When you think back to that Dead Island trailer, you’ll likely be filled with disappointment with what could have been. To outsiders like myself – “outsider” in this context being someone who played Dead Island for a couple of hours and swiftly dropped it from memory – the announcement and subsequent release of Dying Light incited very little excitement. Reviews came and went, with generally positive vibes passing with it, and then some years after the fact I found myself playing it, despite never knowingly purchasing it.
To cut a long story short, I loved Dying Light on my first playthrough. Suffering with Ubisoft open world fatigue, Dying Light felt like a different breed of that genre, emphasising the moment to moment combat and exhilarating freerunning, all the while never once climbing a tower to pointlessly survey the area. One thing was missing however, and it was the same thing I found lacking in my second playthrough too. One thing that snatches the game’s otherwise stellar seal of quality: competent writing.
And when I recall the emotions I had in the wake of that initial Dead Island trailer – the aftermath emotions of feeling slighted and misled – I think they’re quite applicable to Dying Light too. Granted, there is no malicious false advertising this time round, only Dying Light sets up a world packed with grief and despair and does absolutely nothing with it, instead serving a plate of lacklustre, one dimensional characters, flimsy moral dichotomies and logical idiocies, undercutting the brutal situation the player is placed in and only highlighted further for the wasted potential it is by a handful of expertly crafted side missions which do make use of this setup.
An olympic style global sporting event is to be held in the city state of Harran, Turkey, indefinitely postponed by the slight inconvenience of total social collapse, instigated by a zombie outbreak, turning much of the populace – tourists and natives alike- into the hangry shufflers we’ve come to appreciate as a pop culture icon. Kyle Crane, a stoic marine who totally isn’t the same character we see in every bland AAA game, is sent by a global relief effort into the heart of the city to retrieve some file from some guy who totally isn’t the carbon copy of Far Cry 3’s Vaas we see in every bland AAA game. Goodies, baddies and zombies, three clans vie for control over the city for opposing reasons, and it’s up to us to do pretty much all of the work.
Speaking to Harran itself, it’s hard to imagine how much further video games have to come in terms of visuals when in 2016, Techland made such a visceral depiction of a suntanned Turkish state. While the muddy browns of the 7th generation consoles are headache inducing in their mundane overuse, Dying Light utilises a similar colour tone, shifted perhaps on a more lighter, yellowy orange tint. The sunset in Harran is a beauty to behold, if the decaying flesh of the undead doesn’t spoil the view. Split into two “zones”, the slums area of Harran looks impoverished, despite the heavenly sun rays which beam down upon it. The favelas have been ransacked, but the crumbling walls, sheet metals strewn everywhere and loose fabrics blowing with the breeze give the impression some of these homes existed in a state of disarray before the apocalypse befell them. Half way through the game, we venture into an entirely different zone, Old Town, affluent, tall buildings contrast with the small, stacked abodes of the slums to evince the clear social distinction between the two districts.
With freerunning at Dying Light’s heart, the game’s capacity to affect the terrain makes for traversal that never gets dull, in the same way web swinging across New York in Insomniac’s Spider-man is as effortless as turning on the console itself. There’s nothing particularly complex about the movement system either: you have a sprint and a jump, executing the latter towards a wall will thrust you up it and holding a direction will have Crane shimmy and leap across the surface. Like a good ambient album, it works as a background piece as much as it does the main act. You never have to think about whether you can do a certain manoeuvre, because Harran is designed in a way which facilitates this entire mode of transport. The stacked yet squat slums allows more horizontal speed, skipping across flat rooftops a few feet above the zombies’ heads, while Old Town’s wealth is proven in the architecture, epic, classical monuments trump the shanties in height multiple times over, below them live numerous houses, complexly constructed abodes with balconies and roofs far greater in size and variation than those in the slums. It’s not a case of Old Town being a more fun place to explore either, it’s just different, and hits at a point where your time in the slums is perhaps coming to a narrative conclusion, thus making the switch in scenery fulfilling visually and mechanically.
Both areas feel lived in. Past tense. The zombies occupy the city now, and with their typical Romero-style behaviour, it’s hard to imagine there’s much living going on inside their decaying forms. Where the winding streets of the slums look accustomed to children sprinting down them like a Bond chase scene, they now house the undead, a slow bunch which operate on the maxim of “strength in numbers”. The common zombie isn’t much of a danger, but swarms seemingly up to a hundred can be found in later portions of the game, and in that battle formation, direct combat never feels like the correct approach. It’s places more emphasis on the parkour system, which I have no problem with, but surprisingly, when you find a few stranglers in your way and Micheal Scott-ing across the rooftops just won’t cut it, combat is meaty, weighty and bold, a much improved version of what was found in Dead Island. Against basic zombies, you’ll mostly use melee weapons in conjunction with whatever physical skills you pick up through levelling. Essentially, you swing and dodge. There’s no crazy combos or complicated button inputs, rather the emphasis is placed on what weapon you use and where it strikes. Enemies’ limbs are, well, actually limbs, susceptible to a sword’s edge or a pipe’s blunt trauma. The old adage of “aim for the head” plays a role here in a very tangible way. Zombies can die to plain damage itself, but removing limbs is the most efficient means of execution. Resultantly, slicing a zombie’s face with a squat blade will do very little in comparison to a hammer’s thrust, caving their heads in in the expectedly gory fashion.
