The thing about cooking is that you don't always have to be revolutionary. Sometimes all you need to do is mix a few known ingredients together and add a dash of your own personal touches and, viola, you've got yourself a hearty meal that won't blow anyone's mind, but it should fill everyone right up. That's what I took away from Dying Light, an amalgam of many ideas into a meal that's not very original, but very tasty just the same.
I've poured a lot more hours into Dying Light since my early impressions, but my opinion of the game hasn't really changed now that I've been able to dive deep into the story and also try out the cooperative and “Be the Zombie” modes. That's actually a good thing, as I liked the game quite a bit once the world opened up and I was let loose on a massive population of shambling, undead monstrosities.
For a quick rundown of the story, the mechanics and whatnot, I'd point you in that direction first. There's no point in me rehashing all of that info here. I'm going to simply continue forward assuming that you've given that a gander and know the basics.
For starters, Dying Light's story never really improves. There are some funny bits of dialogue here and there and you occasionally meet an interesting character but, for the most part, you remain the conflicted military boy who bounces around the city doing odd jobs for citizens in need and warlords alike, all the while having super secret radio conversations with an all-too-inhuman handler about secret documents and hidden agendas.
The Tower, the last refuge of non-murderous humans, tries to create a believable world with people going about their daily lives and having conversations as you pass, but your only major interaction with that world comes in the form of optional side quests that, like the main story missions themselves, typically require you to run here, turn that knob, flip that switch, smack that guy with a shovel, pick up that bag, etc. That wouldn't be such a big deal if, when you finally get to interact with some of these people, they speak to you as if you've been living in their midst for weeks. You'll have an emotional conversation with a guy where he truly confides in you despite the fact that, before now, you've barely passed 10 words between you.
So, the storytelling isn't great because I've been given zero reason to care about any of these people, even though I'm occasionally thrown into a scene that wants me to believe otherwise. I almost wish the team at Techland would have leaned the opposite direction with its tone. Gritty and realistic tales of death, loss and betrayal can be tricky to pull off in this setting. The Last of Us comes to mind as one of the only games to actually manage it. Going the direction of, say, Zombieland, would allow you to ping-pong about the world, getting into crazy situation after crazy situation without trying to orchestrate moments of emotional impact. Don't get me wrong; I'm all for that type of story if it's done well, the team just misses the mark in that regard with Dying Light.
But in a game where you leap from rooftop to rooftop, beating zombies in the head and triggering devious traps, it's likely that you're not exactly visiting the city of Harran in hopes of a gripping tale that will stick with you for years to come. You want the locomotion to be fun and the combat to be exciting. For the most part, this is where Dying Light really shines, giving players a surprisingly lengthy campaign to work through and enough side quests and random events to keep you playing for a long, long time. I can easily see players letting themselves sink fully into this game, learning all of its locations by heart and evolving into a skilled runner who can pull off any job without ever receiving so much as a scratch. The quest for that sort of badassary kept me hooked throughout my review time, and it's exactly what will keep me playing even though my “job” is now done.
As a quick not on multiplayer, take everything I say here and basically bump up the fun factor a couple of notches. Little about the game changes outside of some ready-made group challenges, so you're basically free to move about the city, take on missions and team up on zombies in groups of up to four. If you're the kind of player who enjoys a multiplayer playground, then Dying Light is the one with that cool spinny thing and all of the most awesome slides.
Whether you're playing solo or in a group, your mission is basically the same: Improve your skills. The leveling system in Dying Light rewards players for basically everything they do, giving you skill points in areas like combat and survival. You can spend these points on pretty lengthy trees of abilities, unlocking basic stat boosts (your weapons break more slowly or you can take more damage) to helpful skills (craft more items, store more gear) to more fantastic maneuvers (vault over zombies, whip around the world with a grappling hook or, an oldie but a goodie, dropkick the undead).
The map is pretty much open to you from the get-go, but you'll have to progress the story if you want even more missions and enemies to pop up. Along with the typical shambling masses, you'll take on huge, lumbering behemoths, super annoying spitters with pinpoint accuracy, “bombers” that can kill you in an instant or be used to explode a group of baddies and even not-full-turned humans who can move way faster and follow you onto rooftops. At night, a particularly deadly stalker brand of zombie comes out and basically makes the game shift into stealth mode. Getting spotted by one of these guys means you'll have to run for safety or face almost certain death, while staying out to do missions at night has the added bonus of stat gain boosts.
As for the map, you'll feel right at home if you've ever played a Far Cry game. It's littered with icons that let you know there's something to do, whether it be a side quest, a challenge, a safe house that needs liberating, plants that need picking or even hidden missions that only seem to pop up from time to time when you're right on top of them. My only complaint (which is easy to avoid) are the escort missions. These missions aren't fun no matter what game you're talking about, and that goes triple for a game where its easy to get overrun by the undead. Once my charge decided, for no reason whatsoever, to start fighting one of the hulking zombies that takes a crapload of damage and then proceeded to die a quick death, I gave up on that rubbish completely.
I had the most fun in Dying Light when I reminded myself that there was seldom an actual time limit I was working under. On my way to a mission, I had lots of fun becoming distracted by an area I hadn't explored yet, searching houses for useful crafting materials or more deadly weapons. I rooted through the trash, nervously picked locks while the zombies circled in around me and and had fun discovering new blueprints and upgrades that let me create stuff like, say, a hammer with a blowtorch on the end of it.
Make no mistake about it, though; Dying Light is a very repetitive game. I feel like the developers bolted on so many mechanics and distractions from other games in order to help break up that repetition and, you know what? It kinda works. Thankfully, the draw of more skills and the mechanics alone are fun enough to keep pushing you forward, no matter how many times it just so happens you're the only guy who can go to Point A and pick up Item X. On the way there, you'll of course get a radio call needing you to go to Point B and flip Switch Y first and, once you're done with all of that, you'll almost certainly get another radio call informing you that Citizen Q has been trapped in Point C and need you to help them out.
But, that's a formula that's worked for a lot of games in the past, including Techland's own Dead Island series, and it also works well here. The combat can sometimes feel a little spastic, animations may not always line up and, no, the narrative isn't anything to get too excited about, but when you're talking about a world that's built as a parkour wonderland and filled with zombies to pummel and a huge number of activities to dive into, Dying Light manages to check off all of the necessary boxes. It may not boast many original ideas, but at least this recipe still tastes great.
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment