Dying Light suffers from a disease, and it’s not the same one that afflicts the shuffling zombies walking the streets of Harran in the game. It’s the disease that tells developers that a game can’t just have one good solid idea—milked for all that it’s creatively worth. It’s a disease that reduces ideas and concepts and character into a bland paste just labeled Content, to be applied wherever one thinks players’ attention spans might give out.
Dying Light has a solid, enthralling core of a concept for a video game: A government agent, Crane, gets thrown into a third-world city somewhere in the Middle East, quarantined due to a zombie virus infection, with the intent of assisting disparate factions in finding out why they haven’t been getting the air-dropped humanitarian aid they desperately need until a cure can be found. The factions employ parkour runners as a way of getting messages and supplies through the shambling hordes, and players will clear out small areas of the city to create new safe zones, figure out ways to survive after sundown, when terrifying super-zombie monstrosities walk the streets, and craft new survival tools. There’s still some leeway for the player to determine what kind of experience they have, since the leveling system rewards XP depending on how you play. Folks who craft, barter, and use the environment to entrap, ensnare, and endure gain Survival XP. Free-runners earn points toward Agility. Folks who take the time to eliminate zombies with extreme prejudice earn points toward Power. There isn’t really a wrong way to survive the brutal days and nights here, but the star of the show here is, really, the parkour.
Inevitably, there are comparisons to Mirror’s Edge to be made, and not all for the better considering how much faster and scrappier that game plays. Speed and agility is earned, and slowly, in Dying Light. At the player’s lowest level, free-running is slow, clunky, and occasionally frustrating. At the highest level, it never quite reaches the level of fluidity one might hope, and oftentimes need, but it’s certainly got the right spirit. A typical encounter might involve Crane running up on a zombie, sliding and breaking its legs in the process, getting back up fast enough to gruesomely finish the job with a lead pipe, before scrambling up the side of the nearest building to reach higher ground. Even as bulky as Crane sometimes feels, that pulse-raising feeling of running for one’s life with style is still an experience we’ve seen so little of in games that it still comes off as fresh.
It also helps that Harran’s strange, fragmented mish-mash of cultures, accents, and ethnicities also feels new. Despite Crane being Yet Another Non-Descript White Guy Hero, he’s surrounded on all sides by interesting, layered characters, and fascinating, high-rising locales laid just barely to waste, and a fantastic day/night/weather system that altogether gives us one of the better examples of world-building in recent memory.
Dying Light’s problem is that it also brings everything else that comes with open-world games with it, and it’s a poor, uninteresting fit with how strong the free-running is. Crane’s actual quest turns out to be the pursuit of a villain named Suleiman, who’s holding important research about the zombie virus hostage, and much of what follows is Crane running around doing unimaginative fetch quests and scavenging while watching Suleiman run the Far Cry exotic-despot playbook to the letter. Well-written fetch quests might have even gotten a pass, but ultimately, everyone outside of the main crews follows the “do this for me for this piece of unnecessary information” model that feels like busywork instead of following the breadcrumbs of an interesting story. Crane’s own story doesn’t even go anywhere particularly interesting, and everything positive about the start gets leeched away the more the interesting characters end up dying off.
Instead, all the energy that should’ve gone into giving players a good quality reason to want to survive in Harran went toward an uninvolving multiplayer, where four Cranes can run around, providing distractions, coordinating attacks to free up safe houses, and playing games of cat and mouse where a second player can take the role of one of the super-zombies and hunt you down at night for big gains in XP. It’s all functional, but ultimately, not good enough to want to go back to it after trying it once.
Despite all this, grudgingly, it must be admitted that the game is fun. It’s the kind of fun the game offers that disappoints. It’s not the joy of a particularly amazing mechanic allowing the player to perform insane feats of acrobatics, or impressively escaping overwhelming odds. It’s the pleasantry of just having Content, of having a wide range of Stuff To Do, while none of it is as good as it could and should be, and this artificial and unnecessary smothering of Dying Light’s best ideas is the real disease we need someone to cure.