“Dying Light” Review (Xbox One)

My favorite moment in Dying Light was an unscripted one: sneaking into a building filled with drug lord cronies, I’m moving about quietly, katana resting in both hands. Crouched, I see two goons with their backs to me at the end of a hallway. Everything is quiet. As I’m stepping forward, one of them starts to turn towards me. I have a couple of options here: throw a military knife at him to try and stun him, giving me enough time to reach him, or try to quickly equip a molotov cocktail or my semi-automatic police rifle to take them both out, blowing my stealth cover.

Instead, I make a mad dash for them both. I slide towards them as both of them are now turned, guns raised. And I slash them both across the torso, in one fell swoop, and their bodies separate at the waist and crumple onto the floor and everything is quiet once more.

Dying Light is a game of moments.

And that will either excite you or disappoint you from a story perspective.

But let’s talk quickly about the gameplay, as this is a video game, after all. A sort of “spiritual successor” to developer Techland’s first breakthrough hit, Dead Island, Dying Light is an improvement in just about every way: graphics, controls, interface, voice acting, sounds, level variety, etc. And the main thing that separates the two games, both being first-person open-world zombie survival games in exotic settings, is Dying Light’s parkour mechanics.

A lot has already been said about them, so the real question is: do they work? Short answer yes. Long answer, of course they don’t function as perfectly as you’d like, you needy whiny person with impossible standards. I very rarely got frustrated by the game on a technical level. Usually the mistakes I made were my own. Only rarely did the game not zig when it should have zagged, or did I have trouble making a jump only to fall to my death because the ledge that looked rather grabbable was not, in fact, grabbable.

You move through the game at amazing speeds, unlocking skills as you go, and man, by the end do you feel like a machine. It’s thrilling. It’s fun. It’s satisfying. From a gameplay standpoint, you’re not getting much better than Dying Light. There’s plenty to do (almost too much, frankly, a problem with all open-world games), the place is fun to explore, and killing zombies (and humans) is a whole lot of fun (guns once again have clunky controls, a remnant of the Dead Island days, but the quick access to rifles as opposed to the sluggish pistol controls from DI make Dying Light’s gunplay seem more electric).

But we’re not here to talk about the gameplay. We’re here to talk about story. And the big question is, how does the story turn out? The answer:

The story, as a whole, is predictable and shallow. But it’s the tiny moments in this game that make it really worthwhile.

Dead Island had a story? I ask, instead of state, because I barely remember it. Hell, I barely remember anything about the game outside of the fact that killing zombies was a whole lot of fun in an island setting. I also remember one character constantly asking, “Now, where did I put that?” anytime you walked by him. The voice acting was lousy, the main characters dull, and the story, basically that there was a virus and you had to stop it or something, lacked the gravitas that the amazing original trailer promised. Many were hoping Dying Light would succeed where its predecessor didn’t. There would be emotion, there would be heart, things would happen that matter.

And, in a way, Dying Light does accomplish that. It just falls into the pratfalls of the zombie genre headfirst, when it should have just grabbed the ledge in front of it.

You’re Kyle Crane, FBI! er…GRE. Or something. Global Relief Effort I think. You are dropped into a fictional Middle Eastern city called Karran. Sounds like Iran, but it’s not, ya dig? Your employers, the GRE-at people who dropped you into a zombie-infested hellhole with nothing more than a pistol and a walkie talkie, want you to find a guy named Rais who holds a code that could lead to a cure. Naturally, you’re nearly killed, then saved by a babe named Jade and her buddy, Amir, who doesn’t quite survive. Problem A: you lose your gun. Problem B: you’re bit. ZOMBIE TIME, BABY!!!

Only, a little drug called Antizin (Antizom too on the nose, Techland?!) can keep the nasties at bay. The GRE has been dropping them in to survivors to help them stave off the effects of Zombieitis. You’re taken to a tower led by a guy named Breckin, you’re shot up with the stuff, and now it’s your job to get back to your mission and prove to these people that you’re not so bad. Especially Jade. Because she’s a babe.

