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‘Dying Light’ Review – Parkouring Into Your Nightmares

As I turn the corner on a market street in Harran, Turkey, zombies turn to face the pounding of my footsteps. I quickly jump onto the nearest delivery van and then scale the building next to it in order to get away from the undead horde. Unfortunately I’ve attracted some of the more nimble infected and they are quickly climbing after me. As I reach the top and look out over the crumbling ruin of a city, the biters arrive and growl a high-pitched, guttural cry. At this moment, my framerate plummets below 20 and almost immediately I fall to the three zombies, as their experience isn’t being hindered by optimization failures.

That’s the majority of my experience in Dying Light, the zombie survival action game by Techland.

As I stated in my first impressions piece a few days ago, Techland’s zombie parkour game is horribly optimized to certain systems. Since the 1.2.1 patch last Friday, those running Intel CPUs and Nvidia cards have experienced higher framerates and less issues with the game’s performance. According to the patch notes, however, Techland is still working on fixes for better optimizing those running the game with AMD CPUs. Why this wasn’t done before the game released is beyond me, but we live in a day where meeting a release date or having a large title release in a fiscal quarter is more important than making sure the game operates on all platform configurations. The terror of the Day 1 patch (or in this case, the day 4 patch) struck some players hard, and in the end completely alters the perception of the game experience.

Visuals

Dying Light is the first triple-A game to release in 2015. Built on Techland’s proprietary Chrome Engine 6, the game falls short of meeting the benchmarks set visually by other game engines on the market, such as Frostbite 3 or CryEngine. Normally I am not a stickler for visuals, but if a game is being built on current-gen and PC only (since the last-gen versions of Dying Light were cancelled late last year), you expect an upgrade over previous games. In the end, Dying Light looks like a mid-range PC game and doesn’t really push the boundaries of the industry forward.

The city of Harran - wasteland that decides to render at 20 FPS...if you're lucky.
The city of Harran – wasteland that decides to render at 20 FPS…if you’re lucky.

That isn’t to say the art direction is bad, just poorly realized by the engine’s ability to render the game clearly. Textures pop-in frequently, with ledges I’m holding on to looking muddled and pixelated. Artwork and graffiti on buildings are frequently unfocused and normally don’t fully render till you’re staring at the spot for a few seconds. The zombie models, while various, are uninteresting. The only versions with some variety are the normal, mundane zombies. All the specialized zombie models are identical so you can easily identify them, which on one hand can be handy, but after a while it can be pretty boring.

Character models are not the best either, with the facial animations looking stiffer than those on display in Team America: World Police’s puppet actors. On the off-chance the lip-syncing is on point, it does add a little life to the otherwise dull and blocky models, but more-often than not the robotic way character jaws move with speech is enough to make you focus on just reading the subtitles.

Gameplay

Dying Light is sold on the idea of fast, fluid motion. The ability to parkour al la Mirror’s Edge is how the game made itself known at the various trade shows last year. However, a lot of the mechanics seem forced, as if only in the game to fulfill a requirement and nothing more. In a game that is based around fluidity, the gimping nature of running stamina is confusing. While I appreciate the developer’s intent on making the game feel real (How many of us could parkour throughout a Turkish city and not get tired?), one of the few high points of the gameplay is when you knock out a great parkouring combo. Maybe you just vaulted a small wall, ran up a building only to run from rooftop to rooftop, only to run out of stamina and not make that jump to the next roof? Or you’re running away from a zombie horde only to be viciously cut down because Kyle Crane, the game’s protagonist, gets winded? That fluid motion is completely torn asunder the minute you have to stop and catch your breath. With games like Mirror’s Edge perfecting this style of gameplay, it’s hard to enjoy Dying Light’s limiting parkour when the formula it tries to emulate is simply exquisite.

dying light screenshot room
Rooms like this are prevalent in a lot of the buildings of Harran. Unfortunately, nothing compels you to brave them.

