Dying Light’s innovation can’t outrun its messy execution

Is it a good game covered in glaring flaws, or a bad game scattered with sparks of brilliance?

Mar 1, 2020, 10:44 am*

Internet Culture

BY SCOTT NICHOLS

After spending nearly 40 hours with Dying Light, I find myself still struggling with the same fundamental question: Is it a good game covered in glaring flaws, or a bad game scattered with sparks of brilliance? Consistency is not a word in Dying Light‘s vocabulary.

As the game begins, our protagonist Kyle Crane parachutes into the vaguely Middle Eastern and zombie-infected city of Harran. While Crane’s mission is ostensibly about recovering sensitive government documents from a local warlord in the city-wide quarantine zone, almost immediately upon landing he is bitten by one of the walking dead.

It is actually a rather strong start for the game, as Crane is quickly adopted by a local group of survivors and introduced to a drug that can stave off the infection but not completely cure it. It’s a setup that could lend itself perfectly to a survival horror experience, with tension heightened by the looming threat of infection if you don’t get an injection in time.

Except that isn’t what Dying Light actually does. This becomes a common trend in Dying Light, where it introduces a potentially interesting idea and then forgets about it for hours or discards it entirely. You’ll never actually have to worry about getting Crane his next injection. In fact, Dying Light doesn’t seem to want you to worry about much of anything at all.

Instead, what Dying Light really wants you to do is run. Oh boy, does Dying Light want you to run, and you’ll have a blast doing it. The heart of Dying Light is its free-running mechanic, allowing you to easily scamper over and around obstacles like a parkour expert. Simply by holding the jump button you will automatically vault over fences and grab ledges in your line of sight for a freedom of movement that just feels right. Few games can make the simple act of moving from point A to point B so exhilarating and effortless that Dying Light is almost worth playing just for the running alone.

When you aren’t running in Dying Light, you’re fighting. There is a hint of a gritty survival game in Dying Light‘s combat, as a stamina bar depletes with every swing of your melee weapon. A reliance on pipes, wrenches, axes, and machetes ensures that combat is up close and personal. You will greet the bulk of Dying Light’s enemies face to face, and the fact that weapons eventually break as you use them prevents you from relying on any particular weapon for too long.

However, as is the recurring theme in Dying Light, the game undermines its own attempt to have interesting mechanics in combat as well. Take the stamina bar, which is meant to make combat more deliberate by forcing consequences on players who swing weapons recklessly. But since stamina only effects your attacks and not your ability to move, those consequences vanish as you can still sprint and climb while waiting for the stamina bar to refill. Likewise, the whole point of breakable weapons should be to make players more mindful of how they use the resources available to them. But those resources are so plentiful in Dying Light that I had no trouble finding new and stronger weapons faster than I could use them up.

Even guns become fairly common before reaching the game’s halfway point, though their usefulness is at least balanced by the swarm of sprinting, climbing zombies that come running as soon as a shot is fired. There are a few unique zombie types and equally unfriendly human gangs roaming Harran, but for the most part the combat mechanics remain the same from the start of the game until the ending credits. Unfortunately, Dying Light‘s only real trick for mixing up the combat is to throw increasingly more enemies at you as the game progresses. As a result you will die pretty frequently, but even that becomes an exploitable strategy, since any enemies you killed or damaged before dying will stay that way when you come back to life only a short distance away.

Dying Light does offer something a little different when night falls on Harran, with the darkness bringing out a brutal new breed of undead that prowls both the streets and rooftops with parkour skills almost on par with Crane’s. Nighttime becomes a rudimentary sort of stealth interlude, to the point where the night hunters show up on your minimap complete with a cone of vision to help you avoid being spotted in their line of sight. It is incredibly tense the first few times you venture out at night, especially since using a flashlight only helps to attract the hunters. But before too long it becomes clear that the hunters aren’t as hard to outrun as they first seem, and every action earns twice as much experience at night even if a hunter catches you, so going for night runs quickly becomes less of a tense exercise and more of a way to mindlessly level up Crane’s abilities.

Not that you actually have to go out at night very often anyway. Even though Dying Light has a perpetual day-night cycle, the game’s relationship with time is tenuous at best.

