I must admit, I wasn’t a fan of the Dead Island series, which was developer Techland’s previous effort in the Zombie genre. I felt the gameplay was flawed and sloppy, and it didn’t offer much in terms of its campy narrative to keep me interested. I beat the first Dead Island, but by the time I was done, I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, I need to play this again with a different character!” but, “Ugh, thank God that’s over with!” To make matters worse, I must have been one of the seven gamers that didn’t care for the gameplay in Mirror’s Edge, despite a totally kick-ass soundtrack and ultra cool sci-fi future. Needless to say, when I first learned about Dying Light and its Mirror’s Edge-like parkour running meets Dead Island premise, my interest level in the game was minimal on a really good day. However, the combination of my low expectations and Techland’s ability to improve upon the Dead Island formula has resulted in an exciting survival horror game that has me hooked long after the campaign’s credits have rolled.
Dying Light (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
PRICE: $59.99 (PSN)/$59.99 (XBL)
Techland has improved on the gameplay mechanics greatly when compared to the ones featured in Dead Island. The combat is much more satisfying, and the new abilities that you unlock in each of the three skill trees (Survivor, Agility, and Power) give you a fighting chance as you progress though the story. The crafting ability, for example, allows you to create more efficient weapons that last much longer. This is especially useful when you’ve created modified weapons containing elemental effects, such as fire and electricity, as they do more damage. The controls are responsive, if not a little loose at times, and the parkour system is — for the most part — quite exhilarating. The game does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of speed when you’re climbing, running, and sliding along rooftops. There have been a few instances where my character wouldn’t grab on to a ledge or ladder I was looking at, prompting me to fall. While a few of those times may very well have been user error on my part, other times the game simply failed to recognize a climbable surface. The controls will take some getting used to — there is a moderate-to-steep learning curve to getting the basics down — but through the experience system, you’ll unlock new skills that will improve your ability to move quicker through the city of Harran.
One area that is disappointing is the gunplay. I’m well aware the game is geared more towards melee combat, but it just seems odd that a dude (i.e. our protagonist, Crane) that is trained in halo jumps and has run “operations” in the past would have firearm controls that are a bit on the sluggish side. Clicking down on the right analog stick aims down the sights of your equipped gun, which is a mechanic that feels outdated compared to today’s first-person shooter standards. None-the-less, the act of shooting zombies in the head and watching them explode is satisfying, but it would have been nice to have weapon handling more in line with Crane’s obvious skillset. Despite a few minor issues with the control scheme — some which can be frustrating when you’re in a pinch — it doesn’t take away from the level of excitement and fun that can be had when everything is working properly, which is the case most of the time anyway.
Another strong point here is the presentation of Dying Light, which far exceeds the one featured in both of the Dead Island games. The story begins with Kyle Crane, an undercover operative preparing to enter the quarantined city of Harran via a halo jump, working on behalf of the GRE Corporation. You’re tasked with locating a file that contains detailed information related to a possible cure for the disease that has turned thousands of the citizens of Harran into zombies. However, the development of said cure is incomplete, and using it in its current state may prove fatal. The man holding the file ransom, Kadir “Rais” Suleiman, blames the GRE Corporation for the death of his brother, and is threatening to go public with the contents of those files. Upon your arrival, you are rescued from a mob of zombies by members of a local faction in desperate need of Antizin, a drug used to keep those bitten from turning into zombies. You try to blend in with them, running some missions to prove your worth to those in charge, with the hope you’ll get the inside track on the GRE file’s whereabouts. You’re never sure who to trust — the violent factions who will do anything to preserve their existence, or the corporation you work for — and there are interesting twists along the way to discovering the truth. The story is bolstered by excellent voice acting that is convincing throughout. It’s over-the-top when necessary, and surprisingly emotional at times. It’s not until you reach Old Town in the second act when you start to realize people’s intentions may not be what they seem, and an entertaining narrative is what makes this 15-16 hour romp enjoyable over the course of the game. It’s a much grittier world than the one in the Dead Island games, but there are moments of levity sprinkled throughout to prevent Dying Light from taking itself too seriously. The synthesized soundtrack is totally bad-ass, clearly channeling the John Carpenter movies of the 80’s such as Escape from New York or The Thing. The game oozes a distinct personality that should resonate well with fans of similarly themed movies from that era.
