Despite playing 20 hours of Dead Island, I still found it a pretty miserable experience. As such, I didn’t bother with Dead Island Riptide and Dying Light only passed over my radar in the most cursory way, looking like Dead Island feasting on Mirror’s Edge.
Close to release date though, something curious happened. Warner had (according to developers Techland) somehow managed to colossally fudge up the physical printing of the game and so the digital release had been out nearly a month before the physical one (hence this review being a tad late). The odd thing to come out of this was word of mouth was almost entirely positive. Surely not? From the opening 10 minutes, it didn’t seem like it.
The story is the usual utter bunkum you’d expect. You are generic sounding, shaved-head, male caucasian Kyle Crane; mercenary for hire. You are air-dropped by the Global Relief Effort (GRE) into the semi fictional city of Harran after a mysterious outbreak has turned everyone into zombies.
Your mission is to retrieve a super-duper Top Secret, hush hush file stolen by rogue operative Kadir Suleiman. Locate Suleiman, get the file, get out. However, what the GRE didn’t account for is that Crane is probably the most inept mercenary ever, and not 30 seconds after landing in Harran he’s accosted by bandits and then bitten in a subsequent zombie attack leaving him in need of Anitzin, a miraculous concoction which staves off the transformation into the hungry dead that the GRE are dropping Harran into to help the poor buggers trapped in the quarantine zone. The GRE then decide to stop dropping the Antizin in, leaving Suleiman (or Rais, as he’s calling himself for no apparent reason) to control the supplies in the zone.
Here begins a story of moral dilemma as Crane gets knee deep in the dead and finds himself conflicted between carrying out the bizarrely clandestine GREs wishes and helping the human survivors of the zombie outbreak.
It has to be said, though, that for all his incredibly generic traits the character of Crane is pretty well written and acted. Most of the characters in the game are cookie cutter stereotypes with hilarious accents, but there’s enough well rounded ones to make the conflict Crane feels to be more engaging than the generic story would imply. It’s not exactly The Last of Us, but it’s not awful by any means.
So that’s one thing Dying Light has up on Dead Island. If Dead Island is a maggot infested cadaver, slowly shuffling towards complete purification then Dying Light is a Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s built of various parts of other games all stitched haphazardly together but charged with lightning and somehow forming a cohesive, powerful whole.
The main meat of this monstrosity is blatantly dug from the Dead Island carcass with the crafting, the inventory, the upgrade system, even the combat are all pulled from that series, but one thing not cribbed is the analogue combat option (pretty much Dead Island’s only saving grace), which is sadly missing. It was probably lost due to the other major addition which is the Parkour navigation. Having the right stick as weapon swing would conflict with the need for the camera to be in use almost constantly as the game places greater emphasis on avoiding combat than engaging in it.
You’re told by one of the characters during the Parkour tutorial that you’re a natural at it, but despite being a super-fit mercenary you run out of breath quickly and take ages to climb up ledges. Of course, this is because there are three skill trees to level, although there’s never any need to grind as you level these up naturally in the course of your questing about and soon you’re unlocking hilariously pointless moves like a drop kick or more useful traits like instant escapes from zombies who grab you.
Thus begins a game which is made up of many wonky, contradictory systems that shouldn’t work, but bizarrely do. The combat starts off as an exasperating experience. You have a stamina bar which regulates how much you can swing a weapon but is oddly in no way tied to how long you can sprint for.
Weapons also degrade with each hit and you only get a limited amount of repairs after it breaks. You hate to lose that rare, blue wrench early in the game but soon you’ve found so many blue and purple axes, baseball bats, machetes and God knows what else, you’re breaking down high-grade weapons to make space for the next one. Even if you somehow miss them all, or fail the hilariously indelicate mini-game of lockpicking a police van to see if some ludicrous cricket bat is lurking inside, after a few hours you have enough money to buy a $13,000 purple machete that does stupid amounts of damage.
It’s the same with scavenging to make upgrades, medikits and ‘potions’. You end up with so many bits and bobs you never feel like you’re going to be without enough parts to create the modification that gives your blue-grade hatchet poison and the ability to set zombies on fire. And they’re usually so powerful you’re lopping heads off with one hit that along with plentiful medikits the risk of death removes a lot of the risk of death.
The only real risk comes when the sun starts to set and night sets in, and the Volatile start roaming. There’s often a genuine sense of panic when you’re out in the world trying to do one of the few missions that require night-time whilst avoiding these buggers with their Metal Gear-esque cones of sight.
All Power and Agility gains are multiplied at night, so in theory there’s a benefit to doing missions then, but I never found I needed the boost. You can skip the night (or day if required) at one of the many safe houses around the city that you clear and secure, but as death only results in putting you back to one of these nearest where you died with a slight XP loss then you never feel like it’s a drastic decision.
In addition to all this, the missions are all the worst kind of fetch quests you’d expect from an RPG that was made 10 years ago, with no real impetus to do the side missions except for maybe a new blueprint to make another ridiculous modification or the ability to craft medikits from plants you can pluck from the ground while sprinting and bounding around.
Despite all those things, Dying Light is almost obscenely fun. It’s a very difficult thing to say why, because when you look at its individual pieces, the game doesn’t give you a clear indication of how all these mismatched parts form to make this compulsive, satisfying, enjoyable experience. It shouldn’t work at all. It should just be lumps of meat, sewn together to make the form of a game but not one that lives. But it does.