Now, this is a great setup: undercover guy working for the “supposed” good guys (or are they bad? dun dun dun) having to not reveal his intentions to his newfound friends (and a babe) because, um…I sorta forget why he needs to keep it a secret, but it’s probably better he does anyway. Might lead to more questions. So here begins your journey of self-discovery, and also trying to get the “cure” from Rais. Though you also find out some local doctors might actually have a real cure cooking up in their labs. So maybe things are actually going to be okay.

Spoiler alert: things are not okay.

What follows next is a weaving story that bounces here and there and at times becomes confusing. And that’s okay. The game took me about a full day’s worth of play to beat. Say, 24 hours. In that way, the best comparison I can give it is the equivalent of watching a season of the Fox drama 24 with Kiefer Sutherland. Can anyone really remember the overarching plot of each season? I doubt it. But I bet you can remember big moments and set pieces from those seasons. And that’s how Dying Light is: a game of big set-pieces and moments, some of which are better than others.

Shit goes down in Dying Light.

The emotional connection we missed in Dead Island is here, if only barely: you make some friends, you inevitably lose some friends, you make some enemies, enemies make things harder for you, you get close to winning, then you lose, then you win, blah dee blah dee blah. We know the familiar beats of zombie stories by now, right? Here’s a short list of some that we encounter in the game:

-A “close friend” or “loved one” gets turned into a zombie and you are forced to kill them.

-Someone close to helping this whole thing get solved dies.

-The bad guy tells you that the people you work for aren’t who they say they are.

-You question your own morality (and mortality)

-You have to convince the government not to bomb the ever-living shit out of the place you’re in because there are still survivors here, damn it!

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Because Dying Light is still a zombie story at heart. If you like zombie stories (I doooooo) then you will be okay. If you don’t, or if you’re one of those people who thinks every fucking thing needs to be “high art” and “original”, you won’t. This is a derivative story, through and through, and you’ve seen mostly everything happen in the main story happen in some other piece of zombie-related pop culture.

But it’s the moments that still make this game worthwhile.

The side missions you encounter are worth the price of admission. They’re varied, they’re interesting, and yes, while some have been done before, they’re still entertaining. They don’t always directly tie into the main story, but what Dying Light does so well is make its world feel connected throughout.

Dying Light creates its own unique universe where everything feels connected, even if it’s not.

In Dead Island, people would ask you to fetch shit for them just because. A drunk woman wanted more champagne once, so I gave it to her, and she gave me diamonds that I could trade for cash. A young boy wants his teddy bear. A guy needs a generator for his fridge. But these were just random people scattered throughout the world; they weren’t integral to the plot. They weren’t even organic to the setting. They were just interlopers, looking for shit, and you were the errand boy.

Not so in Dying Light. I found that every side mission I did was somehow at least in some way related to the main tasks at hand. Hey, fetch these lights, so we can protect the tower that you’re spending most of the game coming back to. Okay, sure. Or hey, find this one guy who is helping make weapons for us, because he’s gone missing, and he’s the one who will help you find this valuable thing you need in order to get more anti-zombie drugs. That sort of stuff.

In one nice touch, a father I helped “save” (by giving him a gun, only to which he escaped with his son, essentially kidnapping him, trying to find salvation) shows up in a later part of the game. He thanks me for saving him, and I say no problem, and we go our separate ways. Only, the people he was running with now double-crossed me, and left me for dead. So I’m a little pissed I saved his ass in the first place. Wouldn’t you know it, later on he ends up calling you on your walkie talkie, saying he’s been hurt. I go to find him, and he’s a zombie now, terrorizing his son who hides for safety in a closet. I take about, oh, one-hundreth of a second to decide that I’m cutting off his fucking head, that fucking prick, so I do. I save his son, and his son goes to the safe house I’ve been holed up in, where a friend of mine will take care of him.

