Hiroo Onoda was an Imperial Japanese Army Intelligence Officer in World War II. He arrived in the Philippines, on Lubang Island, days before the Allies invaded. With the Japanese forces routed, Onoda and a few men under his command took to the hills to wage guerrilla warfare. One by one they would be killed until only Onoda remained. He would not surrender for thirty years. He spent three decades hiding in holes and keeping constantly on the move to evade capture. He lived off the land and riddled the jungle with secret caches of ammunition and supplies. The few bullets he had he kept inside glass bottles to keep them from rusting.

Alone, outnumbered, and on hostile ground. That is the core experience of Dying Light. For the most part other reviews of the game ignore this. They follow pretty standard guidelines of breaking down the gameplay, the story and whether the game’s worth your time and money. I want us to look at the bigger picture. Let’s not get bogged down in the particulars, I want you to think about what this game means in the long run.

So, quickly, let’s check a few boxes and then get into the real meat of this thing. The Parkour: excellent. The Combat: superb. The Story: forgettable. The Gunplay: refreshing. The Crafting: functional. The Multiplayer: amusing. The Graphics: gorgeous. The Skill Tree: elegant. The Violence: beautifully excessive. Is Dying Light worth your money? Yes. Yes, it very much deserves it.

Dropped into the urban jungle of Harran it’s you versus the world. Literally. From start to finish you’re beset on all sides by danger and only your wits can save you. You’ll climb, fight, craft and hide the whole way through the game’s 50+ hours. But like the game’s protagonist, Kyle Crane, a spy for a shadowy government entity, there’s an aura of mystery surrounding the game’s true identity.

Techland is the studio that made Dead Island. In interviews they’ve said they had so many ideas for another game they had to stick with the undead and take one more crack at their rotting skulls. Techland’s history is especially relevant to understanding Dying Light. I’m sure by now we’ve all seen this:

dead-island

The Dead Island announce trailer was made by Axis Animation independent of Techland (Axis also did Dying Light’s CG trailer as well as Dead Island 2’s). The trailer would be both a blessing and a curse. Here’ s Marciej Binkowski, a Techland Developer, talking to prankster101.com:

I mean the guys at Axis Animation did absolutely amazing, stunning work.  You know that trailer had a very, very specific role to play.  I know that people got disappointed, you know like the game was actually different, but the trailer did a job.  The job was to get attention to a game that nobody knew existed.  It did tremendously good, because it ended up showing up in the mainstream media.  We were no longer a hardcore gamer thing, we were like a global phenomenon, so good job.

The double edge cut deep. Yes, Techland was now on the map but burdened by expectations. Dead Island’s resulting missteps seemed painfully obvious (e.g. the epic corniness that is characters like Sam B). It seemed to prove the old adage that there’s no chance at second impressions. Dead Island would sell 5 million units but to this day Techland is living down the moment their star appeared on the horizon. Dying Light, as a result, struggles under that weight.

A hardcore survival simulator this is not. But the nagging feeling that there’s another game hidden within this one, hiding just beneath the surface, demands attention. You may find you feel it too as you walk along an abandoned highway, past empty cars and shambling forms. In the neon blue glow of your safe-houses and their UV lights. Or in the bodies that lie at your feet.

The engine of the gameplay runs like a dream. The traversal, the combat; it’s all raw, fast and visceral. As you level up you slowly become the master of your environment and the fear that you first felt becomes something else. By the end you become a kind of adrenaline junkie, looking for that next thrill. At first I avoided going out at night but after a while I couldn’t wait for the sun to go down. I’d go out looking for trouble to see if I could get myself out of it.

The story is like bad gasoline in the gameplay’s engine. This is not entirely Techland’s fault. Pitching a brand new IP to the mainstream means playing it safe and no doubt publisher Warner Brothers had a thing or two to say about it. It’s a sad fact that success today is measured in sales so no doubt at this very moment a publisher somewhere is telling a developer “how can we make this more like Call of Duty?”

DL 1

Freedom is what makes Dying Light great, but it needs more of it.

That games are going the way of Hollywood is a very bad sign. Publishers prefer the charted courses and known waters of previous success. But there’s a deeper ocean out there, one developers want to explore. It wouldn’t have been difficult to put meaningful action into Dying Light. It would have been impossible to assure publishers the game would sell.

So if you stripped out the fetch quests, the lackluster afterthought of the story, and droll gags what would you have left? You’d have something like a survival simulator but not quite. If you as the player took on the challenge of the city itself, to conquer it block by block, then you’d really have something here. In the vision shimmering below the game’s surface you’re a virtual Hiroo Onoda surviving in a concrete jungle.

Recruit survivors, amass supplies, build up your defenses. These elements would have been a dynamic way to engage players. If Dying Light had taken a few nods from the excellent State of Decay I have no doubt the game would have been a landmark achievement.

But the engine’s been limited to only so much horsepower. What we ultimate get only hints at these deeper experiences. Like, for instance, shoving a gun into a bandit’s face. When was the last time you played a game where someone put their hands up? That you can shoot them anyway is a snapshot of what this game could have been.

When you vote with your wallet for a game the devs can’t really tell what they got right or wrong. There’s no real accurate barometer to tally the thoughts and feelings of millions of people playing your game. What can be done however is to make it clear that we as consumers demand that they get the freedom they need to go further and deeper. This will ensure great games continue to be made. Great ones like Dying Light.

Dying Light Review
Dying Light is an incredible leap forward from Dead Island. Developer Techland has clearly matured and Dying Light is a strong sign of progress. However, the game feels as if it reaches only half its true potential. The half it does achieve is phenomenal.
Pros
  • Fantastic parkour, combat and gunplay
  • Beauitful enviornments and urban depth
  • A big step in the right direction for future games
Cons
  • Bland, forgetable story
  • fetch quests
  • If only you could work for yourself
9Overall Score
Reader Rating: (4 Votes)
9.7

About The Author

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Staff Writer

Alex is from New York, is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and once played a Call of Duty Deathmatch against himself.