Our Nation’s Review of Dying Light

Developer: Techland
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: January 27th, 2015
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux
Reviewed on: Xbox One (review copy provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)

Back in early 2011, a promotional trailer was released to announce game studio Techland’s newest creation: Dead Island. The trailer was widely praised, and to this day stands as an example of how to create hype around your product. Unfortunately, when Dead Island was released it received mixed reviews, and now retains a general reputation as a disappointment  not for what it was, but for what it could have been based on the trailer. Fast forward 4 years  several Dead Rising spinoffs (not developed by Techland)  and the much anticipated Dying Light is finally released.

Dying Light tells the story of Kyle Crane, an agent of the GRE (Global Relief Effort) sent to infiltrate the various factions that still inhabit the zombie-infected city of Harran and retrieve data on the virus. Harran is a fictional city based in Turkey, and if the various accents don’t make that clear, the city’s décor will. The game drops you right into the story  literally  and does a pretty good job of setting the tone almost immediately. Sadly, that’s soon broken up by a good 30 minutes of exposition, followed by a pretty standard tutorial. It was during this early stage of the game that I was fearful of the rest, worried I was headed into a slog. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case, though there are some notable exceptions to the enjoyment along the way.

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The first immediate problem was the controls. The standard axes inversion and control change is possible, but had no configuration I ever found remotely satisfactory. One of Dying Light’s major features is its parkour. I was very skeptical about first-person parkour, but it’s pulled off pretty brilliantly. I wasn’t disoriented or confused with it, and it feels very natural to free-run around the city. However, one large negative to this is the jump/climb button that’s bound to the right bumper button. There was no variation of the controls where this was made a button on the pad, and that was a massive oversight.

Over the past thirty years, gaming has ingrained in us that “A” means jump  from Mario, to Sonic, to Call of Duty, to Destiny, to Dragon Age  “A” has been jump across generations and consoles. A lot of the parkour can involve split-second decisions and muscle memory, and my muscles were telling me to hit “A”, which in Dying Light is “Survivor Sense” an ability that highlights interact-able objects in the environment. This led to countless times plummeting hundreds of feet to my death after a panicked “A” press, watching the environment highlight around me as I squished into the ground. This became especially troublesome during a frantic late-game mission that took me a good hour to complete, almost entirely due to the placement of the jump button. And yes, that many hours into the game, it still wasn’t natural to jump with the bumper.

The control woes don’t end there either. Kyle has a kicking ability that allows you to momentarily knock back foes, as well as an equipment bag with various items like grenades, throwing weapons, flashlights, etc. To kick, which I used often, you push the left bumper. To use an item, you use the left trigger. I constantly reversed these and gave myself a face full of Molotov cocktail instead of kicking someone, and I was never able to get used to it. In the settings, I could change these controls to what I wanted, however that would in turn change the rest of the controls to things I didn’t want. Dying Light is a prime example of why developers should allow players to map controls.

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After the tutorial, you’re set loose in a city typical in most open-world games. You can come and go as you please, and you’re never forced to do a mission you don’t want to. There are plenty of side quests, places to explore, Easter eggs, random enemies,  and collectibles to be found. In fact, the world is surprisingly vast. I spent almost 25 hours completing the main story, also finishing a couple side quests in the process. Luckily, the game lets you continue after story completion to mop up all the quests you didn’t finish.

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Having a large, living, breathing world is always a good thing — unless it’s a pain to traverse. The parkour is very fun to do despite the control issues, and it’s definitely fun to see everything and everyone in the city. However, the several times I wished for a fast-travel to the next travel began to be uncountable. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not lazy, I’m more than happy to walk my way from mission to mission, but this world is truly huge: it took me nearly 10 minutes to cross just one of the districts to complete a mission, and then to finish this mission, I had to turn around and head right back. It begins to feel like a bit of a chore, and every time it seemed the story was paving the way for a logical reason to have fast travel, it never came. Once you complete the main story, posters appear in your bedroom that let you fast-travel between districts, but even then, it’s quite a run in each district from point to point.

The visuals are spectacular — the open-world is almost seamless and everything you see feels as if it can be reached on foot. Buildings with gorgeous design, slum districts with tin roofs and ghettos, old parts of town with classic architecture — all of it adds to the feeling of being in a distinctly lived-in world. The character models are well-done; main characters in particular. Various NPCs begin to look alike, and after a while you start seeing many similar zombies as well. However, the visuals really get their chance to shine on the vistas: any time you’re on the top of a building or a hill, the view of town or the sea is breathtaking.

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Weapon designs are fairly varied, running the gamut from blunt, sharp, spiked, bladed, to firearms. I didn’t receive a firearm until halfway through the story and I was looking forward to it for a long time  I was disappointed however, because Techland decided to treat them slightly more realistically in this game. They’re loud, they attract more and more zombies, ammo isn’t plentiful unless you’re fighting other living beings and they’re pretty hard to aim in a hurry. I ended up relying on my trusty electrified flame-sword for most of my run. The mêlée hits are satisfying and the zombies go to pieces when a blade is taken to them.

