Review: Dying Light (PC)

Dying Light
Genre: Survival FPS
Developer: Techland
Publisher: WB Games
Release Date: 01/27/15

I distinctly remember the first time I turned off Dying Light in disgust.

It was at the end of a particularly long sequence of tropes; the character had just finished dealing with a particularly traumatic sequence, only to be thrown head-first into a race against the enemy to secure a character of great importance. After fighting my way through a fairly sizable contingent of enemies, I reached the objective door, and as I prepared to open it, I announced to my stream audience that I was expecting the boss of the game to be behind it, whereupon he’d disarm me and take me captive. This actually happened about two minutes later, oddly enough, and after an extensive bit of obvious storytelling, I was thrown “into the pit,” which was apparently some sort of zombie fighting ring. As control was handed back to me, I then announced that, if the game had removed me of all of my weapons, I was turning it off and moving on to something else. Before I even got into the menu to check, the game told me that it had done this exact thing, and my weapons could be found in my storage box, and, with a disgusted sigh, I simply turned it off and went to play literally anything else.

Such, then, is the plight of Dying Light: for all of its innovations and conceptual steps forward, it is literally exactly what you expect, presented in the most joyless way possible.

MAN IS THE REAL MONSTER, MAN

Let’s step back a bit.

The plot of Dying Light is essentially as such: you play as Kyle Crane, a mercenary of sorts who is working for the GRE, a humanitarian (in theory) group who has sent him into almost literal hell. A bioterrorist has a file containing what is essentially a file of unspecific contents that is of great value to humanity, and Crane has to get it back from him… only he’s somewhere in a city that’s absolutely silly with undead, and Crane has to parachute in. Well, this obviously goes down the dumper immediately; Crane ends up getting infected by the zombies in town and has to escape with a local group of friendlies to The Tower, where he ends up being cast as a scout/runner, doing odd jobs for them around the city. He has to balance working with them with his GRE work, as he attempts to find the bioterrorist with the file so that he can put this whole mess behind him and hopefully save himself, and ideally, the people in the city as well. From a dialogue perspective, the plot is fine enough; the actual writing itself manages to get the point across fine enough, and while some of the characters are a bit too cheesy for their own good, you can at least understand their personalities from how they’re written, and everyone is basically clearly defined.

The problem, though, is that the plot overall feels like someone looked up the zombie page on TV Tropes and stuffed every plot point possible from that page into the plot here. Crane is ostensibly an antihero who puts the mission before anything else, but he tosses that out just late enough to prevent him from making a single mistake that literally causes everything afterward, but just early enough that it’s a defining character trait for less than one fifth of the game, at most. The good guys are stereotypically good, the bad guys are stereotypically evil, nearly every single person you expect will make a heroic sacrifice at some point does so, and the whole plot just screams the real monster is man, like Romero and Dead Island didn’t beat that to death already. Further, the plot is completely joyless, which would be fine in theory (since the game is trying to be a full-fledged horror game instead of another Dead Island), but in practice, that mostly means you just fail a lot at things, and even your successes come with failures attached as often as not, which was tedious in Watch Dogs and fighting zombies makes it no less so. It also doesn’t help that the plot is basically all of the “white imperialism” of Far Cry 3 with none of the meat that made that game’s plot so compelling. Hell, Crane (protagonist) and Brecken (leader of The Tower) are white, and only Rais (presumably Turkish), the bad guy, is not. If the plot were simply bad, or if it were simply rote, it wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s both, and that makes the plot a complete chore to get through, such that if the game wasn’t a multiplayer sandbox game, it would almost certainly be a lot harder to tolerate.

One thing you can say about Dying Light in its favor is that it looks and sounds amazing. The visuals are top notch, and even with a video card that misses the maximum specs the game recommends (admittedly, not by much), the game sings. The environments are exceptionally well detailed, and while character and zombie models do repeat, they do so infrequently enough that if you’re not looking for it you likely won’t notice until quite a while into the game. The animations are also fantastic, as zombies will buckle appropriately under the weight of your strikes, and little touches, like slow motion pauses when you destroy a limb or x-ray shots when you break something important, give the combat a real feeling of depth. The game also makes great use of special effects, especially with the different types of lighting and how it works in gameplay, though the visual modifications (such as dimming of the screen when you’re tired or the smearing of the visuals when you’re camouflaged) hurt gameplay more than they help it. Aurally, all of the voice acting is top-notch, as the majority of the voice cast sound how you’d expect them to, and the key characters generally manage to make even the most awkward dialogue sing when they deliver their lines. The music is generally ambient, only kicking in when it’s thematically appropriate, and when it does it works effectively to make the experience more tense or powerful than it would be alone. Finally, the audio effects help the game feel supremely ambient, from the sounds of the various walking dead and the city as it falls apart to the more obvious sounds of gunfire and melee weapons breaking bones and beyond.

It’s like Dead Island, but better

If you’re wondering how Dying Light plays, well, essentially it’s a cross between Dead Island and Mirror’s Edge. Everything happens from first person, and you’re running around an open world zombie-filled sandbox, accomplishing tasks for those who ask you to do so as needed. You can play with either the keyboard and mouse, a controller, or the now-standard Xbox 360 corded controller; keyboard and mouse controls work fine, but having so many keys mapped to actions makes the game annoying to deal with, so I eventually swapped to a 360 controller, which worked much better. Your mileage may vary if you’re a PC stalwart, though, so for reference, the controls generally work well no matter what you’re using. When using the XB360 controller, the movement and aiming controls are as you’d expect, and combat is fairly self-contained: you use the right trigger to swing your primary weapon, while the left trigger uses whatever secondary tool you have armed. Most of the controls are mapped in a way that makes sense (L3 runs, B crouches, X uses and reloads) though some of them may take some time to get used to (RB jumps) depending on what you’re used to. The game runs you through about an hour of tutorials total, though, to get you really familiar with the mechanics, in a way that actually feels like gameplay instead of tutorials, so you’ll find that everything comes naturally enough as you go along.

The biggest change to the game from Techland’s Dead Island series is the addition of parkour, as it is the way to get around, and if you don’t use it, you’ll be dead in a hurry. Basically all you need to do, in theory, is press and hold RB, and you’ll jump and, if possible, grab a ledge and pull yourself up. However, you can climb on basically anything, and the game gives you plenty of chances to prove that. From buildings to scaffolds to overpasses to radio towers and beyond, you’ll be spending a good amount of time actively climbing and jumping around the city to get from place to place. This is mostly because running on the ground is suicide; zombies of various sorts roam around on the ground and will attack you, given the choice, but they’re generally not able to climb, so evading them from the rooftops or on cars is your best bet. In the case where you’re forced into combat (or want to get into it, either-or), combat’s pretty simple. Your primary weapon is used with the right trigger; if it’s a melee weapon (and it usually is), you’ll swing it down to club an enemy to death, while if it’s a gun, you’ll shoot where you’re aiming. While it might seem like guns would be the preferable option, this isn’t so much the case; they’re loud and frequently attract more undead, and ammunition for them isn’t terribly plentiful unless you’re fighting people, so you’ll generally want to rely on melee weapons unless you’re fighting other shooting enemies. Melee weapons have their own issues, though; you can only swing as many times as you have stamina, and if you’re out, you’ll have to back off until it replenishes or else swing like a goon. Also, melee weapons break down after a bit of use and need to be repaired, and after a set amount of repairs, they cease to work altogether and need to be sold, tossed or broken down into scrap. This makes sense, interestingly enough; you’re going to want to constantly find more powerful weapons anyway, and the game absolutely floods you with new weapons, so you’ll never be at a loss for something to brain zombies with. You can upgrade weapons, though, and build special weapons from blueprints to make badass effects, like flames or extra blades, so they’ll hit harder and last longer while you have them.

The experience tree system has also seen an overhaul, in a couple of different ways. Crane earns three different kinds of experience, based on survival (the completion of missions and side quests), agility (parkour movements) and power (slaying stuff). Each experience tree levels up independently from the others, and each features different skills and feats you can take based on the tree’s function. Survival, for instance, allows you skills that make surviving easier, like improved crafting options and reduced vendor prices, while agility offers you advanced movement options and stamina pools, and power allows you more health and better combat techniques. Speaking of crafting, it’s back in Dying Light and works more or less the same as it did in Dead Island. You’ll find blueprints in the game world in various ways which lay out how to make items, be they consumables, weapons, tools or other useful gadgets. By going into the Blueprints section of your menu, you can use these blueprints to make physical objects you can use, so long as you have all of the required parts to do so. Useful consumables, such as health items and boosts, are generally simple to make, while weapons can require several items and may well be much harder to manufacture on the fly. You’ll also find that there are always useful blueprints popping up as you go along, either through quests, random exploration, or even leveling up, so you’ll always be finding new tools to make the quest more viable as needed.

You’ll certainly need the upgrades, though, because the game world is far from forgiving. The undead are literally almost everywhere, and they’re not easily defeated, no matter what level you are. Part of this is due to the fact that the game generally scales around your level, meaning that zombies are generally always as powerful as you are, so even upgrades to your capabilities only do so much. You’ll find that you can dispatch zombies more efficiently later in the game, due to a combination of powerful gear and skills (moreso than in Dead Island), but jumping into a game hosted by someone ten levels your junior shows that, yes, the zombies will always be scaling with you, so the game is constantly a challenge. There’s also the matter of special undead, such as Runners (28 Days Later undead), Demolishers (Left 4 Dead’s Tank), Miners (zombies suffering from boss-itis and wielding rebars) and Bombers (Boomers, but lethal), among others, who will pop up from time to time to make life difficult. Also, the game pays attention to its day and night cycle, and during the night, life becomes ruinous; while experience points are doubled and death confers no penalties (normally you lose some Survival experience), the game becomes much harder. You can barely see without light, and flashlights give your position away real quick, so you’ll basically either be blind or a moving target. Also, new enemies, dubbed the “Volatile,” spawn, and aside from being almost entirely immune to normal damage and only really effected by UV light, they also chase you heavily and do massive damage on contact, so travelling after dark is highly not recommended. You don’t have to, of course; you can liberate safe houses around the island by killing the undead within and turning on the power, and crashing at safe houses allows you to safely sleep through the night undisturbed as needed. You can also head to these safe houses to change your clothes if you like, and to access your storage if you want to store or retrieve weapons.

Things to do during the apocalypse when you’re annoyed

You can probably complete the core plotline in around six to twelve hours, give or take, if you do nothing else but storyline missions and manage to accomplish them with little trouble or death, but there’s so much more to the game than that. Obviously you can run around liberating safe houses, but there are also a ton of sidequests to take on for experience and rewards, supply drops to claim in the early going, and challenges to work on for those who want to see and do it all. The game is also a good bit bigger than it first seems, so you’ll end up finding that once you’ve done everything, you’ll have even more to do in the second half. The game also supports online multiplayer for up to four people, so you can run about with friends taking the un- out of undead, as well as take on challenges together for those who are into that. The game even offers a “Be the Zombie,” mode, which allows you to jump into the games of others and kill them (or be killed by them) as the undead, and while so far it seems to be built in favor of human players winning, it’s not a bad effort at least. Oh, and eventually the game gives you a grappling hook, which is exactly as fun as you think it would be (lots), so there’s that.

That said, for as many positive changes as Techland has made to the experience, they’ve also ended up in the same position they did in Dead Island: the game simply has a lot of issues (none of them technical, thankfully) that make it hard to enjoy no matter how much you might want to. The parkour mechanics, while better in some respects than something like Mirror’s Edge, sometimes don’t work as intended, IE, you’ll not grab things that seem they should allow it, or you’ll grab entirely the wrong thing on a jump, and they could use some tweaking in general. The game also occasionally has issues tracking items you can interact with, so you’ll have to twitch around a bit to get the objects to activate. Also, in a return from Dead Island, armor still doesn’t exist in this game, and while you can at least somewhat make the argument that armor would interfere with your parkour moves, human enemies wear armor and still manage to get around okay, so this doesn’t work so well. Further, the human enemies in the game in general are just a gigantic problem, because they absolutely suck out loud to fight until you get a gun. Despite the fact that Crane is supposedly a reasonably well trained mercenary of sorts, he’s completely outclassed in hand-to-hand combat when facing down random thugs, because they can perform actions like “ducking” and “blocking with their weapon” that you simply can’t. This is a horribly inane design decision, frankly; not only does it make fighting human opponents utterly unenjoyable, it leaves the player asking “Wait, why can’t I duck?” every time they get trucked by a dork in a stupid hat.

