Let’s get this out of the way: it took me six weeks to finish Dying Light, thanks to essentially becoming frustrated with it. So as a review for a new game, this is pretty redundant by now.
Zombie games, open world games, and open world zombie games are commonplace nowadays. Indeed, I accidentally called this game Dead Island several times while writing this review. But though it still bears hints of the messiness that made that game an unplayable slog to me, Dying Light pilfers mechanics from other games cleverly enough to give itself at least the illusion of freshness.
Dying Light’s banner feature is its first-person parkour. Whenever “jump” is bound to a bumper, you know you’re in for a physically boisterous game, and Dying Light doesn’t disappoint. Thanks to parkour-friendly map design, movement is reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge and recent Far Crys, lending a sense of flow that the choppy Dead Island lacked - especially once the more ridiculous moves like jump kicks and vaulting get unlocked. To call the jumping “lenient” would be an understatement. Otherwise-boring protagonist Kyle Crane’s forearms are both magnetic, attracting him to ledges he’s barely even approaching; and unbreakable, catching his fall even from precipitous drops. He can survive any fall by landing in designated drop zones - but unlike Assassin’s Creed’s hay carts, I don’t buy dumpsters full of trash as comfy spots to land.
The other big feature comes courtesy of Minecraft. The game’s fictitious Middle Eastern city of Harran has a day/night cycle - just like real cities! It gets really dark at night, which surprisingly turns Dying Light into a stealth game. Terrifying, superpowered zombies come out at night, and you’re meant to sneak past them - they even have vision cones on the HUD. But the game tends to spawn a hundred of the damned things everywhere, and it’s near-impossible to eliminate them. Being noticed instantly triggers either a frantic rush to a UV-light-bathed safehouse (weirdly lacking the glowing signs of what must be a plethora of bodily fluids), or more frequently, a horrible death. Not even double experience points are worth the frustration of getting around at night - as with real life, it’s always better just to go to damned bed.
Like all zombie fiction, Dying Light has define its relationship with other zombie fiction. Here zombies are called “eaters,” which is more useful than “walkers,” though there must be a limit to how many slang terms can apply to these guys. The shambling bargain-basement zombies are avoidable individually but dangerous en masse, functioning like an environmental puzzle. Thanks to the parkour and map design, much of the game can be played as a variation on The Floor Is Lava. It’s only once you start encountering the “special” zombies, borrowed from the likes of Left 4 Dead, that things get tricky.
Harran is fun to hop around, if a little heavy on the gritty-brown colour grading. The principal gameplay loops are as diverting as you’d expect from this kind of game. Even some of the missions are well-designed. It’s when the game tries to tell a story that things get truly horrendous. There’s something about an undercover agency, paramilitary gangs, and a cure for the plague, but it’s all profoundly uninteresting. Rarely have I felt more compelled to “Hold B To Skip” than in this game. I’m just not interested in characters. But you don’t even need to pay attention to the cutscenes - there’s a convenient expositional voiceover attached to every loading screen.
It’s also relentlessly grim - most characters are interchangeable burly men out-intimidating each other, most sporting “scary” tattoos, facial hair, or non-American accents, and all screaming some variation on “urrrr, I’m such a hard man”. I remember one female character of narrative import. The game seems intent on demonstrating that she has a butt, and after setting her up as a competent survivor, she’s kidnapped, the villain crowing that he has “taken something of [Crane’s]. But hey, at least there’s jiggle physics, even on zombie boobs. Sigh.
Just as bad as Dying Light’s story is its difficulty. But it’s not like Dark Souls, where you can feel yourself getting better at the game even as you die. Dying Light is unfair. For the first several hours, you’re so feeble, it takes a dozen hits to kill a single zombie, by which time your health has reached near-zero. Some enemies are so resilient, I was sure they were bugged. At the very least, it’s unrealistic: people don’t take thirty hits to the skull with a pickaxe and keep dodging and weaving. Once you level up, it’s more fun, but by that stage, you’re using guns and shooting at human enemies, which feels rote and repetitive. Likewise, the grappling hook you receive late-game is awesome, but it comes too late to make much difference.
Fun gets sapped in other ways too. Some missions are peppered with annoying jumping puzzles that require more precision than the rubber-band physics of the game provide. Your weapons, prone to breakage, require constant crafting and inventory management, meaning you’ll spend much of your time navigating endless menus. There’s no fast-travel system, just lots and lots of legwork. Worst of all is the labyrinthine sewer system you spend an inordinate amount of time in. If you hate sewer levels, stay away from Dying Light.
Surprisingly, I actually like the multiplayer. Its two components - invasions and co-op - work well together and can also intersect. In this way, it’s similar to Dark Souls, but with the ability to pick who you play with. Romping around Harran with a friend is significantly more fun than by yourself, and tasks like picking up airdrops or securing safe zones become tests of teamwork. A nice touch is the mechanic that turns nearly anything into a competition. It adds an organic head-to-head element while keeping things friendly and fun. More directly head-to-head is the Be The Zombie invasion mode. If you allow it, you can be invaded by player-controlled superzombies, or invade others’ games as one of your own. With superhuman speed, jumping ability, and - best of all - Spider-Man-like tentacle-slinging powers, being the zombie is a well-paced, extremely violent affair.
Dying Light is just damned uneven. It’s got some great mechanics, but the game feels at odds with them, falling back on tired design tropes and failing to capitalise on its strengths. The parkour is terrific, but you get railroaded too often into corridor shooting. The day/night cycle is a great idea, but poor execution makes it something you try to avoid. When it’s at its best, Dying Light is a lot of fun. But boy, is it a grind getting there.