DYING LIGHT – I THINK WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE

I feel the need to do an article on a specific game here. Basically it’s a review, and whilst I don’t normally do those, I felt I should for Techland’s game “Dying Light,” which was released at the beginning of the year.

For those who don’t know, Dying Light is an open-world zombie game in which you parkour around in first person in a large city, avoiding the undead and doing all your missions and resource hunting during the day, because all the really nasty buggers come out after dark. I don’t know why, maybe they were obsessive clubbers in their previous life, but apparently that’s what they do now.

The problem was that when I first heard about all this, I got very excited. Zombies are nothing if not stale by this point, but I liked the idea of going up against strange night-time horrors. I also enjoy games with free-running, because I’m nowhere near that fit and it’s nice to live the dream. And of course I rather liked the idea of scrambling for ammo and bits of food in the day to bring back to my hut and chew on, whilst I hid under a table at two in the morning and something hungry padded around outside, sniffing the air. I like that idea of pure survival, of doing what you can to live and making tough decisions to do so, followed by adrenaline-pumping terror as you sprint across a rooftop chased by a screaming crowd of undead aberrations.

But of course, the things we imagine are always better than the things we end up with. Dying Light isn’t a bad game over all, I suppose, but it’s insultingly plagiarised from other titles and couldn’t even improve on all the stolen mechanics it had in its little swag bag. Let’s take a run-up at these, because we won’t get through them otherwise.

We’ve got the parkour taken straight from Mirror’s Edge, the combat lifted from Dead Island, the open sandbox style and constant first-person perspective AND the trio of skill trees from Far Cry 3, the Zombrex plot device from Dead Rising 2 and the sunlight-weakened zombies from the movie I am Legend, the horrible lockpicking mini-game from Skyrim and a bland set of crafting mechanics from Watch_Dogs and most triple-A games, not to mention the day/night split from Minecraft and Don’t Starve. But put all these powerhouses together and what do you get?

Uh, something that’s not quite as good as any of them actually, except maybe for Watch_Dogs and Dead Island because, well, Watch_Dogs and Dead Island are a bit shit. But I digress.

The problem with Dying Light is that it’s hard not to think that it tried to trick me, what with my having gotten the wrong impression about the game so quickly, and with so little done to contradict that image. And then, having played it for a while and generally thinking that it’s OK, it started doing the Man Of Steel thing, where having sat down and thought about it properly, I realise that I like it less and less the more I think about. And any game that holds up as long as it takes to remember that it exists isn’t going to do great.

Grapple

You know, people said my method of dealing with the homeless was too harsh. I’m not convinced.

Take the survival element. In the trailers we see Crane, the rather bland protagonist, gathering up just about every item you can imagine and storing it in his Bag Of Holding for later. I figured that after dark he’d be hunkered down in some shack, boarding up the windows to keep out the clammy hands of the dead and using those power cords he found to either electrify certain areas or just hang himself out of despair.

Nope. You just strap these bits of junk to a crowbar, or a wiffle bat and hey presto! You can now deal electric damage on top of the regular wiffle damage! And if you get other items you can make weapons with fire, explosive or toxic damage as well.

Alright, it’s less interesting than interacting with the environment, but yeah, I can get down with an ice sword or a poisonous hammer. I’m not above that. But tell me, do any of these damage types have some sort of mechanical difference?

And suddenly Dying Light comes over all quiet and starts looking at its shoes with embarrassment. Ha! I caught you out, you huxter. No, no, protests the game back, scrabbling in its pockets for something else to show me. You can also make medkits and grenades and all the other “crafting 101” rubbish that could have been thought up by a man with a pigeon for a brain.

Yeah, nice try. And even then it cocks it all up, because finding the parts for powerful items is just too easy. Any diligent scavenger can find quite a few components in not much time, because on top of being a boring character Crane is also part truffle-hog, built with a “survivor instinct” that can cause useful gear to ping on your radar when you get close to it. Then you just add them to a weapon that isn’t going to break for a while, and suddenly you have a piece of kit that kills anything with ease and has the durability to last until you find the components for three more.

Did you hear that wooshing noise? That was any sense of challenge flying out of the window.

