With Dying Light, Techland really knew what they were doing on a technical level. Environments brim with the detritus of humanity exuding the sense of recent occupation. Character models are lovingly rendered, while zombies are appropriately freaky and grotesque. The gameplay ranges from frantic first-person parkour traversal to stealthy infiltration accompanied by satisfying melee combat and functional gunplay. If that’s all you are looking for, Dying Light will no doubt satisfy you. However, if you are looking for anything else, an intriguing or thought-provoking story, context that validates the gameplay, memorable music, fleshed out characters, anything, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
Credit where credit is due, Techland designed Dying Light incredibly well. The open world is full of things to climb onto, slide under, jump over, swim through, etc. Players can tackle the problem of going from Point A to Point B in just about whatever manner they choose. The parkour style of movement feels smooth and natural. Dying Light provides the basic mechanics of movement from the start, instead of restricting core abilities behind level progression. Traversal feels complete and powerful from the beginning, but becomes even more empowering and fun after unlocking abilities like ground slides or jumping onto and over enemies. The heart of Dying Light lies in open and unrestricted freerunning through the playground Techland created. It feels like a next-gen experience.
On top of the exhilaration of sprinting through zombie hordes, the combat system feels great. Dying Light takes some pains to remind players that they are only human by beginning at feasible levels of strength. Stamina will only allow for four or five swings of standard weapons, though that number increases as players level by simply doing things like fighting or running or completing quests. Leveling will also open up new skills that can be used in combat like a heavy attack or a spin attack. Combat itself is fairly simple, only becoming more complex as more abilities become available. Fighting mostly consists of whacking zombies or people with pipes, table legs, whatever happens to be on hand. Before settling into a comfortable groove, scavenging and creating better weapons will be a top priority for most players. Sure, by the time players see the credits roll they’ll be a zombie hunter with potent abilities and gear, but the road to get to that advanced point is long.
There are also guns in Dying Light, though the game generally frowns on their use. Guns tend to be very powerful, but have the significant drawback of being very loud, attracting more zombies. The clunky targeting system also discourages the use of firearms. Only when confronted with other gun wielding humans did I feel compelled to use my frugal ammo supply. Otherwise, Molotov cocktails solved almost every seemingly insurmountable enemy I encountered. Melee and improvised weapons were clearly intended to be the core of Dying Light’s combat, so don’t go into Dying Light expecting a lot of running and gunning.
Techland layered a day-night cycle over the traversal and combat to spice up the experience and keep players on their toes. During the night, significantly stronger zombies stalk the streets. These monsters call for either a stealthy approach or a non-stop sprint to the nearest safe house. During the night, players connected to the internet might be invaded by another player as a zombie and matched up with three others as survivors to compete against each other. The mode seems to be designed in the 4v1 mindset popular these days.
Unfortunately, I had a pretty terrible experience with this game mode. As I was about to turn in a quest, I was refused access to a safe zone and informed that I had been invaded. Cool! Unfortunately, I was not matched up with any other survivors. Invading zombies are made vulnerable with a UV light and only then can they be killed. Invaders seem to be generally faster than a normal player unless made vulnerable. They can also insta-kill normal players. This session resulted in me dying repeatedly for about ten minutes until I figured out how to quit the match. I then turned off the multiplayer aspect and never went back.
All of this takes place within a world into which teams of artists clearly poured thousands of hours. Abandoned apartments feel lived in, only recently abandoned in a panic. Flies buzz wildly over rotting corpses. Fish swim lazily in the water, gaping aquatically as players pass them by. Lighting changes drastically from day to night, dynamically changing the aesthetic of the world. For a game titled Dying LIGHT, I am glad they nailed lighting. As for the character models, Every important character has a distinct look, although it is very easy for anyone not involved in the main plot to just blend together after a while (that isn’t entirely on the artists, but we’ll get more into that later). The zombies deserve a nod as well. The average roving dead looks incredibly creepy up close. The effect becomes especially unnerving in dark, confined spaces. The special zombies are a different matter. When these variant types of zombies come into play, it appears bizarre that they all hold the same weapons or are outfitted with the same armor. Why is every single slightly larger zombie armed with a piece of rebar and concrete?
