The first memorable thing that happens in Dying Light, for me, is that in this fictional universe the best idea a humanitarian group had for distributing lifesaving medication and supplies, is a supply drop in the middle of Haran.
Let that sink in for little while; the best way a humanitarian organization thought of to distribute to endangered civilians in a zombie infected, quarantined city that has fallen to anarchy and psychopathic warlords, is to drop a freaking supply box in the middle of the city. I’m calling that out not because it is more insane than everything else that happened in any video game before it; I’m calling it out because it’s a perfect starting point in analyzing the many, varying aspects Dying Light. In my opinion, Dying Light is a game that has many features and neat ideas that it neither executes perfectly nor poorly on; mostly it executes on these concepts really well-with some exceptions that are just adequate-however they are never fully realized, which is why I really like this game but don’t love it.
Dying Light is a game filled with neat concepts from both a narrative and a gameplay perspective. Take for example the premise of the story: You’re Crane, a mercenary dropped in Haran, in order to find and collect an incomplete formula for a cure, that, in its current state, harms the infected rather than helping them. You get infected with the virus and thus have to make friends with a local group of survivors taking residence in a huge skyscraper called “The Tower” and begin to progress your mission while helping those in need alongside. In other words, the story is your “run of the mill” undercover cop story but instead of infiltrating gangs or drug cartels, you infiltrate a zombie infested city; a quite different approach in story than most other zombie games and an inherently more interesting one due to the over-saturation of the genre. Furthermore, the game takes place in the fictional city of Haran which during the zombie crisis was hosting the Global Athletics Games-the game’s version of the Olympic Games- thus you have multiple tourists and locals in this post-infection city.
With a premise that is as promising as this, it is undoubtedly the biggest disappointment of the game, for me, that the game does mostly nothing with it; for every narrative problem the characters have to deal with and with all the themes that could be explored or the fascinating story and characters the premise could allow them to create and present us with, the narrative takes one disappointing and frustrating decision after the other, resulting in a very boring and cliché filled main storyline, some pretty goofy and underdeveloped side stories; the only positive exceptions to the disappointing narrative are the random NPC encounters that tell short but impactful stories such as one man who originated from the slums of Haran remembering the promise of the urban renewal process which was supposed to help the Slums, that ended up only benefited the rich and in a very grim tone details how he saw a rich man mauled by someone he knew who had just turned and very happily points to the fact that the rich die as fast as everyone else. With side stories that are as impactful and interesting as this random encounter, it is a shame that all the main storyline actually accomplishes is to make you actively dislike Crane and not care about the very bland supporting cast of characters, however at the same time the random encounters are as memorable and impactful, in my opinion, as any open world game story from any other game, if not more.
It’s this duality that fascinates me about Dying Light; how Techland nail most of the targets that they set their sights on, but it is in those same targets that the problems of the game are rooted in, not only in narrative, but in gameplay terms as well. Take for example the much lauded parkour mechanic of the game: In most cases you just look to where you want to go, while you run and jump accordingly to reach that place. The system works and it is by far, the best first person parkour system I’ve experienced; although the list is not very long. However, it does not work all the time; sometimes you’re just doing jumping jacks in front of a store while a zombie is trying to see what your internal organs taste like. This is not to say that every traversal system needs to be working under every condition for every player to be considered a success, however when you have a horde of zombies coming after you and you survive countless times because the mechanics worked the way you expect them to; when they don’t you feel cheated and that death feels more sour and unearned.
This is the case with most systems that interact with each other in the game, like for example the various systems at work in the open world: You have a day/night cycle which bring into play different considerations and mechanics depending on the time, a level up system that quantifies every action the player does with an xp reward in the corresponding category (e.g. jump on a van, get xp in the agility tree; kill a zombie, get xp in the power tree), a crafting and collecting resources system that includes looting cases-which you sometimes need to unlock with the familiar mini-game- around the world (with materials and weapons) as well as collecting herbs and looting dead zombies to craft special and goofy-looking weapons, ways to distract zombies and skill enhancing items (such as potions that make you faster for a limited amount of time) as well as healing items. All of these in a world that is filled with infinitely respawning zombies, story and side missions, random encounters with NPCs in danger or NPCs that tell you a story and the aforementioned supply drops.
All of these systems are what makes Dying Light’s open world of Haran so memorable; start a mission that requires you to travel all the way across the map and along the way you may come across survivors overrun by zombies and help them out, a case containing a powerful new weapon, gather some herbs that you can use to craft a healing item, complete a side mission you started beforehand and then reach your destination. However, all of these systems are easily exploitable and the game actively rewards you for exploiting them, thus making your time in the open world a diminishing returns deal; For example, the game makes an interesting alteration in the character progression. Most games start the character weak and then build up their survivability, but Dying Light starts the character at fragile and every level gained helps you get stronger. The difference here is that the starting hours of Dying Light revolves around you understanding that you can’t mess with zombies from the get go and that you have to use the parkour system, the environment and your wits to survive, until you get powerful enough to start taking on the hordes of zombies thrown at you. Those opening hours are, in my opinion, the best hours of the game; every action matters, every miscalculation could be (and usually is) deadly, every resource is vital, every weapon that is slightly better than the one you have is a god-sent tool, every encounter survived is a victory; while every encounter you fail is a valuable lesson, every spike trap/oil pool is an opportunity to get rid of more zombies and gain more resources, if you have the wit to use them to your advantage.
