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Dying Light Review: The Night Is Dark And Full Of Terrors
Techland, developer of the polarizing Dead Island series, is no stranger to zombie games, and they return to offer more undead-slaying fun with Dying Light. In many ways, this feels like a much enhanced sequel of Dead Island, as you can recognize the DNA of that game throughout. The art style is similar, the game takes place on a zombie-infested island, and you spend a large majority of your time hacking away at the undead with melee weapons that degrade with use. However, Techland has added enough new functionality, as well as cleaned up some of Dead Islands own problems, to where Dying Light more than stands on its own merits.
One of the major criticisms with Dead Island was its story, and those looking for improvement here may find a mixed bag. While the tone shifts from the campy vibe of those games, the over-arching plot is a cliched mess, filled with predictable moments, bad writing and more odd accents that I could count. However, the game does find success in a lot of its moment-to-moment storytelling and character-driven quests. While the antagonist doesn’t stray too far from expectations, I was surprised at the emotion Dying Light extracts from some of its side characters, some who I actually grew attached too. Your protagonist Crane isn’t an empty template either. While his reasons for being on the island and his initial goals there are not well realized, he eventually grew on me.
Those problems don’t extend to the island of Harran. I can’t overstate how much fun it can be to explore this world once you get the hang of things. Traversal in Dead Island could get quite boring, but Dying Light introduces a parkour mechanic that, while it takes some getting used to, offers a ton of fun. After a quick tutorial in which he learns the nuances of parkour at savant-level speed, Crane is able to traverse the world with ease. The movement calls to mind the first-person movement of Mirror’s Edge mixed with a bit of Assassin’s Creed style climbing, and while I had occasional problems getting to where I wanted, I was soon climbing, jumping and running through the world with ease.
Dying Light also scores points with its RPG mechanics. Instead of a static leveling system, you evolve your character via three tiers: Survival, Agility and Power. All three of these categories have separate skill trees, and level up independently of each other. If you tend to stick with the rooftops, you will see your agility rise accordingly, while those down in the thick of it will soon be accruing power points with ease. Survival uses your typical experience points gained through quests, but all three offer game-changing abilities through their skill trees. These aren’t simple stat boosts, either. The Survival tree eventually offers an array of crafting opportunities, which is easy and satisfying. The Power tree gives access to a wealth of moves for fighting the zombie hordes, such as reversals, tackles and an unholy dropkick, while Agility gives you the power to move through the world easily, with options like a slide technique, vaulting off the heads and a grappling hook that completely breaks the balance of traversal, in a good way. All in all, I had an excellent time leveling my character and making tough choices as to where I should put my skill points.
Combat is visceral and fun, even though it has a tendency to evolve into wild slashing when things get hectic (which, I suppose, might actually happen if you were in that situation). And get hectic they will; when the sun goes down in Dying Light, the things that go bump in the night come out to play. Regular zombies become even more aggressive, but it’s the addition of Volatiles that really up the stakes. Volatiles are special zombies that roam the streets at night. They are super fast, incredibly strong and aggressive and will often attract even more zombies (and more Volatiles) when they come after you. Usually your safest bet is to find one of the numerous safe houses and sleep the night away, but the game does a masterful job of dangling a risk/reward carrot in your face. While it is definitely tougher after dark, you get double experience points and rewards for surviving as long as you can. After leveling up my skills and weapons a bit, I began to fear the dark a bit less, and would take more risks in the hope of leveling up faster.
Though you spend most of your time wielding standbys like machetes, nailed planks, baseball bats and the occasional sword, Dying Light’s degradation mechanic ensures that you have to change it up occasionally. However, the system isn’t too punishing, and I had fun trying out new weapons. Some of the weapons you can make, accessed through blueprints hidden around the world, are powerful and fun, and you also get options through throwing weapons such as axes, knives and throwing stars, as well as pistols, assault rifles and shotguns. The gunplay isn’t quite as polished as some of the other mechanics in the game, but I was thankful for the ability to shoot on numerous occasions, particularly when going up against some of the human foes who are shooting back. Crafting weapons, upgrades and items is simple and easy, and can be done on the fly.
While scouring the island by yourself is fun its own right, adding multiplayer to the experience adds a whole new level of enjoyment. The drop-in/drop-out coop worked perfectly in my time with it, and its always easier to enjoy a zombie apocalypse with your friends. I had a blast coordinating strikes on roaming looter patrols, the dungeon-like quarantine zones and simply seeing who could kill the most zombies. If friendly competition is your thing, Dying Light makes it easier than ever. In addition to being able to set up your own competitions such as races, looting and killing, the game is constantly offering unique, contexual challenges based on what is happening around you. Got an air drop coming in across the map? Dying Light will let you know, and offer to set up a challenge with your fellow players.
In addition to the cooperative play, Dying Light offers a mode called Be the Zombie. Once a pre-order incentive, the now free mode is the only real PvP the game offers, and it comes with a few issues. While base gameplay of being an overpowered zombie is fun, the lack of dedicated matches mean that every game takes place in someones single-player exploits. While this mechanic works for games like Dark Souls, most people (including myself) simply hit the button to drop out. I was able to get in a few matches soon after downloading the game, but within a week I was kicked out of almost every match I tried to initiate. With no real progression system or persistent reward system, the mode is little more than a novelty that most will try a couple of times and forget about.
Luckily, the base game is good enough to stand on its own. While many of the sidequests boil down to “go here and collect this, then bring it back”, the moment-to-moment gameplay never gets old, and exploring the island of Harran is a visual treat. The zombie genre still may have work to do in the video game space, but this is one of the best approximations of the well-worn template I’ve ever played. You could definitely do worse to get your zombie fill.
Note: This review was done on PS4 with a copy supplied by the developer.
- + Fun and innovative movement
- + Visceral combat
- + Enjoyable cooperative play
- - Repetitive mission structure
- - Lackluster story
- - PvP comes with problems