I loved the variety here. Most melee weapons can be split into the classic categorisation of blade and blunt, but there’s nuances to be found in both. Short vs long, light vs heavy, thin vs wide. It’s all implicitly stated by their gritty models, the game doesn’t need to explain to you that the ungainly swing of a rebar club won’t be very effective against lithe human enemies capable of dodging, you just understand it after an encounter or two. Zombies, excluding some fringe special variants, are little more than fleshy punching bags in isolation, certainly capable of dealing damage in groups but alone they’re a means to creativity. A tier system is present too, although I never believed in its execution. Stats like damage and handling didn’t seem to scale with their tier differences (even though the Dying Light wiki states otherwise), and overall I think the game could have either dropped the tiers completely, or made it more apparent when you’re wielding a high tiered weapon. Still, weapons are only one means of delivering the final-final blow to the undead. Dying Light’s levelling system consists of three skill trees (technically four if you include the end game) revolving around the concepts of agility, power and a broad general category. The former two deal with their respective concepts as you’d imagine. The agility tree offers abilities in increased climbing speed and endurance, along with flashier rolls and dodge’s. Power skills involve new ways to kill, finisher moves are quite common which allow executions in certain scenarios, smashing an enemies head in when they’re grounded or snapping their neck from behind. The last of the bunch is more amorphous, housing, frankly, the more generic and less useful boons of better bartering prices or longer duration of potions.
But then there’s the grappling hook skill, which in spite of its benefits to movement is actually placed in the survival tree rather than the agility one. Regardless, it’s an unlock which further turns Dying Light into Spider-Man 2019 before the latter even existed. Climbing crumbling spires was fun enough as is, but skipping the whole process with the help of your mechanical web and feeling the rush of wind hit your face is just as exhilarating. It came to me at the perfect time too, just as I had entered Old Town, where the architecture’s epic classical style seemed to implore the player to reach their zenith, high in the clouds. No longer was climbing a tower a methodically precise series of actions, it was a single button press, zipping you straight to the top, just for you to plunge back down with a few leaps and rolls. Towards the end of the game, where Crane seemingly has legs made of steel and springs, impervious to fall damage, capable of bouncing between buildings with complete ease, Dying Light cemented itself as a worthy upgrade to Dead Island in this element alone.
And while hopping along the empty rooftops and shimming between the hordes of undead flesh, you might find yourself faced against human enemies, mobsters part of the characteristically evil clan led by Rais. My feelings towards these encounters change over time. Your first fight against human opponents might feel…off. Compared to the relative ease at which isolated zombies fall to the might of your sledgehammers and unwieldy pipes, humans are smarter in a sense, capable of dodging blows and even reflecting them. You find yourself taking on a cluster of ruffians peddling fake antizin – the scarce, precious drug which wards off the effects of the zombie infection – only even when facing just one, nine times out of ten, my swings never landed. They’d block and roll out of the way, counter the tenth hit immediately and knock a quarter of my health off. It’s a distinct contrast to the power fantasy of zombie destruction, and ultimately I don’t think it quite achieves the intelligent stand-off style combat encounters it seems to aim for. It’s noticeable with quicker weapons, daggers and machetes which swing multiplier times quicker than a common bat. Swiping away at a goon might have them dodge out the way, and even if you stand there slashing at their limbs, they take no damage, seemingly in the game-y state of invulnerability. The aforementioned untold stat differences between weapons can be felt and for that it deserves props, but it needed more tuning, as human encounters can lead to frustration when it feels like the game just doesn’t want fights to end as quickly as they perceptively should do. That said, like with the myriad of options when it comes to weapon types, having human enemies at all, even in their flawed state, spices the game up when the perpetual head bashing of the undead errs on the side of tedium.
In between both types of combat encounters, complimented and facilitated by the polish of the freerunning system, exists a routine of looting and crafting. Released in 2016, it’s no wonder why Dying Light had a crafting system, that being because every game under the sun found it absolutely necessary to have a crafting system. I understand the depth it can bring to a game – Animal Crossing’s switch outing being a pertinent, modern example – but more often than not, at that time in gaming, it felt like a gimmick developers shoehorned in just because it was popular. It does of course make sense for a survival game, perhaps a tag often associated with Dying Light based on its zombie-apocalyptic theme, but in reality, Dying Light is far from the likes of 7 Days To Die or State of Decay which involve resource management. Rather, Dying Light fits snuggly into the broad “open world action” genre, and while looting can exist as a worthwhile detour to main content, its inclusion in Dying Light and relationship to crafting never quite feels fully fleshed out.