While the main storyline has been intriguing, the side-quests aren’t quite as interesting. Thankfully, some of them consist of multiple objectives so they are more than just your garden variety “Go here, get this, and bring it back” missions. Also, many of these side-quests are much more fun cooperatively. Tasks such as clearing out safe zones and hostile outposts (see: Far Cry) are not always as easy as they appear to be, so having the extra help proves beneficial. If you jump into a game with three others who aren’t using a headset, or are in a private chat, it can be difficult at times to know what they’re doing or how they plan to approach a mission. Open communication between teammates is the key to successful, and ultimately more fun, cooperative sessions. While having the ability to play cooperatively makes for a good time, the actual online experience may vary in terms of performance. I ran into a few instances where it appeared the game’s AI couldn’t handle multiple human players, and it resulted in some glitchy behaviors by the zombies. One moment there would be a zombie in front of me, and the next they’d glitch off to the side or above me to fight someone else. It’s also distracting to see notifications constantly popping up as random people try to join your game, even though it’s already full. It’s possible a host with a bad connection could’ve caused some of these issues, but I experienced it enough to suggest that these are issues that Techland will have to clean up in future updates. Again, despite a few minor annoyances, when I was in a game where everyone communicated and there were little-to-no performance issues, it made for an even more entertaining experience.
Two other aspects of Dying Light help it rise above above most other survival horror games: the Day/Night dynamic that happens in-game, and the “Be The Zombie” multiplayer game mode. When nighttime settles in, players are introduced to the Volatiles, a breed of super zombie that is highly aggressive, extremely powerful, and hell bent on chasing you across the entire city alongside any other nearby Volatiles it can call out for. The sense of dread and isolation in the darkness leaves you feeling extremely vulnerable, even when using your flashlight to see. Nighttime missions require you to play with stealth in mind as you make your way through the city, keeping your eyes glued to your mini-map as you attempt to avoid Volatiles and their vision cones. In the event that you are spotted, it becomes an all-out sprint as you try to break the creature’s line of sight so that you can hide. You can use items such as a UV light, flares, or traps set up around the city to slow the Volatiles in pursuit, but your best bet is to either find a safe house or hide long enough until they give up their chase. The big bonus of completing missions at night is that you earn extra XP with everything you do. It introduces a high-risk versus high-reward strategy, and it adds a whole new dynamic to the game.
The other mode that’s surprisingly entertaining is “Be The Zombie,” which allows one player to control a zombie — called the Night Hunter — even more powerful and mobile than the Volatiles. Once you’ve selected this mode, you are randomly placed into another player’s game, assuming they’ve enabled Zombie Invasion in their online options. If the host accepts your challenge, their story progression is paused while the match is set-up. Once it begins, the host (and up to 3 others if he/she is playing cooperatively) is tasked with destroying five zombie nests randomly generated throughout a large portion of the game’s map. The humans have ten lives shared between them, so working together and watching each other’s back is integral. The player controlling the Night Hunter must protect the nests and eliminate the humans before they destroy all five. The humans’ best chance to succeed is to make sure someone is at the ready with a UV light, which drains most of the Night Hunter’s super-abilities, leaving it vulnerable to melee attacks. That being said, the Night Hunter is still a big challenge to kill, even if you’re working as a group. Abilities such as a ground stomp, which knocks any nearby UV-wielding humans off balance, leaving them open for brutal melees, as well as an insta-kill pouncing technique, can be advantageous to Night Hunter players when used properly. When controlling the Night Hunter, I’ve had far more success stalking my prey and waiting for human players to become isolated for an easy kill, as opposed to charging in head-on. The Night Hunter has its own skill tree that can be ranked up as well, but only during that particular game mode. It doesn’t feel tacked on at all, and is extremely frantic and terrifying.
What can I say? Dying Light exceeded my low expectations by a large margin. It’s not a perfect game; there are minor online technical issues as well as a few control scheme quirks that may cause some frustration. However, it speaks volumes about a game when, despite its imperfections, you still have a great time whether you’re playing alone or with friends. An open world game requires a solid narrative, characters to care about, and heinous villains in order to keep people interested, and Dying Light contains all of these and then some. Toss in the brilliant nighttime dynamic that dramatically changes the way you play the game, and the surprisingly intense “Be The Zombie” mode, and you’ve got yourself a package with a ton of content. Now, if you don’t mind, it’s getting dark outside and I have some side-quests to complete. Good night, and good luck!
- Excellent soundtrack, visuals, and voice acting
- The day/night risk versus reward XP system
- Co-op and "Be The Zombie" multiplayer modes
- Parkour system is exhilarating when it works...
- ...and frustrating when it doesn't.
- Some minor network performance issues and gripes
- Gunplay controls feel sluggish and dated