Despite the technical proficiency apparent in much of its design, Dying Light demonstrates why video games can’t just rely on entertaining gameplay and lovingly rendered environments. The story is an unwieldy mess of clichés and action-dude-isms. Most of the characters exist only as bare sketches of what could be considered functional. In fact, almost every single idea in Dying Light that might be interesting is quietly brushed aside to get to the next pretext that sends the player moving throughout the quarantined city of Harran.
In fact, let’s start with Harran. Where is it? That might seem like a simple question, but the reality is that we are never given a reference point. As a fictional city, that’s kind of the point, but without knowing where it is supposed to be we’re left with this strange, context-less city. I actually looked it up on the game’s Wikipedia page to make sure Dying Light actually took place on Earth rather than a different planet or reality. It appears that it is a city-state on the coast of the Mediterranean somewhere near Turkey. Why is this important or why might we care about this in the context of the game? Because the political ramifications of a major city like Harran becoming the epicenter of a potentially apocalyptic zombie outbreak would be important and interesting. However, in-game Harran seems to be completely isolated from the outside world, aside from airdrops of supplies and a miracle drug that stops infected survivors from becoming biters. The opening cinematic tells us that no one knows if people are even still alive in the city.
This is the setting for the entire game and it begs so many questions: How was Harran so easily quarantined? Did it involve some sort of unethical application of military force? Why does that quarantine appear to be run by an organization unaffiliated with Harran’s political leadership? Who is in charge? Why can no one confirm that there are still survivors? Why aren’t survivors being airlifted out of the quarantine if they have a medicine that indefinitely keeps people from becoming zombies? Why does it seem to have an airforce that is willing to destroy the city-state? Attempting to answer any of these questions could have provided some great insight into the situation in which Kyle Crane finds himself.
Enter our protagonist, Kyle Crane, another one of those faceless, blank slates onto which players are supposed to project themselves. Nebulously described as an “operative,” Crane works for the Global Relief Effort (GRE), the organization that airdrops food and medicine into Harran. He apparently enters Dying Light with no past or connections to the outside world. At no point do we hear him talk about a family or friends or why he accepted a mission to go into a zombie infested city alone. He makes no decisions for himself, instead allowing himself and the plot to be propelled by the people giving him orders. Crane’s mission is to infiltrate the groups of survivors in Harran (groups that GRE apparently knows about, despite the opening cinematic’s words to the contrary) and discover who holds a file that contains information which could destroy the world in the wrong hands. None of the survivors who rescue him question why he airdropped into the city, who he is, where he came from, or any other circumstance of his existence. He seems to win everyone over after sharing his name, lying about being a tourist, and doing helpful chores. Crane’s value to everyone around him stems from what he can do physically, not from any virtue he may or may not possess. He offers no insight into events other than enabling other characters to dump exposition to the player. Crane’s sole character trait seems to be making frustrated quips and remarks after people tell him to go do something unpleasant.
We get almost no information about the Global Relief Effort. From the name, it presumably operates globally. Dying Light describes GRE as a humanitarian organization at some point. That’s about all we have to go on, but so much is left strangely unexplained. Why does a single humanitarian organization handle the entire operation of supplying food and medicine to a massive city? It seems to me that having an entire city quarantined would at least summon three or four, maybe some human rights groups to oversee that nothing fishy was going on, possibly a UN envoy. Why does a humanitarian organization have or even need secret operatives? I’d be fine with this if it ever satisfyingly tied into the plot at all, but it doesn’t. Why would they expect one operative to be fine in the middle of a city overrun with zombies? No, seriously why would GRE expect this? Kyle Crane might be the most competent person in the universe, but he is one guy in a city with a population in the hundreds of thousands, almost all of which are now walking dead. What reasonable person would think that he’d be able to get the job done? In fact, at one point it seemed like GRE was both willing and able to bomb the entire city into ash. How on earth are they able to keep up the façade of being a humanitarian organization if they are able to call in massive airstrikes to level the city that they alone seem to control? Am I on crazy pills?
Jade Aldemir plays a prominent role in Dying Light as a super competent former kickboxing champion-turned-survivor. Contrasting nicely with Crane’s never-addressed past, we learn quite a bit about Jade. She has a strong sense of family, probably resulting from the loss of her parents at the beginning of the outbreak, which causes her to be very protective of her younger brother, Rahim. That bit of information alone makes Jade more compelling than our protagonist, but there’s more!