Actually, the combat in general can go jump in a lake. Regular zombies are the slow kind, and it’s pretty easy to push through a crowd of them whilst taking minimal damage, something that only gets easier when you get the power to vault over them. And all fighting basically comes down to mashing the melee button and occasionally dodging, with one or two additions as you gain powers, none of which do anything new. Hold down melee to do a more powerful charge attack? Gee, aren’t you striving ahead for new ideas, Techland?

No, of course they’re not. There are a bunch of special zombies that actually get dropped in, none of which are anything fresh in either sense of the word. There are quick ones, ones that spit goo, ones with AoE attacks and there’s also a shameless copy of the Left 4 Dead tank, right down to the ability to rip concrete out of the ground and chuck it at you whilst mysteriously leaving the road unharmed.

I’d also like to express my utter hatred for the suicide bomber zombies, which give you no time to escape, can kill you in a single blast and are always spawned by the game behind closed doors. Perhaps they enjoy watching you through the keyhole or something, but it got to the point where I couldn’t bear to unlock another door before hearing that wet explosion and watching the “Game Over” screen fade in. And then the red mist would descend and I’d say a word that isn’t repeatable in mixed company, and finally I’d wake up three days later on the far side of town covered in blood with what I hope is animal meat in my teeth.

I feel like I’m being very harsh on the game, so I’ll try to find something nice to say. Well, the exploding shuriken is cool, I guess? And I won’t deny that there’s something fun about the absurdly overpowered dropkick, but both of these gimmicks get old fast and the difficulty somehow manages to go down as you progress, which seems a little bit bonkers. When you start the game you’re wielding bits of wood and trying to hold off the zombie hordes with a bent nail, so fights are hard and you’re well-advised to take the rooftop express. However, by the end of the game you’ve accumulated blueprints for all sorts of insanely tough weapons, and the combination of a billion upgrades and a backpack filled with flaming swords means that even the toughest zombie gets knocked over like it’s made of origami. Dealing with them all just feels like a chore, and I lost interest fast.

Down and out

Even as I kicked and struggled, I knew it was no good. I’d been fighting them for years, but it could only come to this. As their clammy, lifeless hands pushed me down, I saw them all start to pull out leaflets, and one of them gave me a dead-eyed smile. “Sir, we’d like to talk to you about Jesus…”

Even going out at night wasn’t as spicy as I hoped. You can skip the dark hours by resting at a safe house, and even before you’ve unlocked them all you’re never more than five minutes from the nearest bed. Not to mention that the vast majority of zombies don’t change much. There are a higher number of the sprinting ones, and of course we see the big bouncy lads who pose the main threat, but they don’t spot you unless you wander three feet in front of them, and anybody who doesn’t want to be seen can get past without difficulty. Honestly, going out at night just became an annoyance in the later game, rather than the terrifying cat-and-mouse chase I’d been hoping for. I even found it easier just to kill all the threats rather than spend the time avoiding them, especially when I discovered that the major uglies seem to have been paid to be here and all have wads of money crammed into their pockets like they’re about to go to a strip club.

So combat is a pain. But what about the parkour, the bit that I was most looking forward to?

Eh. It’s alright, but Mirror’s Edge did it better in just about every respect, and even then it wasn’t perfect. To start off with, Crane is in almost as bad a shape as I am, and runs out of stamina every time he takes an alternate step. This can be changed with an upgrade, but it’s the last one you can get and you’ll have completed the game long before you’ve earned it, so never mind that then. Running out of stamina means you have to slow to an agonising crawl to regain it, which is horribly jarring and forces you to hang around in one place, so good luck getting into a nice sprinting groove. You’ll be stopping and starting more often than a bumper car.

Big monster

Don’t worry, I think Gandalf just showed up on top of the next hill.

Even then, the city of Harran is pretty poorly designed for the actual free-running. I’d keep finding dead ends and have to go back, or leap along a string of buildings only to be faced with a fatal drop and a lot of hungry faces looking up at me hopefully. Once or twice the game seems to remember that there’s somebody actually playing it and puts in an incredibly obvious ramp before a jump, or a gap in the fence to slide under, but it’s not enough. One of the perks of Mirror’s Edge was that the environment was well designed for the gameplay, an obstacle course hidden beneath a façade of pipes, walls and boxes. It was all pretty sweet and you could sprint through without breaking the flow, at least most of the time.

