Review: Dying Light

Dying Light takes the previous TechLand zombie games and learns from their mistakes to make a pretty solid game.  Some control missteps and QTE nonsense don't do much to diminish an other-wise pretty solid game with a well-developed story, great looking visual style, and a variety of activities and mechanics to keep gameplay fresh.  A solid recommendation.
Review: Dying Light
Date published: Mar 23, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Dying Light is a first person action survival game developed and published by TechLand.  Dying Light is a surprising rise in quality, from the developers of the Dead Island series. Don't get me wrong, I loved the Dead Island series, but it was fraught with issues and while it had an interesting take on the whole zombie survival genre, it felt lacking in places. I'm pleased to say this time round, TechLand have learnt much from their last two zombie fps outings and have refined the process—taking what did work from Dead Island and removing what didn't. The thing I found most striking about Dying Light is how adding a small thing like parkour, and scaling rooftops can really open the world. Running, bouncing and jumping is all it took to refresh the tired old post-zombie apocalypse formula and make it feel fresh and inviting. I'll stop rabbiting on about Dead Island now.

The story of Dying Light has you assume the role of a government operative—Kyle Crane. Crane is a member of the GRE (Global Relief Effort) sent to the Turkish city of Harran under the guise of helping the survivors. He is really there to recover a crucial, sensitive file from them by a rogue operative, that is being used to blackmail them. The rogue agent threatens to publicise it if he ever goes "mysteriously missing". Crane drops in Harran and is ambushed by minions of a local despot terrorizing the people of Harran.

This event alerts nearby infected and Crane is bitten in the ensuing chaos, but is rescued by a tourist prize-fighter turned local hero, Jade Aldemir. Jades brother is killed during the fight and Jade takes Crane to "The Tower". The Tower is where most of the survivors of Harran are holed-up, led by another tourist who is a professional parkour instructor. Crane is given a dose of Antizin—a drug that greatly delays an infected human from going viral. It's not a permanent fix but it allows them to retain their humanity longer.Crane now has to carry out his orders for the GRE, helping the people of Harran, while cooperating with a local despot in order to find the whereabouts of the sensitive file and retrieve it.

Dying Light keeps the player in the game

The story is told entirely in first person. There are no cut-scenes per-se. Borrowing a page from Valve's book, Dying Light catches the players eye with events and context sensitive controls that take control, should you let them. Techland have well and truly learnt from the problems customers had with the Dead Island series. The voice acting isn't forgettable, and fraught with sub-par dry voice actors that make you cringe. On the contrary, the voice acting within Dying Light is superb, driven mainly by Roger Craig smith as Kyle Crane. The characters are all fairly likable and play off the main quite well. You really start to feel for the people of Harran, which is good because they require much of you.

Interestingly the story is mostly linear, which was refreshing. There were a couple of times I felt I'd have to make moral choices, and was pleasantly surprised to find this was not the case. While the plot is linear, it is well presented and well told. I had only one question that remained unanswered by the time I'd finished the game and it wasn't really a big one. Likewise the sidequest plots were quite unique and interesting, with my favourite being one particular that was related to "finding out the source of the outbreak". Turns out the guy that makes this claim is a whack-job, claiming it came from a downed meteorite and you are rewarded with a completely useless weapon. The quest however is pretty funny. It's the little things like that, that make Dying Light's story as enjoyable as it was.

Parkour is the one new addition to
otherwise derivative but tight mechanics

The single player of Dying Light borrows many aspects from Dead Island. The majority of the weapons are mostly melee, with guns being somewhat of a secondary thought. Far improved from Dead Island however, is the gunplay. You're given less ammunition, but as soon as you get access to firearms, the rest of the game can more or less be played as a first person shooter. The mechanics work, and you'll never miss shots due to your character being less proficient with guns or poor aim detect. Head-shots are generally an instant kill, and the firearms aspect is made interesting by being a double edged sword. While firearms are incredibly overpowered, they are loud. Gunshots will summon all sorts of enemies, including Virals. Virals are humans that have only just turned into infected. They can run, climb, and do anything Crane can. They can chase you from rooftop to rooftop and their screams will summon more Virals. Due to this aspect, it's generally wise to use firearms as a last resort.

