In a gaming world awash with as many post apocalyptic zombie games as there are zombies in post apocalyptic zombie games, Techland’s Dying Light enters the brain chomping fray to compete for the hearts and wallets of gamers already weaned on a number of competitive titles. These include the popular zombie apocalypse/human depravity simulator Day Z, Capcom’s Dead Rising 3, The Forest, and 7 Days to Die to name a few. The question, then, isn’t just about whether Dying Light is a good game, but whether it offers anything new to an increasingly crowded genre.
The premise of Dying Light isn’t anything particularly special, but it does throw a few narrative curves into the mix. You’re essentially an undercover operative for a shadowy agency that wants him to locate a fellow agent gone rogue. The sort of Machiavellian attitude Crane’s employers have towards the city’s survivors are constantly at odds with Crane’s desire to help them wherever he can, and this forms the crux of the game’s narrative, which is saved from absolute mediocrity because of it. Tonally, Dying Light walks a precarious line between dead serious (pun intended) and outright loony, and while its attempts at humor were sometimes appreciated, I often groaned when the game presented me with yet another overacting lunatic that gave me flashbacks of Far Cry 4’s annoying cast.
And speaking of Far Cry 4, Dying Light pretty much follows an identical gameplay formula to Ubisoft’s open world shooter. There are main story quests and sidequests, smaller quests that involve you escorting survivors around town, as well as parkour racing and other similar activities. As an open world zombie apocalypse game, I was a little disappointed that Dying Light followed what I think is by now a boring open world formula, in which you undertake quests that often involve going to a specific place, collecting an item or killing something, and then returning for a reward. Truly successful open world games incentivize you to go exploring on your own and creating your own objectives, and Dying Light’s over-reliance on a rigid questing regiment can sometimes threaten to drag it into mediocrity once you pour enough hours into it. The relative abundance of supplies and weapons means you rarely have to venture anywhere in search of them, and as a result the game feels more like an open world actioner rather than an open world survival horror game, which, combined with its frenetic action and parkour, would have made Dying Light truly great.
With that said, Dying Light’s movement and combat mechanics are outstanding. The first person parkour is just flawless, and there was never a moment in which I had difficulty maneuvering my character around. There are a multitude of moves and abilities you can unlock that give you an incredible range of movement, such as rolling, sidestepping, drop kicks and sliding kicks, and weaving around hordes of the undead was a satisfying and refreshing experience. Combat is similarly enjoyable, mostly because of the excellent sound effects employed. Swing a crowbar into a zombie’s skull and you’ll hear a meaty “thud” followed by the sounds of skull bones shattering and brain matter splattering all over the place. Zombies dismember in a variety of gruesome ways, which makes fighting them a real pleasure when you have to.
I say “when you have to” because often times you can just run past zombies instead of going through the trouble of engaging them. Dying Light’s zombies are no pushovers, especially in the early game, as they are extremely resistant to all manner of attacks, save for gunshot wounds to the head. Although their corpses can be looted for supplies and money, it’s usually best to just sprint past them altogether as they do huge amounts of damage if you let them get close enough. Fortunately, the game gives you a tremendous variety of weaponry to combat them should the need arise. In addition to the plethora of melee weapons at your disposal, you can also craft Molotov cocktails, ninja stars, improvised grenades and distraction devices should you favor a more hands-off approach. The city is also littered with traps set up by other survivors, and if you find yourself in pursuit by some of the game’s more powerful zombies, you can remotely activate these traps to throw them off.
In spite of all this, what makes Dying Light’s combat so effective is that the game is tailored in such a way that fighting the undead is typically a necessity and not a luxury. Weapons degrade extraordinarily quickly, you yourself are quite vulnerable to attacks, and the zombies are both numerous and hardy. Unlike Dead Rising 3, in which you could slaughter zombies with such abandon that you could become bored from it, combating zombies in Dying Light requires your full attention and mastering the many moves available to you. In turn, however, you are rewarded with some of the most satisfying and visceral zombie maiming action in a videogame.
The game also allows for up to four players to play the entire game cooperatively, and this opens up the game significantly. I played through a significant chunk of the early game with another player, and was pleased with the number of different tactical options available as a result. In one notable instance, a locked crate of valuables was guarded by two slow but deadly zombies, so I had my partner lure them away via distraction, which allowed me to pick the lock on the crate and loot its contents. Dying Light’s co-op isn’t as fleshed out as other games as there are no co-op specific actions or added story for your partners, but its inclusion is nevertheless appreciated and hopefully a trend that games will continue to follow.
