There’s a moment, after running from some unnaturally relentless zombies, that you find reprieve in collection of shanties walled off by all manner of heavy makeshift barrier materials. Amongst it’s inhabitants is a movie director. He convinces you to take time out from your busy schedule—full of saving survivors not in well guarded safezones, or finding solutions to this zombie problem—to help him shoot some cheap action effects for his movie. A film that will, ironically, feature a generic Mighty Man shooting zombies in the face. It’s around this time this random side quest delivery system hits you with the smartest line written in this game. I’ll paraphrase:
“Your motivation for this role is that you want to kill a lot of zombies, for no reason in particular.”
This is Dying Light at its most prophetic and self-referential. The value in Techland’s open world adventure game is the various ways you will discover to avoid, fear, and eventually conquer the zombie apocalypse. There’s a story to follow, but its so stereotypically a “zombie media” story that even it’s unique bits are overshadowed by its oppressive mediocrity.
That shouldn’t be received as “every narrative element in Dying Light is terrible.” The setting for example, a fictional Turkish city called Harran, is a place you rarely see these sorts of stories. It was going to host a fictional equivalent of the Olympic Games, but instead went the Racoon City route. You see the remnants of this sudden upheaval everywhere. Tattered posters of the Games still swing in some places, major roadways are packed densely with long abandoned cars, etc. Its a frustrating thing, to look at one of your supporting characters and see her picture on a poster calling her the greatest kickboxer in the world, because the story you’re given is so boringly standard compared to all of the many other stories this world is only half telling.
Dying Light also has a terrible time figuring out what sort of tone it’s attempting to pursue. It shifts between trying to a be a funny, light-hearted zombie game and being a dark, morally heavy zombie game. It’s not as if it has to be one or the other, but blending the approaches is something that proved beyond Techland’s reach. It’s incredibly difficult to find the same sort of attachment to the characters that weave in and out of the plot the same way protagonist Kyle Crane apparently does. The ultimately paper-thin story, the cookie cutter characters, and the hit or miss writing are the culprits here. The voice acting is incredibly inconsistent in quality, with much of it sounding like bad Schwarzenegger impressions, and can really devalue some of the more tense narrative moments.
There’s an inherent goofiness that underpins the entirety of the many gameplay mechanics, which serves as both a cathartic pallette receptive of any particular player’s form of self expression, and a constant reminder that the reason you’re doing any of this is because it’s fun, not because it matters. The various side missions are relatively standard open world fare, providing reasons for you to kill more zombies. Events can spark up randomly near you, as well. Supply drops happen periodically and usually incite a race between the warring factions of Harran to secure the supplies for their set, as an example. I’m sure all these moments are supposed to be building this image of a desperate, vicious city where only the ruthless survive. I seemed to miss that memo everytime I dropkick a creature a few blocks down the street.
To play the game untethered by trying to care about the ramshackle story is to really glean the best of Dying Light. Fighting zombies can range from gleefully nutty (as eluded to in the mega dropkick earlier) to frantic and challenging. When it comes to making you dead, zombies employ the “strength in numbers” approach. The first person angle can be jarring and becomes a struggle to get accustomed to at first when surrounded by a horde of these shamblers. They lunge with Rob Ford-ian grace, but have little regard for their own safety and can take a wallop. Sometimes. Sometimes they just crumple into piles of themselves, wondering if there weren’t better decisions to be made a few seconds prior. And other times still, their heads just explode into bloody confetti.
Until you get super powerful weapons that kill enemies in one hit reliably, every swing you take at a zombie is a crapshoot. There are light elements of targeted limb damage, but none of that ever comes into play past dismemberment or beheading, if it does at all (except with guns, which have extremely scarce ammo supply and make lots of noise that can attract more enemies). Plenty of times I’ve had to hack at arms and necks to get results, and others just come clean off. Many times still, my swings sort of bounce off of the target, who stumbles into me and grabs me, sending me into a QTE to get away. It becomes an incredibly frustrating moment of mashing a button when in a particularly heavy horde, because you’ll be stuck doing it every few seconds. There’s no real guarantee of the reaction you’re going to get when you hit a zombie with a pipe, blade, or cricket bat. The same can be said for living thugs, who are more agile and harder to hit in melee. This could be considered part of the survivalism aspects, I guess, but it’s also part of a more troubling lack of clarity in otherwise fun mechanics.
This is persistent in the parkour-style traversal you employ to get from place to place. R1 (or RB) is your do-it-all activity button that allows you to jump and climb things. Ideally, while looking at a grabbable ledge within obtainable distance, you should be able to stick to it and climb up it by holding down this magic button. For the most part this works seamlessly, but I found instance where this would not be the case repeatedly. This usually occurred when climbing onto things that that weren’t roof ledges or window cages. Telephone poles, industrial pipes, and cable arrays, all climbable in some instances aren’t climbable in all of them, breaking a set of contextual rules the game has taught you in certain areas just to make certain moments more difficult, which makes some of the games climbing puzzles that much more annoying.
You can easily find yourself lost simply in the act of running. In the micro moments when free running and open combat intersect, Dying Light is quite the remarkable experience. During the day, at least. At night, when the shambling hordes are both bigger and interlaced with more deadly and predatory “Volatiles”, whimsical dead-bashing isn’t the norm. If day time romping encourages you to be Spider-man like, than night asks you to channel your inner Batman. Moving in the shadows, staying out of sight, and striking with precision is the name of the game, as open fighting is asking for quick and painful death. The change of pace is a welcome one, as the asymmetry between your power relative to the enemy’s is still intact, if not altered, between states. Eventually you won’t be so afraid to travel at night, but you’re never invincible.
The act of running and fighting organically gains you experience points that level up those aspects individual of one another. If you do more running than fighting, than you will naturally have a higher level agility than power. Each level has you choosing from an ever growing tree of skills, which alter your basic abilities, or give you new ones. Dying Light isn’t always forthcoming with how these skills make you better, or how they are all that effective, but trial and error can fill in the blanks most of the time.
The weapons you use can be upgraded and modified with blueprints and upgradable add-ons that can be built with ingredients scattered throughout Harran. Some upgrades increase a weapons durability or how fast it can be swung, while others can make them poisonous, or turn zombies into flaming, flailing tiki torches. Weapons can be found or bought with cash (because the apocalypse can never truly crush capitalism) and have a finite durability that ensures that the weapon breaking is inevitable. This can be particularly frustrating after spending 15k on a weapon, and multiple thousands more on upgrades just to know it wont last, and can leave you leery of exploring the crafting system all together.
The most fun to be had in Dying Light is easily multiplayer, where you and up to three other Kyle Cranes run around Harran taking on side quests and story missions together. At the press of a button, any particular task can be made a competition between the members of your party. Running in to save survivors from a goon? Hold the touch pad to give bonus points to whomever can kill it first. In the middle of story quest? Hold the touch pad to make this next platforming puzzle a race. It breathes some real life into tasks that can become otherwise menial.
At Dying Light’s heart is a game about having fun, and it succeeds at least at that. Freerunning and combat are both executed fairly well, but not perfectly. Crafting doesn’t inspire much, or make weapons reach Borderlands level of ridiculousness, but it is fun to tinker with. The story, though, is droll and the plot, pacing, and tone are schizophrenic messes. Techland comes just short of a truly inspired and unique, but shouldn’t be ignored because of it.