 

Combat is equally both a plus and minus to the gameplay. On the one hand, it’s somewhat gratifying to make it through a long stint of combat, especially considering Crane gets winded after every fourth swing it seems. On the other hand, a lot of the combat mechanics seem forced as well. You upgrade both your running and combat skills as you travel and kill zombies. Pretty simple, right? But a lot of the skills you unlock seem almost insane that Crane wouldn’t know them to begin with. For example: If a zombie was grabbing your legs on the ground, what would you instinctively do? Kick it’s head in, right? Well, according to Dying Light’s combat progression, you only figure that out about six or seven levels into the “Power” skill line. Another example is the ability to craft and wield a shield. Shields have been a mainstay in human conflict since the Bronze Age, yet the game presents this high-technology as something Crane only figures out about eight or nine levels into the “Survivor” skill line. Like it never crosses the protagonists mind to grab a large object to fend off knife blows or zombie attacks. It crossed my mine the minute I went to a car door and was dismayed I couldn’t try to kick it off in order to wield part of it as a protective barrier.

The gun-play is the worst of all. In a first person game that has guns, you have a lot to live up to, mechanically. The guns feel inaccurate at best, totally ineffective at their worst. At least with a machete or an axe you feel the grim satisfaction of taking a zombie’s head off in front of you. Oftentimes when in a gunfight with some of the surviving humans in the game, I couldn’t tell if I was actually hitting anyone. The only way I knew was to look at my mini-map and see their indicator disappear. Also, for a game that cautions using guns in the opening minutes of the game (the sound will attract zombies), you become increasingly dependent on them as the story progresses.

Everything about the gameplay mechanics seem poorly thought out. From the interjection of stamina to give a “real-world feel” that breaks up your fluid movement, to poorly and highly inaccurate gun mechanics, Dying Light fails to truly capture the spirit of what it sold gamers on: fast, fun zombie bashing action.

Story

Here is where I feel Dying Light falls on it’s face the most. The main character, Kyle Crane, is a GRE (Global Relief Effort) Operative sent into Harran in order to secure a stolen file. Along the way he is saved by those who inhabit the Tower, a safe haven for survivors in Harran. Lead by Brecken, a parkour instructor who taught his followers to survive using the stylized traversal skills, you find yourself wrapped up in trying to secure the file while simultaneously attempting to help find a cure. Along the way you supposedly fall for the “damsel in distress” Jade, become friends with her brother Rahim and meet the crazy antagonist Rais.

The characters, plot and gameplay design feel uninspired and extremely tropey. Crane is sent in and assumes the “White Knight” role. He takes on every task given to him because he wants to protect the people he barely met the day before. The missions portray that you have an emotional connection to the actors involved, yet the game does nothing to make you feel attached. When one of the character’s is turned, you have to mete out his eventual end. This is a character you’ve maybe interacted with three times before, yet the game portrays Crane’s emotions as someone closer than a brother. Yet during those missions leading up to this one (which the outcome of what happens is completely predictable before it’s even in your quest journal) you have no contact with this character. None. Nothing to establish an emotion connection between the player and the person on-screen. The character development is assumed, not realized.

The night time sequences can be some of the game's only enjoyable experiences. They are completely different in feel than their daytime counterparts. However, it still falls victim to poor design and ends up being more frustrating than enjoyable for some.
The night-time sequences can be some of the game’s only enjoyable experiences. They are completely different in feel than their daytime counterparts. However, it still falls victim to poor design and ends up being more frustrating than enjoyable for some.

The missions seem disjointed as well, with events taking place in a previous mission and almost not mentioned in the next. Case in point is when you’re escaping from Rais’ stronghold and Crane starts to experience the debilitating seizures indicating he is turning into a zombie himself. You collapse on the side of a road only to wake up with Brecken next to you talking about Jade going to Sector 0. With no explanation as to what happened to you, how long you were out, or how you didn’t wake up hovering over the dead flesh of another infected. You are simply sent on your way to the next mission as if nothing ever happened.

Another example is when you are again escaping from Rais’ fortress in Sector 0 and Crane again starts to turn (Are you sensing a pattern here?). Earlier in the game Crane secured himself a tiny vial of Antizin, the drug that keeps the zombie-bitten from turning. I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t take it out and use it in any of these instances. It’s almost as if the game developers simply forgot that occurred in an earlier mission.

The writing in the game is also bland and pointless in some cases. The use of curse words has increased in games the past few years, and while some have more than others, not once have I felt put off by their use. Techland seemed to think that the game didn’t have enough and in instances decided to put as many in a sentence as they possibly could. This doesn’t add to the effect of what the characters are trying to say, it simply hints at a writer who could not come up with any other meaningful dialogue and just decided to say “EFF This!” Literally. Coupled by the so-so voice acting, the game’s story feels almost like a chore to get through.