However all of these fantastic elements turn to routine once you get stronger or learn how to exploit the system to survive and the game doesn’t evolve enough to keep these elements fresh or replace them with something interesting. For example, it took me about 3 hours to realize that if I found a relatively isolated area with a horde of zombies nearby, I could just stand above them and throw molotovs at them until they died, then drop down and collect all the loot they drop, before anymore arrived, which was made a lot easier once I realized that moving out of view of the bodies would turn them into packages which are picked up instantly, instead of spending a few seconds searching them. Besides the resources this provides, this also provides a ton of power xp, which meant I was better able to defend myself out in the wild, making the game less about surviving against the odds and more about killing those odds with an electrified police baton; there were times where I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of zombies and died, but those times came less frequently as I progressed which made the game less about wits and surviving, and more about not getting cocky. This duality goes for almost every aspect of the game; the day/night cycle where in the day less dangerous zombies are around, normal xp is earned and each time you die you lose xp from your survival rank, but in the night the really scary and dangerous zombies come out to hunt, but you are rewarded for doing stuff at night by double agility/power xp and a survivor xp gain if you do certain staff at night (e.g. surviving the night without dying, or evading a chase etc.); the game also does a fantastic job at portraying the nighttime as something to be feared and worried about, which I constantly did.
But then I realized that you don’t lose xp when you die at night (thus there is no penalty for failing and no actual risk besides that of soiled underwear the first time you are chased) and once I got some ranged combat options (especially the crossbow) then the game is again easily exploited; it just becomes a matter of finding the right spot to lure zombies and attack them from range so you can get power xp, as well as running in circles around a safe zone to get agility and if a Volatile-the hunter zombies that roam Haran at night- shows up, get back to safety. Finally, there is the open world itself; a town filled with objectives that either advance the story or help the player to progress and increase their survivability as well as random encounters, in an attempt to make the world feel busier, more alive and more dynamic; and it succeeds. The first time I set a waypoint that was across the map, I felt a bit of dread-considering how many zombies I would encounter-but also a bit of boredom, as I had to spent quite a while to traverse the world and reach my destination. But the addition of random encounters and, specifically, the supply drops that are signaled by the loud sound of an airplane flying just above the city, make the journey unpredictable, always changing and never the same. In the first few hours this was one of the best aspects of the open world, as there was a genuine risk-reward system in place; do you head towards the direction of a civilian shouting and save them in order to receive a reward and a hefty survivor xp, but risk losing durability on your weapons, your healing items or if you are killed survivor xp? Or do you stick to your route and let them be? However, as the game progresses and you get more powerful, even though the game reactively increases the challenge, the risk-reward system gets increasingly diminished.
The xp gains are not high enough and the weapon/healing considerations just don’t exist as you have so many weapons and resources that you don’t really care about those items like before; then there is the supply drop system. Each time a supply crate drops the game adds a marker on your mini-map and if you head there you will find other survivors guarding it; should you succeed in defeating them and claiming the resources, you can bring those valuable resources back to quartermasters and receive a nice survivor xp reward. Bringing supply crates to survivors makes narrative sense (although the story never reflects that) but the rewards are not worth it after a while. It is also incredibly distracting; this could be more of a critique aimed at how I play games, but whenever a flashing blue dot appeared on my mini-map, I just had to check it out, which resulted in me being only 22% in story completion and being in the final stages of all 3 ranks, which in turn resulted in me losing all sense of challenge or narrative cohesion with how my character is portrayed and what he actually is; there were many story beats where Crane was warned of a high risk situation in the story, but in reality I had dealt with such situations frequently.
Thus I circle back to a supply drop in the middle of Harran and the perfect analogy of what Dying Light is. An interesting story premise and narrative ideas that are immediately dropped in pursuit of a better gameplay experience which in most cases delivers and remains interesting and varied enough until the end; but only if you allow it to. If you look past the obvious exploits that can unbalance your experience, if you explore the world and grind for loot, resources and xp and move on when the game wants you to, then the game shines and works as intended. I didn’t do those things and had a lesser experience than the one I could have, had I followed those steps and went with the flow of the game. Just like the supply drop concept; an interesting narrative device that explains how the antagonist became so powerful in the first place in the post-apocalyptic city of Harran, which can also be seen as a critique of philanthropic organizations dropping their aid to those in need and then leaving them to fight it out between them; who will win and who actually benefits from short term aid that doesn’t meaningfully change the socio-economic situations that keep the people trapped in those situations?
Since the game asks none of these questions or explores any such themes, if you stop and think about it, it doesn’t make any sense; but if you accept it then you get the experience the developers intended. Same thing with gameplay; if you stop and think about it, it is easily exploitable after the first few hours and can be easily unbalanced and make the progression of the game a bit too easy, but if you don’t then you will get a fluent progression system, a gameplay loop that is as satisfying as it is surprising, perfectly complemented by one of the best skill trees in recent memory. So, in my opinion, Dying Light is an imperfect and intriguing tale of narrative and gameplay designs that were created to be enjoyed by interacting with them in a very specific way and anything besides that starts to reveal the cracks in a very beautiful glass painting. But that painting is so good that even if you see the cracks it is still worth it.