First of all, I am actually in a position to write a review for Dying Light, which is quite the achievement given I spent much of the early game either not going anywhere, or going backwards, even – so, yeah, I’ll wait for the applause to finish. Done? Honestly, you’re too kind…but you’re right, I am awesome actually. I jest obviously, but whilst being good enough to get beyond the beginning of a Game shouldn’t really be cause for celebration, a) I am that shite and b) it will actually go down as one of my better Gaming achievements – and precisely because it’s resulted in all different kinds of rewards.
In short, I ended up getting a wee bit addicted to Dying Light, and I genuinely couldn’t get enough of it. As I suspected, hidden behind the early ass-whooping, humiliation and unrelenting n00b-munching brutality, Dying Light contained exactly the kind of post-apocalyptic, Zombie battering, ad-hoc survival Gaming goodness I’d hoped for, and I am, I think it’s fair to say, quite the fan of most of it now. For reals. If I were a deep person, I’d possibly see some lesson in all of that – perhaps, like a “perseverance in any endeavour makes it worthwhile in the end” kind of moral – but honestly, I’m just happy I got to fuck some Zombie shit up. And fucking Zombie shit up is very much what Dying Light’s all about, and whilst it’s not a perfect Game (by any means – more on that later), much like the Dead Island Games which preceded it, Dying Light is at its best when it’s offering up a veritable sandbox of plentiful Zombies, outlandish weapons, and honest-to-goodness skull-bashing fun. Or head-chopping fun. Or head-stomping fun. Or even head shooting fun, if you fancy it.
Indeed, one of Dying Light’s main strengths is that it’ll allow the player to approach the Zombie shitstorm in all manner of different ways – and even just dicking around with the Game’s multitude of weapon types, upgrades, mods and blueprints is hours and hours of fun on its own. Me, I mostly settled on the combination of bow, modified blade, rifle and molotov to get me through the day (and night), but you might find you’re better suited to bluntforce trauma using, say, a baseball bat, or even finding that happy middle ground between slicin’ and poundin’ by opting for an axe. Horses for courses and all that (I’m a bit of a softy at heart, and I like to think there’ll be room for every type of weapon bearer come the real Zombie plague, so, like, no judgement here, folks).
Moreover, Dying Light’s XP, Perks and Upgrading systems, whilst miserly at first, quickly became generous and accessible, and it offers up even more options for the player. Back when I was getting my face eaten off on a regular basis, some of these looked impossible for me to unlock (everything seemed a bit chicken-and-eggey), but when I (eventually) found a way in, I discovered that there was a rapidly cascading reward system that, ultimately, made my time with Dying Light a shit-ton better. Like most RPG-type systems, it also offers the player a decent degree of option – allowing them to augment and enhance their own particular playstyle, or, like with me, mitigate some of their weaknesses. In this respect, Dying Light can become a truly open playground wherein you’re free to just dick around however you see fit, creating a tailored and tweaked Zombie Apocalypse all of your very own.
And that’s just as well really, because the “story” of Dying Light is fairly underwhelming, and for the most part, feels decidedly less than compelling. As Kyle Crane – a Global Relief Effort agent, dropped into the recently Zombified province of Harran to retrieve a sensitive file – you’ll have some shit to focus on, for sure, but it’s not the kind of shit that’ll grab you and have you hurtling towards a narrative conclusion. Whilst all open-world games have to balance narrative progression with the player’s freedom to explore/dick around to some extent, I often found that, honestly, I really didn’t give a shit about the former in Dying Light. None of it was terrible per se, but it was often predictable, by-the-numbers, and just kind of there. Indeed, I tended to check on my quests only when I was reasonably close to leveling up, and would often embark upon one merely because its XP reward would (theoretically) take me over the threshold. Ditto the side-quests, which tend to be fetch and carry or flip a switch in nature – which makes sense in a Zombie shitstorm, I guess, but they’re not overly exciting or original anyway. There are some decent moments, and the acting’s solid enough, but I very much felt like Dying Light was essentially two different games; the one I was creating on my own, and the one Techland had included as a “Campaign”.
This feeling of incongruity was further highlighted by the fact that, often, the Story would actively contrive to remove(/blatantly fucking steal) most of the fruits of my free-roam labour, and whilst I’d find that annoying at the best of times, it was particularly frustrating in Dying Light precisely because I’d put so much time and effort into building up my skills, character and inventory. Having it all taken away (literally in the case of my weapons and inventory) and being forced to battle an uber-Zombie with a shitty weapon, no medikits, and having to grapple with seizures because I’d not had a dose of Zombie vaccine for a while (which, incidentally, was never a thing in free-roam) just felt really fucking cheap, and I genuinely resented losing all the XP that came from dying (frequently) in these situations. And whilst we’re on that subject, that very much felt like Techland were trying to have their cake and eat it too, because if you can’t use all your free-roam gains in a narrative mission, you sure as shit shouldn’t be able to lose them either. Even though I was mostly ok with Dying Light’s “losing XP upon dying” thing after the start of the game (with one key exception which we’ll cover next), I was decidedly less ambivalent about it in the main missions, particularly given all the planning, scavenging, modding and unlocking I’d done specifically so I wouldn’t get murdered cheaply. There was one mission, for example, that I came out of with negative XP because all my shit had been nicked, because it was really long, and because there was a lot of trial-and-error involved at various stages – a deeply unpleasant trivector resulting in a whole fucking fuckload of “fuck this for a laugh” as I died repeatedly.
