There’s a line developers use when speaking with fans or media that almost feels like an elevated point of media training in the grand scheme of communication these days, though its origins are clearly from the realms of “good intentions”.
“We’re gamers ourselves, so we’re making the game we
want to play,” enthuses developer X.
If you need it in bite-sized terms, combine the likes of movement in Mirror's Edge, the combat and crafting of Dead Island and Dead Rising with the open-world sides of both Fallout 3 and the most recent Far Cry games, with zombies, and you have a basic idea of what Dying Light is. It also combines all of this very well.
The Darksiders games were a very obvious exception to this, pooling from the Vigil collective’s manifest of favourites like Metroid, Zelda, God of War and more. And while the word “borrow” can come to mind, in those games it was a design coalescence structured around what fits
within the constructs of the world, characters and interface that studio made.
As critics, we often sit back and digest an experience layered upon another, while drawing from an analytical baseline of genres, formulas, discussions and personal (sometimes emotional
) experiences. It’s how we draw conclusion, and critique: “Game Y really should have looked at what Game X did in this instance, because it would have worked oh-so-much better”, and so on. So when a developer does what Vigil did with Darksiders only with an added sense of getting right
what more recent games should have gotten right all along, it’s hard not to buy into the developers-as-gamers line.
This is especially true in the case of Techland and Dying Light, where their marketing voice was perhaps a bit less loud than other games and studios in the Triple-A space. But it’s where the final product not only suggests the studio was playing everything under the sun, but also thinking laterally to build upon both the triumphs and shortfalls of the myriad games Dying Light clearly draws from. It’s not to say the game isn’t its own beast -- metaphors should not confuse this game with the lurching undead that move through its equally dead streets like so many mutated blood cells in undead veins. Rather, the game’s premise and its summary parts stand as products of a single, engaging vision: Dying Light is fun and bleak, it’s human and horrific; it’s hope and despair.
It should be said, any zombie media that takes itself seriously, is walking a fine line. It can be done, as we’ve seen with The Walking Dead, but in the videogame world that line is even finer. Schlock, B-Grade and toy-filled sandboxes are the norm then, but Dying Light treads on a ground of serious drama and manages to pull it off with, believe it or not, great voice-acting and scripting. The world of Harran really is the world
, too. Punters may have disliked these factors with the studio’s previous efforts in the Dead Island games, but here they’ve matured their craft.
The main protagonist is American, yes, but his history and initial motives are shady -- he’s more than an American accent, he represents the common global perception of the US. Moreover, the world of Harran -- fictional, mind -- could be anywhere in the vicinities of North Africa or the Middle East, but every other person occupying this infected waste of a province is of global origin -- you get a sense of the scale of this situation, albeit confined to a single province, because everyone involved offers an idea of just who the outbreak could affect in the long run.
Despite the zombie setting though, the game’s presentation, storyline and on-the-roll narrative is actually very good. It knows when it’s being cheesy and does so for cheese sake, but it also knows when to drop a true call-to-action on the player. And while it is, by and large(ish), an open-world freeform game, Techland has cleverly presented players with unique story missions and structures that break up the on-foot gameplay you’re faced with 90% of the time.
That said, the game-world here isn’t as big as other open-world titles, but that’s because most of your traversal takes place without vehicles, and there's no fast travel option. You eventually upgrade to a grappling-hook which is a lot of fun, but it’s the gradual mastery of parkour -- used to vault across the city’s corrugated iron rooftops -- that is one of Dying Light’s shining stars. It’s interesting, because even the parkour component and the existence of other ‘runners’ (besides yourself) is explained in a believable context thanks to a dramatic revelation, but I digress.
, which is where your parkour skills build from, is one of three areas in which your character grows. There’s also Power
. Character progression is also a freeform component to the game, and players will dynamically earn XP in any one of these three skills just by performing actions. At night, Agility and Survival XP is doubled in an effort to lure players out of the safety of their UV light-protected safehouses, but more on this in a minute. All three skills have a skill tree you can work through, but unlike a game like Far Cry, decking these out does take some serious investment. But the pace at which you earn, and learn, these works in favour of the smaller size world, giving you varying combat and traversal options every time you decide to go out for a run.
The game’s level design, in my opinion, is easily one of its strongest points. There are very few interiors that require loading, and those that do are meaty parts of long and drawn out quests. You could also argue that these are Dying Light’s dungeons, so when you’re required to load into an interior, you can be sure there’s going to be a gauntlet of danger ahead. The rest of the surface world though, is gorgeous and detailed. It’s also infinitely explorable in both day and night, and the developers-as-gamers thing rears its head often in some of the game’s harder-to-reach places with some serious goodies hidden for the true adventuring types (keep an eye out for the EXPcalibur). A more expanded subsection of the game-world wouldn’t have gone astray though, and while you can find various hidden underwater caves, I also felt that water exploration was a massively missed opportunity.
