I enjoyed Dying Light a great deal, despite the game throwing the occasional spike strip in my path.
Dying Light is the latest title from Call of Juarez: The Cartel and Dead Island developer Techland. That's not the best pedigree, despite Techland's efforts to differentiate itself. Dying Light is another shot at the big leagues, taking what the developer learned from Dead Island and throwing in a helping of Mirror's Edge and Far Cry.
The narrative isn't the place Techland is taking that shot though. Dying Light takes place in the fictional city of Harran, which is in the region of Turkey or the larger Middle East as far as I can tell. Harran was preparing to put on this world's version of the Olympics when a virus was released. Enter zombies. You're Kyle Crane, undercover agent and generic everyhero who parachutes in to retrieve a file from a bad guy in the middle of a quarintined city.
Roger Craig Smith does a good job as the voice of Crane; it's that mix of snark, lost, and weary that has carried past everyheroes to sterling success. (You can find people online wondering if it's Troy Baker doing the role.) I admit, the city of Harran and its regional placement boosts the supporting cast because it deviates from the norm, providing a wide variety of faces. The Olympic background is a convincing reason for people from around the world to be in a single city and Techland put the setting to good use. There's hints of Harran's aspirational past everywhere, but its current situation is the bleak reality to that far off dream. The city has been surviving with the outbreak for months, so the survivors have adjusted to the new normal.
Dying Light is a open-world action game played from the first-person perspective. You can and should play it like the streets are on perpetual fire; the game expects you to be on the rooftops and walking on the streets is largely an invitation to die. The parkour takes some getting used to for two reasons: most of your actions are mapped to the shoulder buttons and you have to look at a ledge to grab onto it. It took me few hours to really start gelling with the entire movement system, leading to a lot of missed grabs or jumps.
From the rooftops, you also get to see the city of Harran at its best. Yes, the game leans hard on the brown, but otherwise the city looks huge and beautiful. The skyline pops out at you in vibrant colors, which is probably why Techland makes sure that the tutorial levels of the game take place on top of a skyscraper. Once you get the grappling hook, things really open up in Dying Light.
When you acclimate to the controls, movement in Dying Light is a ton of fun. I can spend hours moving from one section of the city to the next; leaping across cars and railings, finding the perfect line, and jumping out into open air. Dying Light nails first-person movement better than Far Cry 3. It just feels right in a way Ubisoft's first-person open-world action fest never did. The stamina mechanic for sprinting gets in the way, but you'll learn to use it sparingly.
You'll rarely get that chance to just run free though. You'll be stopping to complete side quests for the random citizens in your home base. Crane was bit by a zombie upon entering, meaning he's taking valuable anti-zombie drugs just to stay alive. That means the citizens don't like you and you'll need to complete their missions to win them over.
The good is that some of the better storytelling happens in these side quests, making you feel like you're a part of the world. The bad is they have the fetch quest structure - go here, grab thing, come back - across great distances. The game has a fast travel system allowing you to jump between the major areas of the city, but there's still a lot of hoofing it long distances to grab widget A. You will run across the same bits of city again and again in Dying Light. Get used to it.
In-between all the running, you'll also have to fight. Not only are there shambling zombies, there's also the fast-moving viral zombies, the smarter human raiders, and the sporadic boss fight. The game has guns, but they're rare. Instead, you have to rely mostly on melee combat to carry you through. The melee feels a bit floaty: damaging specific body parts is key to ending fights early, but I never quite felt I had the precision to hit the head or legs reliably.
You'll also lack the tools to make combat fun in the early hours of Dying Light. As you complete missions, kill zombies, and parkour everywhere, you'll gain survival points in three areas: Survival, Agility, and Power. You'll then use these points to gain new abilities. These include slow-motion kills, dodging, sliding, ground pounding, and more. Once you've gotten a few abilities under your belt, Dying Light gets better. You'll get stronger and faster until you become a free-running killing machine.
Dying Light also offers up some tense moments. Racing towards a safe house before night falls, unlocking a police car before your firecracker runs out of juice and the zombies return, facing a horde of shamblers between you and an objective. Die, and you'll lose survival points, which is as good an incentive as any to not be foolhardy. It'll make you think once or twice before wading into a horde or leaping towards an objective.
The problem with Dying Light is a sense of being overstuffed. There's a crafting system that lets you build new weapons, which is good, but your weapons break all the time. That means you'll need to scavenge for equipment everywhere and you'll tend to hold a ton of items in your inventory in case your go-to weapon breaks in heated combat. There's a balance in allowing weapons to break, but giving them a long enough lifetime to feel useful and meaningful; Techland erred on the wrong side of that line. I felt like a superhuman hoarder, bounding across the landscape with a mountain of junk on my back.
The fetch quests, the lack of extensive fast travel, the weapon breaking mechanic, and the amount of scavenging you need to do? It all adds up to a game that feels like it was padded out to reach some standard gameplay time. I loved Sleeping Dogs because it was keenly focused. Dying Light is a 40 hour game that feels like it should be a 20 hour game.
Dying Light's multiplayer will probably be the refuge of many players. Zombie parkour action is better when there's a friend watching your back. With two players, that game starts to trend towards Dead Island's combat-heavy play; you're naturally more overt when others are around. There's also the Souls-esque Be the Zombie mode, which allows you to invade another player's game. You'll jump around like normal players with a fleshy zipline and the ability to call zombies to your aid, but it's rather unfair depending on the player whose game you've joined. I'm sure griefers will love it.
Dying Light isn't an innovative game. It picks and chooses ideas from a number of other titles to form its lithe Frankenstein's monster. That's not a huge problem, but the game wears those inspirations on its sleeve. Once you get beyond the idea of innovation Dying Light is a case of great execution, but a loss of focus. Most of the pieces here work well, especially the core gameplay, but things are stretched out needlessly. A tedious weapon system, a lack of extensive fast travel, and fetch-style side quest means you're playing what would've been an amazing 20 hour game for much longer. As it stands, Dying light is still great, but not amazing.
When you're staring out over a rooftop at the city of Harran, you'll agree Dying Light looks damn good.
There is music that play in the background. Sometimes in the cutscenes.
I can read the words that the interface is trying to present.
Once you've finished the campaign, online co-op and Be the Zombie will keep you playing Dying Light just a bit longer.
Dying Light is a sum of its inspirational parts. It brings together Techland's previous Dead Island with a bit of Mirror's Edge and Far Cry 3. At its best, leaping across the rooftops with zombies milling about below, it surpasses those titles. At worse, it has mechanics that needlessly pad out the game's running time.