As Crane is taught parkour by the Harran survivors, he can run, climb, jump and do all sorts of athletic moves. Crane also gets access to a grappling hook later on in the game which really opens up Dying Light, especially in "Sector Zero". The parkour is the main traversal method of Dying Light, but that's not its only use. While parkour allows you to avoid zombies for the most part, it can also help you in combat. As you progress in the game, Crane will unlock new abilities—each of these from the three different trees. The "Agility" tree unlocks further parkour abilities, allowing you to fall further, run faster and longer, as well as use enemies to pole-vault over overs. The "Power" tree gives access to abilities like dashing into an enemies legs to shatter them, using other enemies momentum against hostiles, and letting Crane do a power attack using melee weapons. The final skill tree is "Survivor". This tree does things like allowing you to craft more items using less resources, making prices at vendors cost less, and increasing defense.

While climbing structures, it's common to feel as though you can jump towards a certain area, thinking you can grab it and advance further up it. Often this is not the case. You may think you can grab onto it and take a leap of faith, only to plummet to your horrible and bone-crushing death. Climbing can be frustrating. This is slightly mitigated once Crane gets hold of the grappling hook. The downside with the grappling hook is that you get it pretty late in the game, and while it opens the game up immensely, you only have it for a few hours before you finish the game. Regarding the endgame, it's quite well presented and I enjoyed it, however there was a quick-time event that came out of nowhere. This event was incredibly frustrating, and entailed using W, A, S, and D and I failed it about ten times as it just took me entirely by surprise. There are no other quick-time events in the game.

The crafting system from Dead Island makes a return in Dying Light. Crane can scavenge all sorts of items, making elemental melee weapons, medkits, makeshift ninja stars, and firecrackers—the latter that can be used to distract enemies in the game. Crane can also purchase crafting items and medkits from vendors. The quartermaster of the Tower will also provide Crane with free items and weapons daily—quite handy if one runs out of money as the best weapons are costly and can only be repaired a few times. Items, weapons and cash can be acquired from doing sidequests—of which there are a huge amount. I tried to do all of them before I finished my review, but it was just taking far too long and the due date was looming.

The namesake night-time segments really add to the gameplay

One of the most amazing aspects of Dying Light is its namesake. When you lose the light and the game turns to nighttime, this is where the game really shines. You go from being the hunter to the hunted. At night, the overpowered Volatiles are unleashed, and the game goes from being a brutal first person slasher to a stealth game. Volatiles are incredibly mutated infected that are sensitive to ultraviolet light. Using Cranes "Survivor Vision", you can ascertain where the Volatiles are hunting and avoid them. If a Volatile spots you, you can blast it with your handheld UV light. This gives you time to escape pursuit and provides extra experience upon surviving the night. At the same time if you should survive the night without being spotted by a Volatile at all, you will acquire a massive amount of experience.

Noise plays a large factor in Dying Light—whether avoiding enemies or taking them on. While taking on tougher enemies you may be tempted to pop a grenade to deal a lot of damage, but this will summon creatures from all around. You can use crafted firecrackers to distract the slow moving zombies as well as the Volatiles, however if you pop off a few rounds of your firearm you'll be okay. There seems to be a grace period of how many rounds you can fire from a gun before it alerts Virals, however if you go over that or let off a grenade—hell, even if you fall too far you had better get out of that vicinity as fast as your legs will carry you.

Cooperative play adds to the game, but the invasion aspect seems tacked on

The single player campaign also features drop in/drop out cooperative play within the story. You can have up to four players within a game, and it is generally advised to have this amount of people in game when tackling a "Quarantine Zone". A Quarantine Zone is an instance of sorts where you and the four other players either have to kill a set amount of infected, or search for items. Quarantine Zones generally give superiour loot, and the enemies are tough and plentiful. If one of of you gets killed, you can be revived by team members, just like the rest of the single player campaign. Once completed, Quarantine zones give a lot of experience.

During the single player campaign, you will occasionally be invaded by another player. They take on the role of a Volatile infected, hunting down the four humans, while you have to wipe out its nearby nests. During this instance, the single player becomes somewhat like Left4Dead, requiring teamwork and working close together in order to eradicate the nests and the beast. Interestingly, as soon as you are invaded all other Volatiles on the map go into hiding, leaving you to contend with just the invading player and the normal infected, as well as the Virals.

The multiplayer for Dying Light leaves a bit to be desired. It takes places within the single player campaign where you play as the zombie, invading their game as one of the volatile zombies. Each match can have up to four human players, but only one volatile. The volatile can go anywhere and has an ability called "Tendril Locomotion". Much like the grappling hook mechanic in Crane's story, the Volatile can use its tendrils to grapple onto anything, allowing it to slingshot across the terrain while it hunts down the humans. 