Looted, torn apart cars and vans litter the street, though any with their rear doors or boots closed lend themselves to your own sticky-nosing. Lockpicking borrows almost 1:1 from Skyrim, but this isn’t a bad thing, and it works in the context of the game. Loot then, is a very important component to Dying Light, and it’s here that it’s easy to see the team was playing a lot of Far Cry and realised the same point most of us have, and that’s that loot in those games is superfluous at best. So in Techland’s expanded idea, they married a similar looting system to the crafting system they utilised in Dead Island, though I’d argue there’s some Dead Rising influence here too. All of this creates purpose for scrounging, which fits with both the look of the game-world, half the fetch-quests you're sent on, and your own foraging when moving from points A and Z.
The game’s combat is largely built around melee, and some of the weapons and buffs you can craft are very imaginative. Items are also struck with wear and tear, meaning you’ll need to repair them after extended use, however, you won’t always be able to maintain that electrical sheen of your favourite weapon, and so the game does a fantastic job of making you experiment with new weapons, weapon types, buffs and more. There is shooting in the game, but it’s detrimental to the experience for two reasons: one, it alerts fast-running Volatiles to your location, and these pesky almost-turned-full-zombie enemies are fast, tenacious and annoying. Two, it’s just not very good. At least on console. PC, of course, is fine in this space.
As far as tone goes, Dying Light nails that seriousness I mentioned earlier, with the quirkiness of how people would react to such a situation. In this space, it looks evenly (and rightly) to the Fallout series for charcterisation, but adds its own flair. The hue of the game’s sunburnt visage reflects the dry, rusted desperation of the situation Crane and his pals (and enemies) are faced with, but at its heart there’s a very strong grounding in action. And the game’s wonderful score builds on this in synth spades. The rest of the peripheral audioscape is how you’d imagine -- unnerving, at best; terrifying, at worst.
It’s not without its shortcomings, though these aren’t game-breaking by any measure. Weather, for example, is too oft on the side of sunshine. And it’s not that the game engine can’t handle dynamic weather, because on occasion during the day you’ll be faced with rain, or it’ll be a dreary overcast, but it happens too little and without more variation. At night, however, storms thunder down and torrential rain fills the darkness around you, only adding to the general dread the dark serves up, but this just creates too separate an experience where the peripheral environment is concerned. Moreover, it appears the game’s blade and axe fodder scale with you, which never really offers you a chance to feel all-powerful. Zoned areas where the undead or human enemies were forever weaker than you would have made for a more empowering experience, but tougher zombies just makes you want to jump across buildings more, so it’s not all bad, but it certainly could have been handled better.
For me the takeaway part of Dying Light that truly sells the developers-as-gamers line is in the reverence of the main protagonist Crane. After a while he’ll begin to play up to his task as a glorified courier, and his jaded remarks and cool-as-can-be expectations against those quirky characters I mentioned earlier, tells us Techland knows what you’re thinking. They know how a gamer would react to being asked to go and collect an irrelevant item from a dangerous area by an NPC likely capable of doing it on their own, and so Crane resonates that. But this point is best presented as an experience from the game, so I present to you an example of developers-as-gamers playing to gamer expectations, all while having nothing but fun with it.
Dying Light also comes fully packed with four-player co-op online (no local support), and it is wonderfully complimentary to the experience. The game's missions and world design are perfect playthings for you and three friends, while specific sections, such as the Quarantine Challenge zones, feel designed to work especially for co-op (they can be played solo).
Equally, each player in a co-op game keeps their individual progress when entering their own personal world of Harran friendsless.
There’s a quest called “A Baby is Born” where you learn through an uninvited doorway that a man’s wife has just given birth and you need to collect alcohol to help them disinfect. It sounds simple enough, but when you deliver the first two bottles, the man asks for more. Collect these, return and he asks for more again. You never hear a baby crying, nor are you ever allowed to see anything but the man through a slightly ajar door. It should also be noted that getting in and out of this place is a bit of pain, so when you deliver another lot and the man takes them, unhappy you haven’t brought more before effectively shutting the door on you without even so much as a reward, the gamer-referential stuff rears its head with Crane declaring after an exasperated sigh “I should probably let it go, but I know I won’t”. Cue the lockpicking option and you have your hard-earned event, with the developer-as-gamers knowing full well what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to react personally to the situation.
But when you open that door, there’s no conflict to be had as much as there is no baby, just a bunch of survivors sitting around a table drinking merrily, thanks to you. It’s a hopeful sight in an otherwise dead world, but it’s a sequence of events that plays from the hearts of people who know how this stuff works. Your reward, beyond cracking a smile, is at least a collectable zombie statue because the team behind Dying Light are gamers, and they know what gamers want.