Dying Light review: This fun, free-running zombie slaughterfest trips over the details

At a Glance
  • Techland Dying Light

    PCWorld Rating

    With a bit more narrative care, Dying Light could've been a classic of a zombie game. Instead, it's merely a few steps in the right direction.

It's funny: In 2011, Techland basically killed zombie games for me.

I was sitting in my apartment when this infamous Dead Island trailer hit. In less than three minutes I went from having never heard of Dead Island to wanting a copy. Even though I was sick of zombies, Dead Island looked like something different. Something gritty. Something mature.

Then Dead Island came out and was nothing like that trailer. The game was, for lack of a better word, goofy. Stupid, even. There weren't strong, heartbreaking character moments. There weren't even strong characters. It all fell apart.

Now in 2015, Techland—the very same developer—has brought me back into zombie games. Not completely. Dying Light still isn't on par with that Dead Island trailer.

But it comes somewhat closer.

It's in the DNA

You can trace Dying Light's Dead Island heritage pretty easily. 1) Zombies. 2) A focus on hard-hitting melee combat with all sorts of weapons. 3) More zombies. It's pretty easy to describe Dying Light as "Dead Island with parkour" and stop there. That's essentially the core of the game.

Dying Light

It all works pretty decently too, which should come as no surprise if you played Dead Island. The combat was never that franchise's weak spot, and it comes over (mostly) intact here. Swords, concrete rebar, pipes, machetes—there are all kinds of ghastly ways to knock zombie heads off in Dying Light. If there's one thing I miss, it's Dead Island's more precise analog-stick controlled combat, but I quickly got used to the one-button system used in Dying Light.

Parkour is new, and it's just as polished—as in, sometimes janky but you forgive it. It's easy to throw out Assassin's Creed or Mirror's Edge as comparison points but I honestly think Dying Light is more polished and fluid than either of its influences. The system's a bit clumsy to start, especially as you learn the basics of "Look at the ledge you're trying to grab," but by the end I was hauling ass across the city with ease, trailed by loads of zombies as I jumped fences and slid under traps and scampered up building facades.

And as I said in my impressions piece last week, I love the leveling system. You gain general "Survivor" experience for completing quests, which unlocks a few perks. The majority of your upgrades are kept in two separate pools though: Agility, which you gain by running around the city, and Strength, which you get from hitting things. Fight more zombies? Get better at fighting zombies. Run away from zombies? Get better at running away. It just makes sense.

When the lights go down in the city

"This is The Tower calling. Just a reminder that you should be inside by nightfall."

It's your cue to stop what you're doing and get inside. No, seriously. Dying Light has a fully dynamic day/night cycle after the first few missions, and it's not just a lighting swap. It's two very different games.

Dying Light

Dying Light essentially gets to channel George Romero at both stages of his career. In the daytime, you'll encounter slow, boring zombies. But at night, the "Volatiles" come out—extremely fast, agile zombies that can and will murder you in seconds if they see you. When you're told to get inside, you do it.

Or you don't. There is a benefit to going out at night, namely more experience points. Certain quests also require you to go out at night, because apparently nobody in this world has any regard for your safety.

I'll say this: I've seldom been more tense while playing a video game than I was playing Dying Light's night sequences. First you're creeping around, desperately hoping the Volatiles don't spot you. Inevitably one does, and then it's an all-out sprint to the nearest safe house. It's terrifying, especially at the start of the game when your equipment has all the stopping power of wet spaghetti.

In a New York minute

Essentially, Dying Light's systems are fantastic. It's an open-world game that takes full advantage of its open-worldness, building in all sorts of mechanics and letting you screw with them at will. One of my favorites is still the dropkick, with which you can send zombies plummeting from rooftops down to the street below.

Dying Light

Which brings us to Dying Light's story.

It's not good. Like Far Cry 3, it's one of those games where you sit around waiting for it to surprise you and it never does. It's not even a bad story, but it's predictable from start to finish. It hits all the beats it's "supposed" to hit and nothing more.

And I literally just brought this up in my Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell review, but Dying Light also does that thing where it knows it's doing something annoying, and instead of the developers just fixing it they instead put in a line of dialogue to "jokingly" explain it away.

In Dying Light, it's the fact that the game consists mostly of inane fetch quests taking you back-and-forth across the map for little-to-no reason. During one of these interminable missions your character, the bland-as-grass Kyle Crane, talks about how even he feels like he's just doing fetch quests. Ha ha, Techland, you got me! You acknowledged that I hate feeling like I'm doing fetch quests! Congrats!

Of course, a better solution would be to, you know, not rely on fetch quests for every single mission in the game. But oh well. I'll just sit here and grind my teeth down to nubs as I cross the map for the hundredth time.

Dying Light

It's a shame because Dying Light has moments. I don't want to give any of them away, because that would spoil the impact. There are certain pieces of the larger puzzle though—a side-quest here, a random event there—that actually approach the genius of that Dead Island trailer. One series of missions I actually said "Oh damn" out loud as grim realization dawned on me.

It should be easy to make me say that. It should be easy for zombie games to elicit some sort of reaction from me. It's the apocalypse! People are dying. There's not enough food or medicine to go around. People are tired and stressed and looking for some last shred of humanity in the world. It's a setting ripe for Oscar-quality heartbreak.

So much potential, and it's seldom used to fruition. Instead we get fetch quests. We get the easy way out. We get Dead Island and Dead Rising and Nazi zombies and all the other half-assed, goofy genre schlock.

Dying Light tries to be more. Not often enough, mind you, but damn, does it have its moments.

Bottom line

Dying Light is a better Dead Island. It's more serious, more polished, and an all-around smoother experience from start to finish.

Does it redefine zombies? No. Does it radically change anything about video games? Not at all. In fact it's fairly clear where its influences come from, in much the same way as Shadow of Mordor. Is the story great? Nah.

Is the game as a whole worthwhile? Yes—blemishes and all. 

A note on performance: My initial impressions piece mentioned running into some pretty severe performance problems. But after last week's patch, Dying Light now runs at a smooth 50-60 frames per second on my GTX 970-powered machine. I've heard a few other people are still having issues, and I've experienced longer load times in the aftermath of the patch, but in the absence of any widespread game-crippling bugs I've decided not to factor it into the score.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    With a bit more narrative care, Dying Light could've been a classic of a zombie game. Instead, it's merely a few steps in the right direction.

    Pros

    • Parkour makes getting around the city fun
    • Weighty, grisly combat

    Cons

    • Fetch quest after fetch quest
    • Boring main character, predictable story
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