This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Dying Light.
So last week I described zombie stories as entry-level creativity, but the flaw in that analogy is that it implies that one eventually moves on from it, as opposed to loitering in the entrance hall, ineptly flirting with the receptionist. Dying Light is a game that, if it ever found an original thought in its head, would probably assume it was a tumor.
"This ostensibly new IP plays a lot like Dead Island," I thought, before noticing that it comes to us from the same developer as Dead Island, which confused me for a bit, 'cause I assumed they were working on Dead Island 2, currently represented by a pre-rendered trailer that as always as much about the game as it does about freshwater fly-fishing. But apparently, that's being developed by Yager, creators of Spec Ops: The Line, a game about an American agent being inserted into a Middle-Eastern city on an innocuous fetch quest and confronting death, horror and violence while getting a lovely sun tan.
But I digress. Dying Light is a game about an American agent being inserted into a Middle-Eastern city on an innocuous fetch quest and confronting death, horror and- Oh God! Everything's spiraling in on itself! What are these things in front of me? Jesus Christ, they're my own buttocks!
At least I assume Harran is in the middle-east, it's got a Middle-Easty sort of name. But if you went by the absurd variety of accents that the general population has, you might as well assume the city was located inside a middle school play about the joys of diversity. Unless the zombies are the general population, everyone else is a visiting tourist, it's not like we're given any better explanation to why there are zombies here. But then I suppose we hardly need one at this point: it's a city, it's got lot of sewers and building sites, and it's a video game; sooner or later zombies will just grow out of the fucking mildew.
Our hero is Kyle Crane, so called because he's quite tall and tends to overreach himself, who's been dropped into Zombie Town to recover a stolen file, which is important for some contrived reason I didn't quite absorb, and shacks up with the nice survivors who oppose the local warlord, whose evilness defies all reason and sense, the kind of bloke who couldn't even have a boiled egg for breakfast unless he could bring in the hen and force it to watch.
If the zombie genre were a school, Dying Light would be the good little boy who irons his uniform every morning and is the first to tattle on the rowdy boys when they start getting a bit too self-aware and ironic. So the list of cliches is adhered to like a randy dog on his master's leg: there is the good scientist and the no-nonsense action lady and the major theme is that human beings are the real monsters (if that wasn't already clear from how much the developers blatantly copy-pasted out of Dead Island), the same first-person sandbox mission-based gameplay, the same kick button (which is constant source of amusement when an enemy is trying to stand up), there is the same looting and weapon-crafting system in which we can sellotape a battery to a crowbar and give it lightning powers ('cause apparently, engineering works the same way as homeopathy, now). The special zombies are exactly the same: Captain Fast-Zombie, Admiral Big-Lad-With-Hammer and Fleet Commander Explodes-In-Your-Face. And just like Dead Island, every other level is set in a fucking sewer! We spend more time knocking poo around than the consumer review section of Anal Sex Monthly.
But here's a conundrum, boys and girls: if Dying Light is basically just Dead Island again, then why do I like it more? Well, it's more tightly designed: instead of making us choose one of several specialized characters and then learn the hard way that anyone other than the melee weapons guy might as well wear pork chops for earrings, they just gave us the melee weapons guy. And he actually has character and personal conflicts and engages with people instead of just going around gormlessly piling up fetch quests, which generally helps feel things less flat and lifeless, no pun intended. Actually I guess that makes sense, since the title has been upgraded from "Dead" to "Dying".
Most noteworthy is the pseudo-eponymous feature concerning the day-night cycle. If you hang around after dark, then you have to deal with super-chasey zombies who for some reason just gets so mad when people don't take curfews seriously. And it says something of how mundane zombies have become when it's only in the night-time segments that Dying Light comes anywhere near the horror game classification. Because at that point, twatting the lurching dead around suddenly gives way to fleeing like Princess Diana from photo journalists, and often with roughly the same result.
That brings us to the next, I hesitate to use the word, "unique" selling point: parkour, which further improves on Dead Island by adding some verticality to the world and freeing up the movement a bit. You know, after Mirror's Edge I was convinced that parkour from a first-person-perspective just couldn't possibly work. But Dying Light has shown that I was completely right to think that. Precision landing on small platforms and narrow ledges when you can't see your feet is still like trying to hit a pinata with a live cat, and during climbing sequences you're mostly treated to a face full of ledge and can't tell how far along you've climbed without laboriously peering around like a contortionist trying to look at the person who's giving it to them doggy-style.
I can't think how the game could have been anything but improved with a third-person-perspective. Would have helped when I'm trying to pick a lock and want to know if a zombie is about to run up and file its tax return down my bumcrack. But I suppose first-person does carry the benefit of sparing us the weird contortions Kyle's body goes through when the climbing mechanics fuck up, and they fuck up a lot. When the game demands that I climb a radio mast to impress all its friends at Ubisoft and has me do a running jump off a ledge roughly ten centimeters wide, then zones out and doesn't register that I'm trying to grab the next ledge so I fall to a painful clumsy death, you'll forgive me if I don't see it as my fault. So when the game then goes "Now I'm going to take some of your experience away as punishment for being such a crapout", I'm not exactly won over.
But overall, as I said, it's better than Dead Island. So if you enjoyed Dead Island, but thought "I'd be enjoying this so much more if it wasn't shit", give it a go! But in the context of Dead Island 2 being handed to a different developer, Dying Light's improvement takes on a certain poignancy. It's like an unfit parent desperately trying to win over the judge.
"Please Mr. Deep Silver, we can make good zombie games now, please let us see our child."
"I don't know, Techland, Yager can do really complex storytelling."
"So can we! Look at our complex villain!"
"Get out of my office, Techland!"
- Seeing the light: Ben "Yahtzee Croshaw"
- We went from a Dead Island to a Dying Light so presumably the next game will be set somewhere Not At All Well
- I know you're undead but stop bloody moaning