The game also seems to take on the mentality popularized by Dark Souls that “difficulty is good,” which is fine if your game works in a fashion that’s mechanically consistent at all times, but Dying Light does not do that. Instead, you’ll simply find that you just turned a corner and got blown up by a Bomber, without warning, only to be teleported half a mile away from your current objective with about two thousand less experience points than you had a minute ago, and you’ll just get annoyed. Part of this is due to the same problems Dead Island had, IE, you can’t handle more than a couple zombies at one time without getting super creative, but part of it is simply purposeful design choices, like giving zombies an animation that, when hit, knocks your weapon away and allows them to lunge in and bite you during combat. It’s not that you can’t deal with the difficulty because you totally can; it’s that the game does things that are specifically frustrating rather than challenging, meaning it’s annoyingly difficult rather than satisfyingly difficult.

Oh, and since we’re specifically talking about the PC version, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sole reason to play the PC version, IE the ability to download and apply mods to goof around with, is being actively fought back against by Techland, who have “blocked cheating by changing game’s data files,” in their most recent patch, and are DMCA’ing modders. Two things about that. First, in a game that’s largely cooperative with only a minor smattering of competitive elements that honestly don’t matter very much and weren’t the selling point of the game anyway, while it’s theoretically noble to try to protect the few gamers who will care, completely killing the modding community of your PC game in its first week more or less ensures your game isn’t going to win fans. Second, that’s generally the reason people play games on the PC anyway; if you’re leaving it to me as the consumer, I’m going to buy the console version of the game and play it with my less gaming intensive friends. The PC version is where you can see creative players make cool weapons, like people were doing for Dead Island on the PC. Dying Light, on the other hand, is basically telling PC gamers that they can’t use the toys provided to them, and if you don’t think that’s going to breed resentment, you haven’t been on the internet very long.

So in the end, what can one say about Dying Light beyond “It’s Dead Island in a larger country?” The game certainly makes use of its technical systems well, as the game is a joy to look at and listen to, and the gameplay makes good use of the original Dead Island structures but adds in parkour and more involved mechanics and structures to help it really feel unique. There’s a lot to see and do in the game, as well, alone or with friends, so anyone who’s looking for a lengthy, challenging zombie slaying open world experience should find this one to be a lot of fun. However, the plot is absolute dreck at all times, the parkour and item interactions could use some tweaking, and there still isn’t any meaningful body armor in the game to speak of. Further, the game makes it a point to show you that human enemies are better at combat than you because of mechanical restrictions and confuses all difficulty for good difficulty, and the modding options are completely crippled for PC gamers at this point so the single biggest selling point for the game on the PC is nonexistent. If you’re fine playing the game as-is, like Techland games despite their flaws, or just want some free-roaming first person zombie gaming, Dying Light isn’t too bad, and Techland has clearly created a good framework to start from when they go to create a sequel. If they manage to get over their conflict with the modding community, the game could end up being a must-have, but for now it’s fine, if still quite rough, and it’s really not any better than its console brethren at this point.

Short Attention Span Summary:
In a lot of respects, Dying Light is a natural evolution from Dead Island: the gameplay mechanics are much more advanced, and the experience is still a lot of fun, but the game is still flawed and afflicted with poor decisions, some of which Techland has been making since the beginning. The production is top quality, with awesome visual and aural production all around, and the gameplay is pretty solid overall, with enough innovation to distinguish it from its spiritual predecessor. There’s also a lot of content to work with and plenty of play options for one or multiple players, so you’ll have a good bit of cooperative and competitive play to work with. That said, however, the plot is asinine and formulaic, the game still nonsensically lacks any kind of armor system, the parkour could use some tuning to respond appropriately, and it’s really frustrating fighting human enemies who can perform functions you’re physically unable to match, as it creates a real disconnect to the experience. Further, the developers have taken the idea that “difficulty is good” to heart without understanding why that is, and the PC version bizarrely actively is designed to fight modding, which makes it a frustrating choice for PC fans, and one that will probably hurt Techland in the long run. If you want the most technically proficient version of Dying Light it’s almost certainly the PC version, and if you’re into sandbox zombie games with a bit of parkour and a lot of content you’ll find it here… so long as you can accept its many flaws and enjoy the experience below them.