But Dying Light seemed to design Harran with none of this in mind and went about building the entire map without considering the parkour element. It then seemed to recall its mission brief and dusted it with a few zipwires and piles of rubbish before knocking off for a beer.

By the way, the bin bags are Dying Light’s answer to the equally dumb haystacks from Assassin’s Creed, in that you can fall like a comet and still not take damage if you land right on top of them. One day I hope Crane confidently plunges into the rubbish below, only to land on a TV antennae and get the metal prong straight up his arse. That’ll show him to be dependant on littering.

And then, out of nowhere, the game introduces the grappling hook and all bets are off. It’s a ranged weapon that will immediately take you to any location you aim at within a hundred feet, regardless of position, direction and whether you’re in the middle of free-fall. Even the super-zombies had no chance when I could just Spider-Man my way out of there in a heartbeat, and then the only part of the game with any challenge is thrown to the curb to die.

So let’s see – the crafting is dumb, the combat is boring, the parkour is derivative and has no flow whatsoever. The last chance for Dying Light is its story, so can it redeem itself there?

Well, the idea is that the (Turkish?) city of Harran has been savaged by zombies and promptly quarantined.

OK, nothing new so far.

You play as Kyle Crane, who is an undercover agent for some big company and is sent in to get some file from another agent, who apparently nicked it when nobody was looking and decided the safest place to hide would be the most lethal city on Earth. Oh, it definitely makes sense to go there. It’s why I go and hang out in an active volcano when I want a bit of “me time.”

Kyle shacks up with a group of survivors in order to start finding this document, using their network and resources to fuel his own hunt, but starts to feel his loyalties being divided between his employers and those with whom he lives and – Oh, for god’s sake. Does anybody really think he’s going to stick with the big corporation over the grungy free-runners who all like him and depend on him? How naive are you?

Speaking of, I could understand Crane better if he did want to abandon these people, because they all appear to be massive clichés. There’s a dynamic action girl, a confused old scientist who’s obsessed with his work, a hotheaded young runner who’s so unafraid of death that he might as well be gluing a steak to his face whilst flicking peas at the Grim Reaper, and the antagonist is so evil that the average James Bond villain would feel uncomfortable sitting next to him.

No, I really mean it. His evil goes right through to the point of absurdity and keeps going, to the point where I wondered if I had missed some important part of the plot that would explain his actions. At one moment Crane manages to punch him in the face whilst he’s being captured, and rather than do the sensible thing – have somebody gun Crane down and get a plaster for his nose – the guy decides to shoot two of his own men for no reason and throw his attacker into an easily-escapable pit of undead. That’s a score of eight for evilness, but only a two for intelligence, bad luck.

Perhaps this idiocy is why our foe decides to inflict on us the worst punishment of all – the quick-time event. Rather than actually duel him at the end, the game goes all Shadow Of Mordor and gives us a string of button prompts, rather than anything as engaging as fighting him ourself. Not only that, but the QTEs are incredibly quick and unpredictable, and there’s only one or two checkpoints in about fifteen presses. It’s a good thing I finally got through them all, because if I had to hear his opening monologue again I’d have pushed my thumbs into my ears so deep I’d have impaled my brain on my fingernails.

Harran

Harran looks kinda crap, to be honest. Couldn’t we just firebomb it and get on with our lives?

It’s frustrating, because every idea above could have been a good one if implemented properly, but nothing here is new and certainly not at its best. Every time I look at something this game has to offer, I can also point to another game that’s done it better.

Dying Light is a Frankenstein’s monster, a shambling patchwork of games that can just about give a semblance of life, but it’s fleeting and the decay sets in fast. The core idea was a good one, survival and free-running to keep you on your toes, but there’s too many places to stay safe and there’s nothing dangerous enough to challenge or frighten you by the end of the story.

Perhaps I’m just bitter because what I was hoping for was so far removed from what showed up, but I do feel that this is something we need to call more games out on. Taking inspiration? That’s fine. An improved form of an existing game mechanic? Fair enough. But doing the bare minimum on some disjointed ideas that you didn’t even think of? Sorry, that won’t do.

You know, even as I wrap this up I’m thinking of the tagline that was featured with this game. “Goodnight. Good luck.” I suspect it might be prophetic for some of the folks at Techland if they pull this trick again.

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