4/2/2015 | Update
Last week I wrote that Dying Light was a pleasant surprise, and that I hoped the perk and upgrade systems, along with the multiplayer, would go on to ensure the game retained its appeal beyond its initial stages. They do, and while these additions change the game's tone almost fundamentally, the resulting systems also elevate Techland's latest to heights the developer has rarely hit before.
As mentioned previously, Harran is a well-designed city to run and clamber around in: atmospheric and dangerous, dense and suffocating. But add another player (or three) and there's an obvious - if no less rewarding - shift in tone. Harran becomes less a condemned city, more a dilapidated playground. There's a sense of menace to the place when playing alone: with a friend equipped with a two-handed bastard sword of doom, or a flaming katana, it's impossible to be intimidated.
Instead, the game resembles Dead Rising x Assassin's Creed, especially after a welcome change of location near the midway point. It's around this time that some survivors will also start to unlock the more over-the-top perks which, when combined with the amount of players (and their undoubted penchant for Dicking Around) turns the whole thing into slapstick.
Which is great, really, and the rewards are obvious. In my first look at the game I said the transition from day to night changes the atmosphere from Romero to Boyle. Adding other players turns it into Snyder's Dawn of the Dead: a bunch of idiots with shit-eating grins using the apocalypse for their own amusement. Essentially: what we'd all do.
All of Dying Light's outlandish elements are dialled up when running around with friends, especially if your perks are somewhat complementary. The passive upgrade system, which constantly rewards players for being active in combat, free-running, and general survival, dovetails nicely with the addition of new compatriots - and the natural competition they bring. Whether enforced via the game itself (players can challenge each other directly) or simply by pure ego, your team will soon be bounding around, levelling as they do so, unlocking better (and more outrageous) perks, which then adds to the general nonsense levels.
It also helps with some of Dying Light's more obvious issues. Storyline missions are reasonable enough, if a little dull, and they sometimes make little sense (you're given a 36-hour deadline until the city is carpet bombed, but for a game built around time there are no consequences for not meeting it). They improve later on, but often play second fiddle to Dying Light's real appeal: scavenging, fighting, and reclaiming safe zones. Adding friends mitigates the mundanity, while amplifying the fun of free-form play.
It also adds accessibility, and lessens frustration. In its early going Dying Light can be both a little overwhelming in its loot and crafting systems, as well as quite difficult, especially against human opponents. Weapons break easily, good parts aren't that easy to find, zombies are tougher than they look. With your mates, there's an evening of the odds, especially if (like me) they're already at a higher level and can furnish you with all sorts of Good Shit. Items are exchanged, health is divvied out, survivors are downed and not dead when they run out of health. It makes a slow start more appealing.
What it doesn't do is propel Dying Light from being a good game (and one that has made me laugh on numerous occasions) into a great one: there's always a feeling that it doesn't do quite enough to add to the template laid by its many influences. That mid-game change I mentioned is welcome, but also obvious as to where it's come from. And unlike the better Assassin's Creed's from which it pulls, the setting isn't quite enough to really drag those who tire of zombie-swatting through to the end.
It has a compulsive quality however, helped by how fundamentally well-built it is and how you grow in power by feeding those compulsions. You'll aspire to find everything on the map, own every safehouse. It's empty greed, of course: another slice of pizza even after you've tired of it. As another player said to me: "You'll grab everything, but never want to play it again once you do so". True, true. But you'll have a fuck-ton of fun doing it.
30/1/2015 | Initial Impressions
Good news: Dying Light isn't shit. It's actually quite good, in fact. So far it resembles Dead Island meets Far Cry, retaining the melee combat of the former while jettisoning its catastrophic bugs.
It feels familiar - there's no way it couldn't given the developer's heritage, its influences, and the current (and seemingly everlasting) zombie vogue. But Dying Light is a far more technologically accomplished, not to mention confident, game than Techland's other apocalypses, perhaps best emphasised by your first playable view of Harran being from the top of the world, not the bottom. Looking out over the city from the Tower, a survivor safe zone cocooned in an apartment block that's more Mega-City One than The Shard, the developers make sure you know the scale and density of the condemned city before you even step foot into it properly.
It's a wasteland in the day, with a muted, dirty brown colour scheme and blinding sunlight, the sort that diffuses so thick and hazily it makes you feel you're swimming on land. At night, it's even worse: thanks to its day-night cycle the toughest enemies, known as Volatiles, spew forth when the light fails.
You're constantly warned of the impending sunset, either via radio from the Tower or the alarm on your wristwatch. It pays to heed the warning: the Volatiles are fast, aggressive, and intelligent. They can match your athleticism, and make Dying Light feel like two separate games: daytime zombies are generally smaller, less aggressive, and a lot more shambling. They feel like an annoyance rather than a true foe.
Volatiles make exploration at night a true danger, switching from the suffocation of Romero's zombies into the athletic intensity of Boyle's. It helps, as well, that night feels like night here, not just a darker day. Most of this is due to the lack of electricity: Harran isn't completely out of power, but the streetlights certainly are.
Nightfall puts a pressure into a game that could meander badly. Not that it entirely avoids doing that: there are times when you feel as if you're in a zombie theme park rather than in any true danger. But around the 5 or 6 o'clock mark theres a crank in the atmosphere, especially if you're far from a safe zone. It's either wait the night out in a cabin, or run for it, and it's the best part of the game by far.
Other elements are more standard. The aforementioned Far Cry influence is found in the unlocking of safe zones and clambering of towers around the map, as well as random NPC encounters. Harran isn't unmanageably big, but it is sometimes claustrophobic in its building placement. It's a deliberate move, of course, to facilitate Dying Light's other selling point: the parkour.
It's never explicitly explained just why your character can run, swing, and leap on, over, or around almost every surface he encounters. But as he's an undercover agent sent into the stricken city to recover some sensitive documents, so we'll just presume that his 00 training covered it. Anyway, it gives Dying Light an interesting wrinkle: climbing is intuitive (if sometimes fiddly), mapped to R1, and it's fun to navigate the city, especially when you're chaining moves together.
It also gives the player options, enforcing the feeling that Harran is a city where the wrong decision means death. This is especially true at night, obviously. One excellent feature of these chases is that pressing triangle looks behind the player, slowing time for a fraction so you can see who is on your tail before whipping back around - it's as tense as you'd imagine.
So far, then, it's a pleasant surprise, let down by the missions both on and off of the storyline. It's early days, but the basic setup hasn't moved beyond fetching and carrying for various groups. It makes some sense, as you're meant to be playing two factions off against each other, but it's still tiresome. Especially when you do the requested deed only to return with the goods and be told you need to do more.
In these first few hours, however, I've enjoyed Dying Light, perhaps helped by somewhat lowered expectations. I'm hoping that the perk and weapon upgrade systems, which have already been a lot of fun to dick around with (the dropkick is ace) prove to be the eventual backbone of a lot of emergent nonsense, especially in multiplayer.
Version Tested: PS4