It is no secret Techland have a very up and down track record. That was never exemplified better than in Dead Island. It was a game that you could come to enjoy, but it had some really rough edges. The story was never truly engaging, the glitches were a plenty and nothing ever really felt quite as smooth as it should. There was a glimmer of a decent idea in there, it just seemed to get buried under dodgey execution. There is a good Techland, and a bad Techland and the two can show their face even in the same phase of play.
So which side of the coin showed up for Dying Light? I'm happy to say, the good one. In fact, this may be Techland's very best game to date, taking a lot of great concepts from Dead Island and sprucing them up quite a bit. This very much is a progression of that franchise, borrowing most of the good things and filling the rest with some real quality ideas. That isn't to say that the more janky sides of the developer stay hidden through out the experience, but there is certainly plenty of fun to be had here.
The real star is the play, and I'm surprised as all hell to say that. The game is predicated on a day night cycle that works very well. Day time, zombies shamble around as you expect zombies to do. It's easy to get overwhelmed but it is easy enough to avoid trouble if you think about it for a second. At night, the game is ludicrously hard. There are more zombies, including the huge over powered zombies that are faster than you and will make light work of your attempts to fell. If is a neat system and getting to a safe house after sunsets can be a stressful and tension shredding experience.
If you saw any of my coverage of Dying Light prior to release, you will know I had concerns about the game's two biggest mechanics, parkour and melee. In the past when in the first person perspective, both have turned me off significantly. It's tough to get a good understanding of your surroundings in the view point and both mechanics are basically predicated on that. However, through some clever slight of hand and repetition, Techland have made both accessible and easy to learn. They are miles away from perfect, but they are functional enough to support a 20-30 hour game and that is much better than I ever expected.
So yes, on top of being surprisingly good, the game is also surprisingly long. If you were a completionist, I could see you spending upwards of 50 hours in the game if you really wanted too. The good thing is, the game only seems to get better the longer you play it. The bad new though, is that is because Dying Light starts at quite a low bar.
During the early portions of the game, you're significantly underpowered and not in the a fun way. Weapons break easily, more than a few zombies can easily overpower you and the game has a ton of environmental situations that you just don't understand to get around. Will that roof collapse if I jump on it attracting several fast running zombies or not? Will this electrified fence trap get the zombies off my back or fry me? These are things you can only learn over time. Add on top of that that the story is pretty slow, with extended tutorial missions and frustrating character beats to begin.
While we are here let me talk about the weakest part of the game, the story. It is largely forgettable and at worse, it can be maddening in the early stages. Let me start by saying, I appreciate a game that is brave enough to take choice away from a player and tell its own directed narrative. The problem here though, is that early on, your protagonist Crane just makes deplorable choices for no real reason. It creates a real disconnect about who I am and how I thought I was bonding with other characters. This evens out towards the middle of the game, but it's only to a plateau of 'okay-ness', with the story never really excelling past its cliched story beats. There are some surprisingly good dialogue bits and some decent voice acting, but the fact is, the narrative only goes from boring to mediocre through out. At worse, it gets in the way of fun.
What is supporting it is largely fantastic though. The progression is smartly delivered, growing as you traverse and fight in real time. You'll get experience points for just hitting a zombie or climbing in real time. It's rewarding to just see points accumulate as you jump from ledge to ledge. These can then be spent on worthwhile skills. There is no intangible damage modifier you'll never quite see the effects of. For the most part, the skill points you spend will be on on new moves and tools entirely. This means that you will continue to upgrade the way you play, making fighting and traversal more fun the more you play.
And that is kind of where I fall on Dying Light. If you are looking to hit the ground running, having some good ol' gory zombie fun from the start, you might be disappointed. If you are willing to give it time to breathe, the smart support structures implemented into Dying Light could come to win you over. Once you finally get the knack of it and have a ton of skills available to you, this is a really fun game. It's constantly walking on a tight rope between decent and great. For me, it fell on the side of great. Eventually. There is a good deal of charm here that doesn't hurt either, but the great mechanics and skill trees are the real meat on this game's bones. It's just that sometimes it can just feel like the story and slow start are like a zombies threatening to consume the entire experience whole.
Oh, and one last point. I wanted to give a special shout out to Pawel Blaszczak. His electronic, old-school score is deeply interesting. The music makes some really inspired choices and is unusual in all the right ways. It blends old 80s sci-fi scores, with middle eastern vibes and action beats too. I really dig it.