Part of the issue is simply a side effect of the game’s open-world structure. A character might say that a key event will happen in 48 hours or that a mission needs to be completed the same night you receive it, but Dying Light is far too committed to the open-world structure established in games like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed for its plot deadlines to hold any real meaning. You are free to explore Harran at your leisure, ignoring urgent missions for weeks of in-game time if you wish and the next step of the mission will wait patiently until you are ready to trigger it. And while such a lenient mission structure allows you to tailor the game toward whatever play style you most prefer, it also significantly deflates the story from any sense of tension or weight.

Crane’s own infection subplot even gets muddled by Dying Light‘s loose timeframe, completely ignoring the need for regular curative injections until it’s convenient for the plot. It may seem like nitpicking, but seeing a friendly character succumb to infection after mere minutes while Crane survives without medicine for weeks on end is just plain dumb. Not that Dying Light‘s character interactions are strong and believable to begin with, but it would have been nice to have at least an attempt at internal consistency in Dying Light‘s narrative and world building.

But then Dying Light also has sparks of brilliance hidden in its storytelling. Listen to enough survivors and you start to hear a fascinating subplot about the social and economic ramifications Harran suffered for hosting a global sporting event reminiscent of the Olympics or FIFA World Cup. Or even little details in the zombies themselves, which will occasionally regain brief lucidity mid-attack and recoil in fear, begging you not to hurt them. It is one of the most haunting and brilliant details I have ever seen in a zombie game, hinting at a rich and complex world narrative that is just utterly shattered and undermined at every turn by the game’s more explicit character narrative.

Since Dying Light makes so many narrative sacrifices for the sake of your freedom to explore the open city of Harran, it’s worth taking a closer look at what that city actually offers. You start Dying Light in the city slums, a huge map of shanty towns, skyscrapers, and coastal villages with a raised highway cutting across the map. The shanty town portion makes for an excellent early showcase of the game’s parkour running mechanics, but things deteriorate as you advance through missions that take you to all corners of the map. There is simply an abundance of empty, boring space to traverse; and you will have to cross it constantly as you run back and forth between a handful of interesting locations for missions. Dying Light‘s best moments call back to the childhood game where you pretend that the floor is made of lava, except here the ground is made of zombie swarms and stretches of boredom.

About halfway through the game a second map opens up, and Dying Light starts to realize its potential. The second map is a bit smaller than the first, but it is made vastly superior by its densely packed city of towering Turkish architecture that is as fun to run across as it is gorgeously constructed. The narrow, zombie-filled streets below pose a credible threat, adding a delightful tension to your brief excursions to the ground for supplies and making it all the more satisfying when you find a path to your next goal that circumvents the flowing river of undead below.

The second map is a near-perfect playground for parkour antics, which makes it so baffling that most the actual missions on that map take place inside buildings rather than running above and around them. Whether it’s trudging through sewers or wandering down generic hallways in a hotel or office building, the second half of Dying Light squanders the game’s best feature. Dying Light is structured like a funhouse mirror of itself, starting with interesting mission objectives on a map that grows tedious, and ending with a fantastic map to explore with tedious mission objectives.

It isn’t that Dying Light is a bad game, but rather that it is a very confused game. It tries to be many things, but either refuses to settle on a particular direction or actively undermines its own efforts. It offers hints of a gritty game of survival and resource scavenging, but then only applies that survival mentality to combat and makes resources plentiful. It offers a satisfying free-running mechanic, but then doesn’t give you either the proper architecture or missions to take advantage of it.

What’s left as Dying Light‘s most consistent trait then is its adoration for Ubisoft’s Far Cry games, from clearing safe zones and climbing radio towers down to its endless collectibles, try-too-hard villain, and even a touch of Far Cry 3‘s white savior narrative for some uncomfortable racial undertones.

It’s a shame, because in its moment-to-moment action Dying Light can actually be quite fantastic to play. I’ve spent more than 40 hours in Dying Light, and even after the credits found myself compelled to return and bound across Harran’s rooftops. But that enjoyment often comes despite the game’s features, not because all of its mechanics are working in harmony. In the end, I think I wanted to like Dying Light for its flashes of brilliance more than I actually liked the overall experience of it.

2/5

Disclosure: Our PlayStation 4 review copy of Dying Light was provided by Techland

Screengrab via GameSpot/YouTube

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*First Published: Feb 8, 2015, 8:59 pm