Dying Light ReviewJoe Shaffer
I kicked off my playthrough of Techland's zombie game Dying Light with a body-racking chill that ran down my spine. I recall first stepping out of the primary safe house and into the infected Turkish city of Harran. I checked my flanks and saw nothing but urban decay, disrepair, and street trash. There was an eerie stillness, as though the very concept of life itself were in the process of ceasing. I heard a hellacious din in the distance, mostly composed of maddened snarls, as well as the soft scraping of heavy feet upon the ground nearby. Despite having scanned my surroundings, I couldn't pinpoint its origin. For a lover of all things horror, a moment like this is a thing of beauty. It's primal fear meshed with a modern setting, and it's oh so disquieting.
Charging into the streets was tense. Initially, I spotted only a few zombies, referred to as "biters," here and there. Before long I would regularly run afoul of herds just waiting for a moving piece of meat to munch on. My usual response was to slink away via the game's parkour mechanics, although getting acclimated to the physics involved with wall-climbing was a slight pain. Sometimes the protagonist, named Kyle Crane, would fail to latch on to a ledge that I aimed to grab. Other times I pulled myself up onto a narrow walkway and immediately plummeted. I eventually mastered the art of scaling structures and leaping from one roof to another, but even then I had plenty of "oh crap" moments when I occasionally stumbled and fell.
Most of the "leave a trail of feces behind you while retreating and crying hysterically" instances arrive the first time you're caught outside of a safe house after dark. That's when you might unwittingly shine your flashlight on a super powered "volatile" and feel your bowels turn to water. Regardless of your speed and physical strength, neither fight nor flight is much of an option. These puppies close gaps with grace and deliver such punishing tooth and nail tactics that your panicked melee may as well consist of light toe kicks and pirouettes. Your only true alternative early on is to get your butt to shelter prior to 9 PM. You could brandish a firearm against these menaces, but the telltale report of gunfire is more damning than bumping into a single volatile.
I was incapable of keeping quiet, honestly, as I frequently ignited propane tanks or triggered burglar alarms. Doing either prompts an echoing roar produced by a special kind of swift zombie called a "viral," who dashes to the origin any thunderous noise in the hopes of noshing on whatever caused it. Sometimes I was able to dash away and leave the virals in the dust, but most of the time I had to brandish a slab of wood or a nearly broken hammer and battle my way through oncoming the surge of creatures. There isn't much more to combat in Dying Light than aiming the reticle and taking a swing, whilst minding a finite stamina supply. There's nothing worse than taking a stand against an army of corpses, only to wind yourself before you've even put a dent in the opposing contingent.
Thankfully, I was smart enough to unlock most of the game's extra safe houses, so repsawning was no biggie, save for the experience penalty came with it. Were it not for these locales, I might not have bothered to explore the game as thoroughly as I did in the early phases of my playthrough. Through my sweep of Harran, I discovered that few of the city's nooks and crannies were worth visiting, but the all around design made for some creepy experiences. Mainly, this was because I didn't know what to expect. Sometimes I'd leap over a wall and find a parking lot full of biters. Now and then I might push into an abandoned apartment and loot the place, unaware that a hungry ghoul was only a few yards away from me. Oh, I'd realize it after the beast latched on and took a couple of chunks out of me...
Even the plot seemed somewhat intriguing, as it placed Crane on a secret mission to nab a file containing information that could lead to a cure for the zombie infection. Unfortunately, the file happened to be in the hands of a sociopath, with whom you must negotiate for a short while before declaring total war against him. Also, there's an implied romantic subplot involving a woman named Jade. Of course, I never felt that any of the aforementioned material would result in a brilliant tale, but was sure it would at least provide adequate entertainment.
It's funny how desensitization works. When you leave the primary safe house for the first time, it's a memorable event. When you exit it for the twentieth time, though, you don't even think about it. It's as banal an experience as pouring yourself a glass of water. The same rings true for almost everything in Dying Light. For instance, the parkour elements become tiresome when you realize that running through the streets is a faster means of getting around, not to mention safer when you reach the second map and its ridiculous vistas. Exploration takes a dive after you familiarize yourself with the landscape, and the sense of surprise that came with traveling throughout the region vanishes. Combat remains basic, and damningly so. Dispatching a single biter takes several blows, and you usually have to deal with scores of them. I can't stress enough how tedious offing legions of ghouls is when all you have to work with is one of the most plain combat systems, and the time required to terminate a single foe depends on how long you've spent grinding for perks.
In other words, your prowess as a zombie slayer depends on the number of dull side quests you've completed...
Dying Light features a laundry list of vapid tasks to perform, almost all of which consist of either fetch quests or switch-flipping/valve-turning. When the kids in the nursery get bored, it's you who has to collect crayons for them. When someone cuts the city gas line, it's you who has to pad from one area to another to turn valves. There's rarely any variety to the chores the game cooks up for you. It's all fetch my mother, flip circuit breaker switches, fetch chocolate, activate a communication tower, fetch a handgun... I'm usually a meticulous player who delights in completing menial tasks, provided that I'm not just doing the same things ad nauseam. Unfortunately, that's all Dying Light has to offer, and not just in terms of side quests. Hell, think about: the main quest line is one big fetch quest supported by a string of others. Fetch the file, Crane. Fetch Jade, Crane. Fetch protection money, Crane. Flip a switch while you're at it.
All that remains once you're burned out is to play through the remainder of the storyline so you can see how everything turns out. This is where you realize that about ninety percent of the game's cast is underutilized. Characters who seemed like key players early on in the campaign, like Brecker, unceremoniously fade into the background, and the game turns its focus towards Jade for god only knows what reason. It becomes apparent that the protagonist has a thing for her, but it's difficult to see why. They only slightly bond and there isn't much of a reason for Crane to long for her, except maybe because she saved his rump during the opening cutscene. There's a scene near the game's end that would have been emotionally heavy had there been a deeper bond between the two. Instead, Crane's attraction to Jade at that point comes off as a creepy infatuation, like a socially awkward kid emotionally attaching himself to the first pretty girl who speaks to him.
Dying Light is the blue prints for a wonderful experience that's sadly never realized. Here you have an expansive city full of nothing, a creepy setup that loses its punch thanks to repetition, a campaign that grows wearisome due to a barrage of brainless tasks, a collection of one-dimensional characters who beg for depth, and a would-be romance that makes paperback smut novels seem more elaborate. Toss in a tedious combat system and thousands of enemies that take ages to kill, and that's pretty much Dying Light. Oh, but the first five or so hours are stupendous!
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.