traveling long distances. Harran has few, if any, established routes, making each trip from point A to B different. With double-digit hours into the game, I’ve yet to go the same way to a location twice, all while taking in the sights of an absolutely gorgeous scenery.
That’s only half of what Dying Light has to call its own. Techland added a day/night cycle, something that’s been conceptually in the works since Dead Island: Riptide, and it changes everything about how you play the game. At night, the easily navigable city becomes flooded with UV-sensitive “volatiles,” a zombie type that is completely impractical to fight, if not downright impossible. Their suspicions can be piqued by noise from running, falling or fighting. Dying Light is a full-blown stealth game at night time, and that adds a layer of depth that keeps the game fresh every time the sun goes down.
Techland’s revolutionary, real-time-analysis approach to the free-running mechanic removes the “chore” designation from traveling long distances.
Why would anyone go out at night? The same reason players flock to Call of Duty certain weekends after not picking it up in days—double experience, baby! You can also rack up a ton of survival points by doing quests at night, and other quests simply require you to go out at night. While it was at first tempting to find a safe house and sleep through every night, it soon became tempting to stay out at night. Dying Light triple dog dares you (gasp) to go out at night, and who could back down from that?
Nuts and Bolts
Dying Light has three expansive skill trees – Survivor, Agility and Power. Like the Elder Scrolls series, Dying Light sports a “practice makes perfect” leveling system: if you want to get better at freerunning, you have to freerun. If you want to get better at doing quests, you have to do more quests, which builds up survivor points. If you die, however, you lose survivor points. Since you can’t drop levels by death, though, it’s only a small annoyance, rather than a full on punishment for dying. That said, it’s still loads better than the “slip Death a $20, and he’ll look the other way” method used by Dead Island.
Dying Light improved upon the weapon crafting and repairing system. Each weapon has a limited (and usually small) number of repairs, forcing players to constantly cycle through weapons, rather than pick a favorite weapon and repair it until the end of time. This adds to the freshness of each time you launch the game. Weapon upgrades are treated like supplies, so scavenging and doing quests is once again encouraged.
With those weapons, though, Techland is showing off what it always had going for it – combat. The enemies in Dying Light are much more than a health bar and react to hits at different parts of the body in appropriate ways. This is probably the most polished part of the game, as Techland has been working on this since before this game existed. There hasn’t been more satisfying melee combat than in Dying Light.
The enemies in Dying Light are much more than a health bar.
Many instances in combat, and in the game in general, showcase a suspect use of quick-time events, to say the least. This is becoming more of an expected evil with every AAA release. Two of the major 2014 Game of the Year candidates, Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation relied heavily on QTEs, so why shouldn’t 2015? We’ll now commence a collective eye roll.
The Buddy System
While going out at night is always scary, it’s better with a friend, as is the almost the entire game. Dying Light adds some friendly competition in the mix, prompting players in many different scenarios to pit their abilities against each other with an experience bonus on the line. See an air drop? First one there gets 1000 agility points. See a Goon? 100 Power points to the player who does the most damage. This plays a lot like spicing up your love life; it keeps you and your friends from devolving into routine, so you can continue to have and to hold as long as you both shall live.
Unfortunately, this too needs a little more attention from the developers. To even accept a side quest, all players have to be talking to the person requesting it at the same time. It’s quite frankly a waste of time, when it should be easy enough to play a grade-school cinematic for one player while another dicks around in the shop. Dying Light‘s suspect use of quick-time-events can not be overstated, and shows up the most in multiplayer when seeing your friend go through one breaks immersion in a hurry.
While Dying Light borrows key concepts from other games (including a copy-pasted lock-picking mechanic), the thing about those games is they’re not nearly as fun. When it comes down to it, that’s what Dying Light has going for it: it’s an innovative Dead Island that you can actually enjoy playing. Understand that this doesn’t mean it’s a mindless, casual thrill ride. A lot of thought went into every aspect of the game, from combat to level design, featuring multiple expansive and distinct areas of Harran.
Just when the game starts to feel samey and repetitive, you get to a new area with new people and objectives. Techland did everything it wanted to do and more, delivered on all its promises and made a game that I haven’t found a good reason to stop playing. Dying Light has assured everyone that the zombie-survival genre can’t be ignored.
James Kozanitis is a Contributor for CraveOnline’s Gaming channel. You can follow him on Twitter @JamKozy.
No copy provided by publisher. Dying Light is available for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.