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Typical: you wait for one asymmetrical multiplayer game which heavily leans on 80s slasher movies for inspiration, and two come along (nearly) at once. Dead by Daylight isn’t backed by an official license like Friday the 13th: The Game, but in its best moments it still manages to illicit a sense of tension and fear that the Cunninghams and Carpenters of this world would be proud of.
The setup is simple, akin to Evolve in reverse. Four players take on the role of prey, desperately attempting to outwit one player-controlled killer, who cannot in turn be killed. The survivors’ main hope of escaping the large, square arenas which hold them is to start five generators, which power the exit doors. Doing so takes time and skill: you’re vulnerable to attack, and failing the plentiful QTEs blows a fuse in the generator, setting progress back and alerting the killer to your presence. The boogeyman, on the other hand, has a rather more simple job (in theory): find the survivors, and chop them into pieces.
The reality is a bit more complicated than that. Unkillable as you are when playing as one of the three maniacs, you’re still at a bit of a disadvantage in other areas. While your walking pace is high and you can chase down even non-wounded survivors with ease, you’re also a lumbering force, slow to mantle through windows and navigate blockages (mainly in the form of palettes) the survivors throw in your way. Your field of view is also narrower thanks to the first-person perspective (survivors play in third-person), and even striking down the humans doesn’t guarantee they die: you’ve still got to wait for them to bleed out, or hang them on a meathook and await much the same outcome. Either way, they can be rescued.
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Whether that rescue will ever come, however, is up to the other members of the team, and Dead by Daylight is at its best when players begin to figure out what makes the other side tick. Like Left 4 Dead’s Versus mode (of which this resembles a smaller, arena-based version where you battle against a solitary Tank), plans don’t really survive contact with the reality of your opponent. Human players will scatter when seen like children caught robbing a sweet shop: something which can be used to the advantage of the killer. Conversely, the killer’s main weapon is sound: a blown fuse or activated generator is conveyed via audio and visual clues, enabling them to ‘see’ where the survivors are, or were. That, too, can be manipulated.
It makes for tense games, with on-the-fly decision making and rounds filled with do-or-die moments, each of which gives every game a climactic feel: you either escape or you get horribly killed. There’s an astonishing feeling of dread when you’re being hunted: the killer projects a blood red vision cone showing where they’re looking, and seeing that creep up on you – as well as hearing the the chase theme that suddenly begins to intensify as they get closer – is creepy and unnerving. Just seeing the killer is enough to spook even experienced players: they move quickly, but are animated as to appear to be doing the Michael Myers walk, looming not running, and their sheer size projects an air of hideous inevitability should you be caught.
At its best Dead by Daylight is a series of fear-driven running battles, with each team using the environment and their senses to outwit the other. But you don’t have to play for too long to see certain strategies begin to take precedence, certain faults become magnified. Despite their power, the deck is stacked against the killers: play against even an idea of a co-ordinated team and you’re in trouble. It makes sense to give the humans a slight advantage: if it was too difficult, nobody would play.
As it stands, though, it feels like it might tip too far over in the other direction, particularly when the survivors start exploiting the slower climbing speed of the killer, which can lead to comical exchanges as players chase each other round and round buildings, hopping over ledges knowing their stalker can’t catch them before they run back around and start again. There are hedges against this type of behaviour, particularly the abilities of the different killers – invisibility, bear traps, etc – but they still feel a little underpowered, especially when it takes two hits to down someone and there’s a built-in cooldown on each successful strike.
Other issues also grate, particularly the fact that at every turn the survivors get second chances, from needing to be hit twice, to (potentially) wriggling free of your grasp when carrying them to a more advantageous spot, to the speed at which the survivors can free others from the meathooks you hang them on to kill them. Visually, it can often appear very muddy and washed out, which isn’t great for spotting or tracking targets (if you’re looking for someone who’s been downed you can forget it). Collision detection, too, is an issue: you’ll swear you connected with your blade, only to see the survivors skip away. The game doesn’t make killing all the survivors your priority – like in the films which act as its inspirations, someone often gets away – but it still frustrates.
Some, too, may take issue with the fact that there’s not that much variation in the way it plays: a perk and XP system is included, granting slightly faster movement speed and the like, but it doesn’t really change the game that much. Others, myself included, will be fine with that. The core experience may not deviate too far from what you play in your very first round, but when said experience is genuinely unnerving, it’s difficult to be that dismissive of it.