And whilst I’m bitching and moaning about stuff, I may as well cover the “parkour” here too, because it also fits into the “two different Games” thing, I think. See, Dying Light’s Free Running element is, I feel, a bit hit and miss. Whilst that’s not a huge problem when you’re just scrambling around in Harran’s streets (mostly because you can mitigate many of the mechanic’s more frequent issues choosing routes more carefully etc), it’s more of a problem in the main missions, where you’re forced to climb shit, and where the parkour’s quirks and glitches will be less, say, quirky and more, for example, goddam fucking infuriating. Ditto in the timed challenges, where goddam fucking infuriating rapidly becomes controller through the TV levels of “For Fuck’s Sake, that’s not what I told you to fucking do you fucking fuck”, and it can all be a wee bit on the unpleasant side. There’s usually a fairly big chance Kyle just won’t bother to grab the thing you’re telling him to grab, for example, and others where he’ll inexplicably launch himself backwards (or sideways) instead of straight up, meaning instead of making a fairly simple transfer to a ledge a foot above you, you’ll find yourself plummeting into thin air and, a few seconds later, horrific, XP stealing death. Often doing the same exact things in the same exact way will result in wildly differing outcomes, and it all makes relying on the parkour mechanics an exercise in frustration and dangerously high blood pressure. For a game that’s built on the premise of parkouring your way around the Zombie Shitstorm, that’s slightly problematic if you ask me. Indeed, in the time since I gitted gud (and outside of the missions, obviously) I’ve only really died (and lost XP) when the free running stuff’s inexplicably gone daft on me, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a glaring issue in the Dying Light experience.
But, that said, even though the “Campaign” is weak, and even though a mahoosive part of the game’s hook is often decidedly dodgy in its execution, I still loved the vast majority of my time with Dying Light. Obviously, that seems a weird thing to say, but I’ll refer you back to that whole “two different Games” whatsit, because whilst Dying Light’s story is forgettable, and whilst it’s parkour element is hit and miss, all the various other elements Techland have included make up for it. Indeed, where an underwhelming story or clunky mechanics might prove fatal for many games, precisely because Dying Light contains so much other stuff, it’s not actually such a big deal. At various times I’d be obsessed with the weapons and upgrades, at others I’d be content building up XP to unlock a particularly cool skill (and then lose a few more hours having fun with it when I did), and there were plenty of days I’d spend an entire session just roaming around Harran’s world, helping survivors, or scavenging through apartments for another cool weapon to add to my arsenal. Moreover, it actually seems like Techland actively built Dying Light with this “Two Game” idea in mind, because whilst the story often feels like an afterthought, a lot of the more general stuff in Dying Light feels exceptionally well thought-out and deep. Even the day/night cycle (wherein the night’s much, much more dangerous, but XP is doubled and you don’t lose it upon dying) adds another layer to this, and nighttime Dying Light’s a very different prospect, but with ample rewards waiting for those willing to embrace its challenges.
Exploration is often its own reward too and, on top of the weapons and Blueprints you’ll regularly come across, Techland have rammed plenty of references and Easter Eggs into Harran’s Zombie infested world, making your journey that little bit more fun. I’ve come across a bakery called “left 4 bread”, the “Bites Motel”, a clicker from The Last of Us, the Sword from the Zelda games, and The Lone Gunmen’s Trailer from The X Files, to name but a few. Moreover, like the best RPG/leveling-up open-world type Games, this exploration works hand-in-hand with those RPG elements too, and sometimes it’s generally quite cool to realise that areas of the map that, at one point meant almost instant death, are now just part of your domain, where you’re pretty much a Zombie battering, shitstorm dominating boss. Again, if you’re prepared to make your own fun, set your own goals, and fully explore the world Techland have lovingly created for you, there’s a lot of mileage in just that.
And, in a nutshell, the quality of your Dying Light experience will likely be determined precisely by how much you’re willing to embrace the two-game nature of it. If you just want to play through the story, doing the bare minimum in terms of leveling-up, side-quests and unlocking skills you’ll get a taste of what Dying Light offers, for sure, but you’ll likely not find it the enthralling open-world playground I did. I’ve said before (only half-jokingly) that I see Zombie games as a kind of practice run for the real Zombie Apocalypse, and the freedom and ad hoc survival of Dying Light offers hours and hours of, like, practice as well as the fun. If you think that sounds daft a) whatevs, let’s see who’s laughing when your unprepared ass finds itself struggling to survive the real Zombie shitstorm, and b) in iZombie, a character who’d recently become a Zombie Hunter was actually playing Dying Light, so that officially makes the whole training element a thing! Officially. Case closed.
Anyhoo, I digress, but my point is, whether you’re preparing for the real Zombie Apocalypse, or just looking to roam through the streets of a virtual one, Dying Light is an excellently crafted opportunity to do just that. The story’s lacklustre, the parkour’s often iffy, but the Game’s main draw is as a Zombie Shitstorm simulator, and it’s as if Techland have created a set of parameters for you to work within, included some genuinely quite cool details, and just said “there you go folks, have a fucking blast!”. And have a blast I did – even allowing for the game’s less than ideal elements – and I expect I’ll continue to have a blast whenever I’m in the mood for some Zombie battering shenanigans(/training). Indeed, Dying Light’s become something of a cult classic since its release, and that, I suspect, is precisely because it’s an open-ended playground of plentiful Zombies, outlandish weapons, and honest-to-goodness skull-bashing fun. Or head-chopping fun. Or head-stomping fun. Or even head shooting fun, if you fancy it.
TL; DR – Dying Light is an open-ended playground of plentiful Zombies, outlandish weapons, and honest-to-goodness skull-bashing fun. Or head-chopping fun. Or head-stomping fun. Or even head shooting fun, if you fancy it.