The main ability the Volatile has is to grab humans. This is an instant kill if it isn't interrupted, however the humans can utilise their UV lights to disorientate you. The UV light slowly drains your strength and abilities and if you've been hit even once by the UV, you are unable to grapple onto a human and kill them. A bar down the bottom of the HUD (Head Up Display) represents your UV resistance. One it is depleted, you are unable to use any abilities, including Tendril Locomotion. The only option at that point is flight, and you can charge up a ground pound to disorient enemies and escape momentarily. This is where the issue is. While the Volatile itself is quite overpowered against two or less humans, the ground pound doesn't give you a reasonable amount of time to escape your enemies. This creates a massive balancing problem. Against one or two players, the Volatile is somewhat unfair while having one Volatile pitched against four humans is really unfair and at most times, you will be lucky to kill three in a match.

As you play as the Volatile, you will accrue experience and access to further abilities—much like in Crane's campaign. The abilities ranged from being able to ground pound while running, to things like temporarily preventing the use of UV lights in an area, or calling in a horde to take out the humans and assist. Perhaps the balancing straightens itself out as you progress higher up the Volatile ability level, but quite frankly the whole mode feels tacked on—considering its DLC, and there weren't enough matches to consistently practice or care about. On PC, it seems there are only a few people who play it online, with four games registered being the most I ever saw. On top of all this, the majority of times when you invade someone's game they will either kick you out, or you will be left unable to connect. It's quite frustrating.

Art direction in Dying Light as well as visual fidelity are brilliant

The graphics for Dying Light are outstanding. The use of lighting and shading brings the immense detail of the world. The sky is vibrant and bright, in contrast with the dark, depressing, and disheveled ruins of Harran spread across the maps. The detail on terrain, models and characters is quite impressive and the animations for all characters are very smooth and realistic. None of the characters—primary or secondary, feel out of place, and the models never portray the uncanny valley feel to them. The monsters are menacing looking, with the damage model being quite advanced. Zombies can often lose a limb or two and still keep fighting. The violence is very stylistic, with melee weapons often decapitating enemies with ease or cleaving them in two.

The foliage is highly detailed, with sewers feeling rather dank and uninviting. The one complaint would be that the set-pieces aren't varied enough, with the majority of the game taking place in the slums, sewers, or highrise apartments and courtyards. The colours of the game aren't all that impressive, with the environments being boring, grey and depressing. This seems to be an artistic choice however, as a fair few of the Quarantine Zones take place in a variety of differing instances. Swimming looks and feels great, with your vision even obscured briefly upon exiting the water—simulating lack of vision as you come from the water into the Sun, as well as water drops preventing you from seeing briefly. In this instance, part of the camera blurs and it adds to the immersion.

Darkness is more or less bitch black unless you use your flashlight, or your UV light. You will often be shuffling around in the dark, unable to see at all while bumping into normal infected. These instances are quite tense as in order to utilise your flashlight and be able to see in front of your face, you need to use it sparingly—out of fear of alerting a Volatile. These moments are the most immersive I found as you have to balance between being able to see, and bringing the wrath of the horde down upon you. The best part? All of this was what I experienced with the game running at Medium settings. I couldn't run it at maximum settings and the graphical detail still impressed me.

Sound and music design is top-notch

The music and sound design is also very high quality, with every move a zombie makes transmitted perfectly into the sound effects. The characters are made likable by superb voice acting. Even bit characters are somewhat memorable due to the voice actor's reading of their lines. Some you will grow to despise for their actions and the emotion is conveyed quite well. For the antagonists, it becomes really easy to hate them due to the brilliant VA's steering their helm. The music is somewhat samey and ambient—with the main semi-tribal chanting tune grating on you after a while. Thankfully the music takes a minimalist approach and doesn't encroach on the action, until you're in combat with humans or running for your life from a Volatile.

This is when the music picks up, adding to the tension and relief once you make it to a nearby safehouse, just in time to sleep the night away. A particular aspect I found striking was the detail Techland had put into small things on an audio scale. I was playing online in one of the Quarantine Zones when people joined me. Instantly the voice input from starting to echo, and I thought the audio was broken. Turna out this wasn't the case. Because we were in an empty tunnel, the sound was reverberating. They'd added an echo that—upon leaving the instance, reverted back to normal audio that sounded perfectly clear. This aspect impressed me greatly, though it was disorienting at first.

Dying Light takes the previous TechLand zombie games and learns from their mistakes to make a pretty solid game.  Some control missteps and QTE nonsense don't do much to diminish an other-wise pretty solid game with a well-developed story, great looking visual style, and a variety of activities and mechanics to keep gameplay fresh.  A solid recommendation.