Cosmetically, Dying Light is certainly quite a looker. Textures, lighting, and the city of Haram are vibrant and pleasing to look at, in spite of the world’s state of disarray. The ability to look down and see your own body is also wonderful and crucial for navigating narrow platforms, and combat looks great because every element, such as the zombies, their innards and the various effects you can apply to your weapons are top notch. Characters animate well, especially those of your arms grabbing onto ledges and hoisting yourself up.
There are some imperfections in this department, though, such as the lack of decent facial expressions and lip syncing. However, what I dislike most is the game’s use of film grain and chromatic aberration. I have never understood why videogames use these two effects, and Dying Light certainly hasn’t changed that. The game takes place entirely from a first person perspective, and the developers have gone through great lengths to give players the sense that they are looking through the eyes of Kyle Crane. Last I checked, though, human eyes didn’t have 35mm film cameras inside of them, so it is truly maddening that Techland have chosen to blemish the pristine visuals they’ve worked hard on by simulating the effects of primitive film cameras. I wish developers would stop getting hung up on making their games look like old movies with such pointless and distracting graphical effects, and instead allowed their visuals to be displayed unhindered and untarnished.
Now, with all of this said, Dying Light’s biggest flaw by far is that it doesn’t live up to its namesake as much as it could have. Much of the game takes place during the day, and during this time you’ll spend most of it hopping from rooftop to rooftop, getting into the occasional skirmish with both zombies and humans, and scavenging the locales for supplies. However, once the sun sets and darkness follows, Dying Light truly becomes one of the genre’s most standout titles. Unlike many other games, Dying Light depicts nighttime accurately. It’s difficult, if not outright impossible, to see anything in the darkness. The gurgles of the zombies, shrouded in blackness, suddenly take on a more terrifying quality, and numerous Volatiles roam the streets. These are a more advanced breed of zombie that only comes out at night, are practically invulnerable, and can kill you in seconds. Their very presence transforms Dying Light into a slow, atmospheric and incredibly tense experience, where every move has to be carefully considered and the use of firearms and other loud ordinance is practically suicide. The numerous traps scattered around become crucial tools, as they allow you to distract or impede Volatiles without having to expose yourself.
In short, this is Dying Light at its best. While during the day you are free to literally run away from all your problems, at night you have to use all the tools the game affords you. You have to start using the traps, your distraction devices, and your wits, or else you’ll wind up being some dead person’s dinner.
Unfortunately, night time only lasts a few minutes. Before you realize it, the sun has come up and you’re back to sprinting past zombies all over again. This is a ridiculous design choice that clearly implies that developer Techland doesn’t trust its players to appreciate challenging gameplay. Although you can use beds at outposts to immediately fast forward time to either daytime or nighttime, the fact that the night lasts only a few minutes is completely at odds with the slower paced gameplay that it necessitates. The contrast between how I played between the two times of day was so great that I really would have loved for the developers to stretch the night to be more proportional in length to the day. It would certainly make the game more difficult, but I point you to the fact that this is a zombie apocalypse game; these things shouldn’t be for the feint of heart to begin with. At the very least, I would have appreciated it if Techland included an option at the start of a new game that allowed you to choose between short or long nights.
The Final Verdict
Dying Light overall is a solid zombie action game that boasts one of the finest mixes of melee combat and parkour action in its genre. It’s central weakness is that it purposely interferes with many elements that could have been truly phenomenal. It has a day and night time mechanic, but sabotages this somewhat by severely truncating the night time. It has a vibrant open world with plenty of places to explore, but holds your hand a little too much and gives you little reason to wander off on your own. Basically, Dying Light holds itself back too much. It has the capacity to be a title with a rare combination of triple A production and hardcore survival gameplay, but doesn’t think that it’s players deserve the latter. I hope that Techland wise up and update the game to at the very least lengthen the night, but even if they don’t, Dying Light is still very much worth playing if you’re comfortable with a more action oriented experience.
+Excellent combat and parkour
+Co-op is a lot of fun
+/-Graphics are beautiful, but slightly tarnished by film grain and chromatic aberration
+/-Night time is intense and challenging, but too short
-Rigid questing system is boring