TL;DR- As the first AAA title of the year, Techland’s Dying Light manages to come out swinging as an impressive new IP for the former developer of the Dead Island franchise. Aside from a lackluster story, the seamless addition of parkour into the zombie universe, along with fun-filled co-op makes this game worth surviving.
After being briefed by the GRE on his mission to recover a top-secret file from a rogue operative hiding somewhere in Harran, Kyle Crane leaps out of a plane and finds himself in the middle of a zombie-infested city on a quest to find out which of two factions of survivors has the key to the cure. Despite being one of the coolest introductions to a video game in quite some time, this first sequence reveals that you’re probably in for a pretty predictable undead experience. If you couldn’t tell by the set-up, our fearless protagonist and glorified errand boy winds up running back and forth between the two main groups of the city– Brecken’s survivors at the tower and Rais’ bandit-like rebels– completing missions for each and reporting back to the GRE on his progress. While there’s no surprise as to who the real bad guys are here, the saving grace for Dying Light’s blasé plot are the characters themselves.
Although Crane is given no back story, except for maybe the fact that he’s naturally gifted at parkour, the supporting cast and the things they’re involved in manage to keep you invested in their lives. Without going into spoiler territory, two of the NPCs Crane encounters in the game are involved in some of the more interesting parts of the plot. Even the characters from the seemingly boring side missions make you feel like the fetch quests have more gravity and importance than they actually do. A lot of this is in large part due to the character designs and how the voice actors deliver their performances.
It’s also a bit odd how tonally confused the game is. In contrast to Techland’s wackier zombie franchise Dead Island, Dying Light paints a far darker picture. Unfortunately, even though the grittier vibe is present, the developers couldn’t help but slip in jokes that often broke the game’s immersion factor. One of the first areas that harbored misplaced humor was actually at the very beginning when Crane is being shown how to jump, free-run and leap to victory. After completing an obstacle course, the other character points out how Crane is a parkour prodigy. It is also consistently pointed out, thanks in large part to Rais, how Crane is just a dancing monkey who doesn’t make his own choices. Although this is funny and sort of charmingly self aware, it makes you wonder what sort of experience you are supposed to be getting from the game.
Aside from the story, there are a lot of things to do in the game that more than validate the experience. For starters, parkour (aka free-running) is the highlight here and is implemented impressively. Though not perfect, once you become more adept at it, you will be effortlessly flying from building to building, across roof tops, over fences, by traps and away (or into a horde of) zombies. While using the bumper to jump may seem a bit cumbersome at first, once you adjust, it becomes apparent how perfect it is. Dedicating the right bumper as the jump button allows your thumb to focus on the right stick instead, which you’ll use for looking where you need to go next. It is a bit of a learning curve if you’re not used to it mostly because you actually have to look at what you are trying to climb before you take a leap of faith. This makes climbing sky-high towers quite frustrating at times, especially when you are not sure where you need to go next. With that being said, it is definitely nice to have so much control over your parkour traversal without sticking to absolutely everything like in other games that involve free-running (*cough Assassin’s Creed cough*). Add in three of your friends, and you have four flying ninjas taking down hoards of zombies together. I cannot stress enough how much having other people with you amplifies how much of a fun filled adventure this is.
The entire 30+ hour campaign is co-op compatible, outside of the opening missions, which serves as tutorials. With up to three friends playing, I didn’t spot any real issues except some noticeable frame-rate drops when you have a full team of players and the screen is full of zombies. Another cool addition is the on-the-fly challenges, which occasionally pop up and allow you to create competitions with your friends. These include who can kill the most zombies, collect the most loot, who can reach an objective the fastest, and many more. This is an excellent gameplay element that adds some excitement to the game during its some slow moments. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough variety in the challenges to keep you coming back for more. Great idea, but subpar execution.
Another high point in the game that sets it apart from other titles is the variety in gameplay that the day and night cycle bring to the table. Day time, which is probably when most people will spend most of their time, features a wide variety of zombies, which are actually referred to as “zombies” in this game and not some abstract scientific term. You’ll encounter everything from the cultural flagship slow zombies, to screamers that will attract hoards of enemies, to hazmat suit wearing undead with explosive tanks on their backs. Once the sun goes down, however, undead creatures that were once slow become fast and rabid. There are also new enemies called volatiles appear and aim vigilantly to track you down. As if the darkness making it a bit difficult to see wasn’t tough enough. The first time I was caught out of a safe zone at night was beyond terrifying. It was difficult keeping my eye on climbable objects, oncoming enemies, and my onscreen map. Luckily, once you get stronger through upgrades and wield better weapons, completing missions at night isn’t as impossible as it once seemed. The other great thing about completing missions after dark is that you gain double the XP that you would have earned if it was light outside.
While you start off with a rusty wrench and a couple of rotted floor boards, the weapon variety later on is pretty expansive. Anything from wrenches, hammers, swords, machetes, guns and ninja stars can be found throughout Dying Light‘s environment. There are a lot of weapons, and all of them are customizable with the likes of fire, poison, bleed damage, etc, and can be given stat boosts that increase their ability. You will also have to take care of the items and be wary of how quickly they wear down because most of them can only be repaired a limited amount of times. These weapons, along with the skill trees, will help you master the combat.
The skill trees at first seem a bit overwhelming with how far they branch out. They’re also a bit confusing because there are different ways of increasing each. For example, killing zombies will grant you skill points for the power tree, reaching supply drops first and completing story missions will give you survivor skill points, and free-running around the map and scaling buildings will give you options in the agility tree. Thankfully, though power-ups are really meaningful, they aren’t absolutely necessary if you don’t want them. The hands-down best upgrade is the grappling hook, which is made available once you hit level 12 on the power skill tree. This invaluable tool makes getting across the expansive map, which is split into two main areas, a lot easier. This comes especially welcomed when you consider the fact that there is no fast travel between safe houses.
A cool tidbit that made the PS4 version more enjoyable was the brilliant utilization of the Dual Shock 4. Hearing constant radio interaction come out of the controller and seeing the LED actually light up when you turn on Crane’s flashlight helped further immerse me into the game. Also, during co-op mode, holding down the touch pad warps you to your partners. This was extremely useful when new players entered the game or when the team was scattered while searching for items. Hitting the touch pad also brought up the menu, which isn’t anything special but a nice touch.
All in all, despite having a mediocre story and a few frame-rate issues during online co-op, Dying Light shines in many other areas. The realistic parkour, four player co-op, and meaningful skill trees made journeying across Harran and massacring hoards of the evil dead more fun than ever.
– Realistic parkour
– Online co op is a lot of fun
– Meaningful skill tree upgrades
– Day and Night cycle is unique
– Predictable Story
– Gameplay chugs during online co-op
4 out of 5 burritos
This review was completed using a PS4 copy of Dying Light. The game hit stores January 27, 2015 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.