Other Issues

Harran, while conceptually beautiful, is a pain in the butt to navigate. While the city seems set up the easily parkour through, that pesky stamina mechanic hinders your movement every 15-20 seconds. In addition, thanks to the poorly optimized PC version, some of these sequences chug along at such low framerates that it almost feels as though Crane is running through molasses. There is no rhyme or reason to the framerate fluctuation, either. One minute you’re at 50-60 and instantaneously you’ll turn and be in the twenties. I’m not running the game on a slouch rig, either. My PC specs fall within the minimum and recommended specs to play the game (AMD FX-8350 Black CPU, AMD Radeon HD 7950 3GB GPU, 16GB Ram), yet even on the lowest settings the frames chug. All this points to poorly optimized code which has greatly soured the experience of the game.

Most of your time in these quests also have you doing a lot of backtracking. With a parkour title such as Dying Light, basically every quest is a fetch quest. With not fast travel feature, you are constantly going back and forth, thus eating a lot of game time. As a result the game feels unnecessarily long. Simply by letting you port to unlocked safe zones, Dying Light would be a more enjoyable experience. However, such emphasis has been placed on moving around the world “quickly” that you are doomed to go back and forth multiple times in order to achieve your unnecessary goal. Nothing in the game feels as though it matters. None of your decisions have weight, as every decision is pre-determined by the game. In an open world game, because the decisions you make don’t mean anything, there is no compelling reason to go out of your way to do the side quests, other than to get money and buy more powerful objects, which you will then find on your next story quest. The crafting the game is simple, yet also uninspired. It seems to only be in the game to serve that “crafting game mechanic” purpose. The only useful item I found myself crafting were Medikits. Otherwise, I normally would just stay away from wasting the inventory space with the components.

Is there anything I liked?

In the end, I thought I was enjoying this game more than I seem to have been. While playing the game for the review, I found the story to be tedious, some elements to be initially challenging only to devolve into pure frustration thanks to game developer decisions, and the overall feel of the game to be broken, thanks to the PCs lack of optimization. The only moment where I truly had fun was the multiplayer, and even then it was something that felt almost tacked on. There is no direction in the multiplayer, only that you now have someone else in your game with you and the two of you can “compete” in challenges that seem like afterthoughts. The only reason why the multiplayer was enjoyable are moments like these:

I’m being molotoved by my friend, yet I’m enjoying the fact that it’s happening. Why? Because it’s the only instance where a player action had a true effect on what was going on. It’s one thing to kill zombies – the game has those in plenty. However, Shank’s panic killed me along with them, thus separating the two of us. This created a dilemma for us: how do we meet back up? Where should we go? What should we do? The game provided none of those answers, it was up to us to find them out. Naturally though the issues with the game design cropped up and soured our experience when we were both killed and sent to separate safe zone to respawn. This meant a lot of tedious backtracking which led to playing Dragon Age: Inquisition instead.

Conclusion

Dying Light is an example of a triple-A game gone wrong, yet it is not surprising given today’s gaming industry. Broken for some PCs, simply due to a developer not interested in optimizing it for all players, uninspired characters and story, and faulty traversal mechanics make the first major game of 2015 sour the year for all. Sure, you might find more enjoyment out of frantically running away from zombies, but with the plethora of good games out there to play, Dying Light fails to set itself apart in any meaningful way. One has to wonder whether the developers needed extra time, yet the publisher forced the game out anyway, since the other major title being published by WB was already delayed. Maybe it’s a matter of a game performing better at a convention and failing to be truly realized when it’s released. I’m not sure. However, I know that Dying Light should be a warning to all those who are intent on preordering as well as buying Day 1 products. Wait, please. Make sure it’s worth your time before you put down a great game in order to play it.

Dying Light certainly isn’t one of those games.

As I turn the corner on a market street in Harran, Turkey, zombies turn to face the pounding of my footsteps. I quickly jump onto the nearest delivery van and then scale the building next to it in order to get away from the undead horde. Unfortunately I've attracted some…

Review Overview

Visuals
Story
Gameplay
Replayability

Bad

Dying Light is a reminder against pre-ordering a game. With muddy visuals, an uninspired story, tropey characters and tacked on gameplay mechanics, Techland set the bar pretty low for the triple-A games in 2015.

18

About Joseph Bradford

Freelance Game Journalist, currently covering games for Legendarium. Tolkienist. Once thought he saw a woodchuck chuck wood. Turns out they can’t.