Dying Light uses a stamina system to control melee swings and running. A bar in the bottom middle of your screen denotes your stamina and it quickly expends with each swing you take, regardless of whether you make contact. It’s a smart way to make sure you’re being conservative with your attacks, but it ends up not making sense in the context of the greater narrative. You’re supposedly a young, incredibly fit special operative able to parkour across this city at will with little to no down time, yet if you swing at a zombie with a wrench four times, you’re too exhausted to do it a fifth. Arbitrary limitations like that took me out of the experience a few times, even though I understand it’s there for gameplay reasons.

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The inventory is handled with a backpack and you’re able to carry a very impressive amount of items before your bag is full. At first, inventory management seems to be an issue, but once you find your favorite type of weapon and equipment, it’s very easy to delegate the space needed to them. Most things are in the game drop cash, but I found it to be almost entirely useless  I only used cash on more ammo when necessary and occasionally on a specific blueprint or item. You’re rewarded and find multiple blueprints throughout the game that let you craft multiple types of weapons from the items you find around the city. There’s a few that are much, better than others, and once I found them, I rarely used any others. I suspect that will come down to personal preference though.

The skill system is fairly unique and mostly enjoyable. You have a Survivor experience bar, an Agility bar, and a Power bar. Each of them level up separately based on what you’re doing. Survivor experience is accrued mostly from quests and finishing world events, like collecting air drops. Agility experience is acquired from your parkour moves, with experience amounts depending on how impressive or difficult the move you’ve used. Power experience is awarded for every hit you make on an enemy, with a larger lump sum deposited when that enemy dies. Early on, everything was evenly leveled. Until the 9th level, Agility and Power were equal in terms of being earned, but that quickly turned. You’re put in more and more situations where fighting is the mission or way out as opposed to the parkour fleeing. I ended the game with them separated by 8 levels!

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Dying Light has a day/night system that you can almost entirely avoid depending on how you wish to play. Your character has a watch that displays a greatly accelerated 24-hour period. When the sun goes down, special zombies called Volatiles emerge and they’re extremely dangerous. They’re quick, they hit hard, they can climb buildings, and they alert all other Volatiles and zombies in the area to your presence. These lead to epic and terrifying night chases, where you’re forced to sprint away and hope you lose them.

As the game progresses, it becomes increasingly easier to avoid the Volatiles at night, and doing so without the safety of a safe zone or dying that yields you a large XP bonus. Your Agility and Power experience is also doubled during the night, so if you’re a brave soul willing to brave the horrors, you can make out like a bandit with XP grinding during the night cycles. But if you’re completely against it, most of the time you can just sleep the night away and emerge again in the day.

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The sound design in Dying Light is surprisingly well done. I’m usually most afraid of being jump-scared in games like this, but they opted for ambient sound that makes me almost constantly fearful of a zombie attack. At night, there are howls from indeterminate distances, vague grunts and shuffling, and lots of little roars. During the day, you hear the moaning and the shuffling around, and find yourself almost constantly on edge. It was an interesting change to the normal scare tactics and I found myself enjoying it immensely. The underscore is sadly unremarkable, save for the few pieces of Turkish instrumental music that would play as you traversed the city, lending to even more ambience that built up the environment.

Dying Light has a cooperative mode that you have to enable in your menu. If you set your game to private, you play it by yourself with no interference from the outside world. However, if you set it to public, people can join your game at will, and during my test, that went about as well as I expected. If you were to join up specifically with a friend, I could see this being a great feature though. There’s also a gameplay mode called “Be the Zombie” which lets you join other players’ worlds as a zombie, but I haven’t been able to find a joinable game on this mode yet.

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I ended up enjoying Dying Light far more than I thought I would. Most of its parts came together to form a coherent whole and it’s definitely more enjoyable than not. However, the control issues were too pronounced to ignore and they ended up detracting heavily from the enjoyment at several points. The campaign story, while not entirely original, is a lot of fun. Despite the challenge of facilitating character development during an action-oriented apocalypse game, the few main characters were well-written and complex. The female lead Jade Aldemir is tough, no-nonsense, savvy, and has a complete and satisfying arc. Everyone is very well-voiced and put together, but no scene was especially gripping.

If you’re a fan of the zombie genre, you will no doubt enjoy Dying Light. If you even remotely enjoyed Dead Island, you will love Dying Light! Unfortunately, the control issues I had greatly affected my enjoyment at times, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next step for them is. Techland has made massive improvements in the last four years and I look forward to seeing what they come up with in the next four. With DLC already planned, there’s hope for these issues to be addressed during the life of the game.

What do you think? Did you play Dying Light already? Do you agree with what I had to say? Disagree? Let me know in the comments! Don’t forget to follow @APGNation for more gaming reviews and news.

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