Dying Light review: fear of heights

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer Techland
Release Date TBA 2014

Dying Light is developer Techland's big swing for relevance.

The Polish developer has made a name for itself in the shrinking middle tier of game development, putting out games that were at the very least something different than the status quo. With Call of Juarez, it's demonstrated an ability to deliver an interesting, narrative-driven game, and with the original Dead Island, Techland also showed an ambition to make something big in a difficult space — the open-world action game.

But Techland's output has also been inconsistent — games like Call of Juarez: The Cartel, Nail'd and even Dead Island demonstrated both questionable stability and broken in-game systems. Even at the best of times, Techland's reach has just slightly exceeded its grasp. With Dying Light and new publisher Warner Bros Interactive, Techland is reaching for the big leagues.

There are things to like in Dying Light, and a lot of pieces of cool, satisfying gameplay that, on their own, are exciting. Its height, its sense of scale all build an intimidating verticality. But it's easy to lose all that in a sea of the undead.

Dying Light takes place in the fictional country of Harran, which, in the lead-up to a global athletic games competition — not the Olympics, obviously, because licensing — is overtaken by a mysterious zombie plague.

In this respect, Dying Light takes the zombie apocalypse scenario long since driven into the ground by both film and video game alike and leads it into some less-traveled areas. The middle-eastern setting — Harran appears to be based on Turkish architecture and shares a name with an ancient city in Messopotamia — is distinctive, and presents different character and social dynamics than the largely western environments so common to the genre.

Almost as interesting is the timeline of Dying Light's outbreak. The game takes place several months into Harran's nightmare, where a sort of new normal has been established after the military's failed attempts to contain the situation were followed by more concrete quarantine procedures. Its bridges and avenues to the outside world collapsed, people have found ways to survive, to live in a city overrun.

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As Dying Light begins, GRE contractor Kyle Crane is parachuted into Harran to find one of the agency's other assets and a file in his possession. Crane is attacked by thugs as he reaches the ground, and their fight attracts the zombie horde. Crane is rescued by residents of "the Tower," a refuge for some of Harran's surviving residents, and must aid them in order to gain their trust and complete his mission.

That mission quickly sends Crane out into the open-world Harran and hundreds if not thousands of zombies. The city is progressively more overrun as the game moves forward, with a constantly shifting day/night cycle. During the day, zombies can mostly be avoided and aren't much of a threat. But they become more dangerous at night, and there are worse things than shamblers when its dark out.

While Dying Light isn't survival horror exactly, resources are finite. Guns are rare, and gunshots draw the attention of the infected. Like Techland's previous zombie game Dead Island, even melee weapons aren't exactly reliable. They're fragile; they can be repaired and even modified with upgrades, but eventually, they will break. Zombies, on the other hand, are resilient, requiring multiple strikes to take them down in most cases.

This is a problem, because combat in Dying Light gets old pretty fast. While Dead Island introduced a finessible "analog" combat mechanic, Dying Light is much simpler. You can aim at specific body parts, and bladed weapons can dismember in the right circumstances, but even a few hours in, I felt like I was having the same fights over and over again.

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Blood in the streets

Dying Light is heavy on the gore and graphic violence, and while this isn't unusual for zombie media, the sheer number of enemies and violence necessary to kill them pushed into awkward territory for me. One particularly strong kind of zombie, the viral, still verbalizes, and can even speak, often screaming or even cowering and pleading when attacked. Having to beat a woman screaming "no" with a baseball bat, over and over until her head literally broke apart crossed past "awkward" directly into "disturbing" — and this happened multiple times.

I understand that this isn't going to bother everybody, and for some it might even be a selling point. I like zombie movies, even (maybe especially) the gorey ones like Day of the Dead and Dead Alive. But the constant gore on display in Dying Light wore me down, and I would have appreciated the option to turn it down, or even off, a solution that other graphically violent games have offered recently.

Dying Light instead proposes that the real solution is non-engagement, as often as possible. You're pushed to rely on Crane's abilities as a "runner," a sort of parkour-driven class of courier/mercenaries in Harran. You won't be running along walls or doing sweet backflips, so clear any thoughts of an open-world spiritual successor to 2008's Mirror's Edge from your mind. You can run and jump and clamber, and Crane climbs well, often launching from utility poles to overhanging scaffolding.

The mechanics here aren't fluid; in fact, they're kind of clunky, which describes many of Dying Light's systems. Its menus and inventory management are long lists of items that must be managed, the crafting system is entirely list driven and poorly explained, and the progression system can be a bit obtuse, with the practical applications of different abilities that can be unlocked over time not entirely clear.