Crane’s arrival results in the death of one of her friends among the survivors, adding additional traumas on top of what it must be like to lose your entire city. She was already a great fighter before the outbreak, hence her great survival skills and respect she receives from the group. As a bonus, she has emotions other than irritation and yelling, which seem to be the only two our protagonist knows (yelling counts as an emotion for Crane). Looking back over the events of Dying Light, It seems clear to me that Jade should have been the protagonist, dealing with life in the quarantine zone as the outbreak occurred and later contacted by the GRE to carry out the world saving mission. Instead, Dying Light gradually disempowers Jade by the slowly killing off everyone she holds dear before Rais, our main antagonist, finally kidnaps and kills her. Her final act heroically saves Crane’s worthless life at the cost of her own. Her character was a fantastic opportunity for a compelling protagonist. Instead, she is ultimately made into an object for the player to retrieve from Rais as part of an ego struggle between protagonist and antagonist.
Oh, Rais. This was the character that was supposed to present an ideological counterpoint to Kyle Crane, the man almost with no idea, let alone an ideology. Rais apparently worked with the GRE at one point, but went crazy after his brother was killed and became a weird, violent warlord in Harran. He justifies this life choice by spouting philosophical musings that may or may not pertain to the given scenario and taking up a vicious rivalry with Crane. I think Techland meant for Rais to lend the rest of the game an intellectual core that it otherwise lacks. He has a few good lines about how Crane has no agency and just does what he’s told, but those glimpses of the writers saying something true never amount to anything remotely substantial. They feel like moments of clarity in the midst of a fever dream. By extension, Rais comes off as a violent, verbose buffoon, rather than anything remotely memorable.
I can honestly say that if I wasn’t writing a review of Dying Light right now that I would have almost completely forgotten about everything in the story. It left no impression on me other than one of crushing boredom and irritation. Sitting through hours of this game’s plot tainted the fun I had during the gameplay portions, eventually killing all desire to attempt side quests. Minor setbacks that normally wouldn’t have bothered me became agonizing. The map system sometimes doesn’t work properly or is otherwise unhelpful. The lack of fast travel during the campaign proved to be incredibly irritating (I get why, I was just very ready to see the credits roll). Also, accidentally brushing the PS4 touchpad brings up the menu screen for some reason.
All of my frustration with Dying Light’s narrative finally culminated and almost broke me during the home stretch when I kept missing a critical jump and repeatedly respawned at a checkpoint where I had to “calm down” a zombie child, an in-game euphemism for the deeply disturbing act of killing a zombie child. This unscripted gameplay moment affected me more strongly than any portion of the central narrative and as I repeated it over and over, I felt sick. I questioned why the profoundly disquieting nature of dealing with the undead wasn’t dealt with more, why none of the characters encountered in the main campaign seemed to think of the living dead as anything other than an obstacle. There were so many moral quandaries with the act I was forced to repeat, and yet not even quipping, irritated Crane seemed to give it a second thought. It was a moment that could have meant or said something insightful and instead it was ignored like all the other narrative opportunities presented in Dying Light. It was a potent moment of horror at what I was doing to progress, so casually and thoughtlessly invoked for shock value. A game that so insensitively and nonchalantly raised something so powerful for shock value without reaching for a deeper meaning felt almost like a narrative betrayal. As I finally made that tenuous jump and crossed the threshold of a new checkpoint, I realized that I had come to loath almost everything about the context provided for Dying Light’s gameplay and visuals.
There is so much to love about Dying Light, so much potential for zombie-infested stories. It presents a world full of danger and provides a wide array of abilities with which to players can fight or flee. Gorgeous visions of human decay permeate Harran, interspersed with pockets of hope within surviving communities. Large scale systems work together to move and motivate vast hordes of biters. These elements all function smoothly and provide a solid core experience. While the gameplay, visuals, and overall game design can more than pull their own weight, the tepid, vapid, torrid narrative drags those positive elements down into the muck. I highly respect Techland as a developer for their work on the criminally underrated Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. However, their writing team managed to almost single-handedly kill my enthusiasm for the experience. If you’re still on the fence about Dying Light, wait until it inevitably goes on sale for $20-$30. The gameplay will entertain you, but you'll suffer through the story.
Dying Light is available now for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.