It’s most apparent with weapon upgrades. Similar to Dead Island, weapon degradation occurs rapidly, and while you can play the entire game finding new weapons to use like Breath of the Wild, the blueprint system opens an avenue of buffing existing weapons with elemental powers, enhanced damage stats and increased durability. Some are admittedly fun at first; the electric element added to a melee weapon can stiffen up Rais’ thugs in a shock, opening them up to free hits from the edged side of your katana. All the while, I never found the time investment worthwhile, and due to the expansive list of collectible parts, I had a small sense of “too good to use” when it came to choosing which rare blueprint to use on a weapon, fearing finding parts for another later on would be too laborious. Perhaps the latest Zelda has conditioned me to accept the fragility of one’s arsenal, as I employed the same mindset to Dying Light, tossing weak, frail weapons at the heads of my foes and picking up a replacement a few seconds later. Weapons are, after all, plentiful in the world of Harran, and while the rusty pipes and rotting planks may appear ineffective, they get the job done without taking away from the weightiness of the game’s combat.
As a result, the entire crafting system was a void in the game menus to me, existing only as a means to build medkits for my wounds and very little more. As petty as it sounds, I simply couldn’t be bothered to open up the menu, find the buff I wanted and craft it – a task which could take as little as ten seconds, ten seconds I viewed as lost time having fun. Developing an affinity for a weapon in Dying Light never feels worth it. Embracing a makeshift arsenal feels like the authentic scavenger experience.
Adding all these niggles together amounts to very minor criticism in the grander ebullient nature to the game’s core themes. Where major ire strikes deep though is with the games narrative and general writing, of which can, if fortunate, tread bland and boring territory, but unfortunately slips into the much more gruesome lands of borderline offensive and simple awfulness. Disclaimer, “offensive” in this case has less to do with genuine malice against a certain group, instead treating the greater population of literally every human ever as a total idiot. Dying Light’s premise alone provokes a few groans, depicting a trite American white saviour as the player protagonist and a truly derivative copy of Ubisoft’s Vaas as the primary baddie. The GRE, a global relief organisation, plays the role of employer to Kyle Crane, and to no one’s surprise ends up being just as morally awful as the stereotypical madman running loose in Harran. Rais frequently expounds upon the concept of order and chaos, taking the latter side for reasons unknown to any sane person. The game attempts to draw parallels between the two, with Rais frequently making his own links to his obviously stupid ideology of disorder to the general safety Crane represents. The entire main mission is one big waste of time, never making a single, solitary effort to tie the flimsy excuse for a narrative to the characters of the world or the situation you’re in. Rais’ aims and beliefs seem divorced from the zombie pandemic, of which is pride and centre the games focal point, or at least should be if the babbling dialogue and redundant cutscenes would leave it alone.
Dying Light’s writing just reeks of idiocy. From the very beginning, it’s understood Harran was to host an olympic style event, so why did the game fall back on mediocrity by having Crane’s background of a super soldier to make sense of his elite freerunning? The “runners”, a group of friendly survivors, learned their incipient trade from the teaching of their Australian leader, Brecken, who was obviously an athlete flown out to Harran for the games… No! He’s a fucking parkour instructor in Harran for no good reason. Characters like Rahim are given single attributes which define their character: a reckless kid who’s risky actions lead to his demise. Rais is manic, so he chops arms off. Your nameless, faceless GRE correspondent is a corporate lackey, so never deviates from the profit driven path of logic. Dying Light severely lack nuance, and it’s half-hearted attempt at aphorisms are undeniably contradictory and dumb.
The bulk of the writing makes me wonder what could have been. In preparation for this review, I wrote down the comparison to Breath of the Wild in its use of weapon impermanence, but in further examination, Dying Light could’ve really done by preempting the masterclass of Zelda’s 2017 design by forgoing a primary quest entirely. I say this because at times, side content can show signs of class, genuine character development and drama, which contrasts heavily with the barebones, lacking main mission. One side quest has you support an old man in caring for abandoned children, homeless and guardianless in the midst of an outbreak. His cries for help give rise to a narrative of deception and genuine sorrow, emotions that aren’t found in the majority of the game’s story content. The best display of any sort of storytelling comes in the form of the “quarantine zones”, isolated missions I somehow completely missed in my first playthrough, much to my chagrin in retrospect, as some are brilliant displays of environmental storytelling. “Isolated” is key here, because they feel like unrelated vignettes, unaware of the shitshow surrounding them, flourishing with concise little stories without uttering a word. One, set in a hotel, has you traverse the entire block searching for care packages while subtle stories are told through poignant set pieces. Notably, towards the end of your scavenge, you come across a room occupied by the game’s downright distressing child-zombie. Attached on one side is a locked door, where a female infected has evidently locked herself away to protect her child from her imminent turning.
As I say, I missed these pieces of side content entirely on my first playthrough, perhaps their misleading “hard” difficulty put me off or maybe their scarcity avoided my eye. Either way, they prove that with the correct focus, Techland had the chops to create evocative moments. Everything else is there: a beautiful location with less beautiful yet fitting zombies to wail on with meaty clubs and stinging blades. Corners were clearly cut in the writing department, and the ease to which you can avoid the ire of character dialogue, it was the preferable area to skimp on if it means we can enjoy what Dying Light does best. With a sequel around the corner, I’m keen to see if my main issue is addressed, and equally anticipating an evolution of an already exhilarating zombie brawler.