But despite the uneven implementation of these systems, they're the best things about Dying Light, the things that set it apart. The different progression mechanics lend to a sense of growth in Crane's abilities as a runner — though the gating of some absolutely vital tools, like the grappling hook, until dozens of hours into the game is confusing — and I actually enjoyed Dying Light's inventory management.

With equipment being so important and so breakable, I had to make real choices about what to carry with me into the world. I also had to decide whether or not to prepare for the night or plan to always make it back to a safehouse before the truly bad things came out to hunt.

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Dying Light's visual presentation captures a distinctive sense of scale, height and vertigo

The real gem buried within Dying Light is its vertical navigation. You'll spend a lot of time climbing low structures, two and three story buildings too, but there are specific places within Harran that tower above the city. And sometimes, when you're lucky, you'll need to get to the top of them.

These sections are the equivalent of boss fights in other games, towering enemies to be conquered by what felt like clever decisions on my part to make my way upward. Where this might be a disconnected puzzle in other games, Dying Light's visual presentation captures a distinctive sense of scale and height, and even for me, as someone terrified of heights, a genuine hint of vertigo. The ground was much more of an enemy to me in Dying Light than any hoard of zombies was.

In fact, I found myself constantly wishing for more of that, for more death defying traversal, more intelligent navigational challenges. What I got was more zombies, and a lot of bad mission design.

It often felt like there was only one kind of mission in Dying Light — fetch quests. Everyone wanted me to go somewhere and grab something to bring back, which almost always involved having to clear some zombies out first. These missions only evolve insofar as they sent me to more places to grab more things, or, worse, more places to find the same thing. Later in Dying Light some quests are the proverbial wild goose chase, sending you to places only to realize that none of the original "possible points of interest" have what you're supposed to find. Instead, they have a lead on another point of interest. The worst of these dangled the same goal in front of me for four separate locations.

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This bizarrely MMO-influenced design is exacerbated by the absence of any sort of fast travel system. 10 hours in, I was running over the same areas again and again to get to a place I had already seen.

There's a bizarre sense that Dying Light is padding out its running time by stringing objectives as far away from one another as possible, which is borne out by my playtime — the game clocked it around 30 hours, though my Xbox One claimed closer to 60. I'd split the difference at 45. In that time, I don't feel like I did that much, save for kill a lot of zombies.

And there are so, so many zombies. Zombies are Dying Light's seeming solution to everything, the obstacle inserted into every scenario to make it last longer than it feels like it should. This isn't always bad — clearing safehouses of nascent infestations felt productive in that open-world sort of way, like concrete progress in a world gone crazy. But elsewhere, they're often a distraction or a cheap trick pulled from zombie movies and even other zombie-oriented games in the most predictable ways.

By the end of Dying Light, after spending dozens of hours instructing me in the fine arts of selective engagement and zombie avoidance, Techland's strategy was, increasingly, to almost literally pour zombies on top of me. Dying Light also got worse at pointing me where it wanted me to go, at adding any development to its characters — shy of kidnapping them or killing them in a cutscene. The story itself is often aimless, and just about always bogged down under clichéd plot beats that drag things out even longer.

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While Dying Light can be a real grind solo, there is full cooperative support for up to four players throughout the game. The implementation here is thoughtful — everybody gets to keep the progress they make and the gear they find, and skill progression continues. More importantly, several mission types seem particularly suited to cooperative play, like the otherwise grueling quarantine zones. Dying Light also dynamically suggests in-game competitions on the fly that players can opt in to if they choose, like races and kill competitions that award experience to each player, which is a nice touch.

The real benefit of co-op is the same as it is in any other game — repetitive stuff feels less repetitive with friends. But the same frustrating mission design and lack of fast travel remains in place in co-op, and, worse, the bulk of the game's stability issues and bugs seem related to multiplayer. Item duplication cheats are already rampant just a week after release, and some players are reporting character progression loss.

Still, if you have the option, Dying Light is better with other people, making it the best way to play.

Techland has also made the pre-order bonus DLC "Be the Zombie" free to everyone, which allows you to play as a unique kind of infected that can invade other players' games if they so choose. The special infected's mechanics are completely different and provide a neat distraction, but the depth and development of a fully realized competitive multiplayer mode are absent.

Wrap Up:

Dying Light too often loses track of what it's best at

At times, it seems like Dying Light might be the game Techland was hoping it would be. It’s got some great ideas and a great setting that bring new life to overplayed subject matter. The climbing and vertical navigation are in a class of their own. But Techland’s attention and focus on the undead distracts from the things that Dying Light does well, and it’s all spread far too thin.

Dying Light was reviewed using a retail Xbox One copy independently purchased by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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