That continuity gives some heft to your actions, even if it really had no effect on the overall story. Other small bits involve finding a video tape for an autistic man so he and his “mom” can watch it (though she’s taken the form of a pillow with a bucket on her head and the word MOM emblazoned on it) in order to get medicine he holds that will help people in the tower. Trying to save the local Mayor (whose face you can see plastered in campaign posters all throughout town) leads to him being choppered out of the city. Even though he promised me a ride on the chopper as well. Politicians: never to be trusted.

The main story contains nice moments, too: destroying a building is entirely satisfying. Fighting in a gladiator-style arena when captured by the bad guy is appropriately nerve-wracking and also difficult as hell (I actually enjoyed this stage for changing things up a bit. I have found people on the internet disagree with me). Fixing an antenna so we can send out a last-minute message to the people about to bomb the hell out of us raises the stakes. And of course, there’s the connections you make, specifically with Jade (the babe) that really carry you through the game. I found myself emotionally attached to her, even though I have no right to be, since, well, the writing isn’t insanely compelling. Leave it to the voice acting to wring emotion out of zombies.

But again, it’s the little things that really make the world come alive, better than a lot of other games I’ve played (Fallout 3 excluded because, well, that’s the best game ever made ever). Bad guys that work for Rais are scattered throughout the world, feasting on air drops of medical supplies and rations that the good, innocent people need. When they popped up on my mini-map, I didn’t hesitate to chase them down, murder them ruthlessly, and take the supplies back to the people who needed them most. Also, Rais killed my friends, so fuck his business associates. They also like to take people hostage, and come on, when you’re staring down the barrel of my police rifle (a nice touch is when your enemies raise their hands, as if to acknowledge that their pipe wrenches and machetes are no match for 30 caliber bullets) you best get away from the civilian.

Random survivors will need your help, too. They’ll be overcome by biters and you can save them or not. Sure, saving them nets money and weapon upgrades and other fancy shit, but I would save them because I wanted to. These were innocent people, just trying to make it, and the last thing they needed, especially with Antizin in shot supply, was to get a bite on the face by a zombie bastard.

Dying Light makes you want to do the right thing, regardless of reward.

Part of what makes you want to be a hero to these people, aside from the fact that, well, you have to in order to accomplish missions, are the remnants of society left behind: teddy bears left in kids’ bedrooms. Framed pictures of loved ones. Clothes strewn about. Corpses of people who couldn’t bear seeing their loved ones turned into zombies. Every little detail in the world matters. This place feels lived in. It feels organic, like it was once alive, even if now it is swarmed with legions of the undead. When you have to put an old man’s wife out of her zombie misery, it’s heart-wrenching to find a picture of the two of them on the wall in the small basement room she’s been kept alive in. The bowls littered with spilled food, the half-open book on the table from which he read to her while she lay dying, the fresh clothes he brought to her the last time he visited her before she turned into a zombie.

These moments make this seem like a world, not just a video game. Not just a random string of places and things meant to try and evoke emotion. I feel like I could walk around the city and learn everything about it just by taking in the sights and talking to people. Learning about their pasts. Their loved ones. How everything went to shit. And that is a true testament to this game and the amazing work put in by these developers. Is it perfect? No. Is the story lacking in parts? You bet. Does killing zombies get tiresome after awhile? Hellll nooo.

But if you’re looking for an experience, a world to embody and discover and question and investigate, this is as good as you’ll find in an open-world setting. Not since Bioshock Infinite have I enjoyed discovering the hidden details of a world so much. This isn’t as deep as a traditional RPG, but it’s not as shallow as most FPS games on the market. It’s not a modern-day classic, and it’s not better than the games I’ve already mentioned. But it’s worth exploring, especially if you like what zombies have to offer.

Dying Light is worth your time, so long as you take the time to really explore its intimate details and world. And if you like killing zombies and being a badass ninja. And if you don’t, then we’re not friends.

I said good day!