Dying Light Review (Xbox One)
The Middle-Eastern city of Harran has been overrun by the walking, running, screaming, exploding dead. It's up to you to employ the mightiest parkour skills the world has ever seen if you want to help turn the apocalypse around in Dying Light.
As a skilled parkour practitioner, your character can run and climb over pretty much anything, gaining all sorts of new skills as he goes. Combat, free-running, and completing quests all grant separate types of experience points and skill points. While the idea of multiple experience pools is nothing new, Dying Light's execution has that perfect amount of carrot-on-a-stick mentality--keeping you playing just a little more to reach the next level, and much of that has to do with how rewarding most of the skills are. Level up your agility and you can flip over zombies or scramble to safety more quickly; increase your combat abilities and you can perform Assassin's Creed-style leaping kills, or whirlwind attacks which cut down groups of foes. These moves are fun to execute, satisfying to connect with, and open up the gameplay in a myriad of ways... if you can get the controls to cooperate.
Dying Light features an unusual control scheme, with jump/grab relegated to a shoulder button and dashing assigned to the left stick button. Though you can swap a few things around, like which shoulder buttons do what, there's not full control customizability. Since you can't assign jump to the A button the way nature intended, or customize the controls to your liking, the first few hours of play will probably see you fighting the controls more than the zombies themselves.
The early hours of Dying Light mostly pit you against the typical sluggish zombies, and as you progress through the game, new kinds of undead emerge from the woodwork. As the name implies, Dying Light features a dynamic day/night cycle, each of which comes with its own gameplay quirks. Daytime is dangerous, but survivable if you're careful. The night, on the other hand, turns this open-world game into an open-world stealth game, as aggressive, nocturnal Volatile zombies emerge and force you to move surreptitiously when possible, lest you meet a quick and gruesome demise. The day/night cycle is incredibly fun to play through, as the days give you plenty of time to explore, and the nights lead to increased rewards and the increased thrill of hauling ass back to a safe house as a pack of zombie nip at your heels. And you have the option of sleeping through as many days and nights as you want, so if you're in the mood to play it safe or get dangerous, you can.
Dying light isn't all parkour and punching zombies, though— there's a hackneyed story to go along with this post-apocalyptic action. During your time in Harran, you'll complete numerous side quests as well as a primary campaign. The story opens with a boring tutorial, and from there continues being a cliché and uninspiring tale of a generic military white man dropping in to save an ethnically diverse city from itself. The protagonist lacks personal agency and much of a personality, with his only saving grace being the nuanced performance from voice actor Roger Craig Smith.
Outside of the player character, most NPCs are mean, dull quest givers who spit out bland dialogue directing you from point A to point B. In a game with wide ethnic diversity amongst its secondary characters, it's kind of offensive that the player's only option is to play as a generic white male instead of a woman or person of color. Also, why are there so few women NPCs, and why are so many of the female zombies either in bras or swimsuit tops? The former shows a lack of thought from the developers, and the latter is just immature and crude; the shirtless zombies certainly aren't for the sake of titillation, as only Ed Gein could find them enticing. Dying Light's developers should have spent less time on their uneven multiplayer and more time crafting a unique story that engages more than the typical "gamer" demographic.
Speaking of the multiplayer, in addition to playing a human parkouring your way across Harran, there's also Be the Zombie mode, which has you as a mighty undead hunter chasing down human players. While it might sound fun, Be the Zombie crashes frequently and is heavily stacked in favor of the zombie, which is an almighty mix of Left 4 Dead's Hunter, Boomer, and Smoker. In our experience, Be the Zombie will probably serve as a distraction once or twice, but nothing more.
On the plus side, Dying Light's aesthetics are absolutely top-notch. The city of Harran is gorgeous even in its dilapidated state, with rich details to the many homes, lustrous spots of nature, incredible water, and some of the best lighting effects we’ve seen in a video game to date. The zombies themselves are gruesome and unique-looking, often reminiscent of Lucio Fulci's ‘Zombi’ films, which is probably what inspired the excellent synth-infused soundtrack.
Even when music isn't playing, there are so many great audio details going on to pull players into their experiences. The wind howls in your ears as you climb higher and higher, growing almost deafening as you try to keep your wibbly-wobbly balance atop a skyscraper. The undead let out anguished screams of hatred and pain, haunting you even when you can't see them. Once you're out in the city, away from the stupid humans and their stupid quests and guns, there's a really great world of horror for players to lose themselves in.
Dying Light's an ambitious, beautiful, surprising, and incredibly uneven game; its controls are a mess, the story's is immediately forgettable, and the more the game grabs your hand and tells you where to go, the more you'll want to shake it free and put the controller down. Dying Light's core gameplay is solid and offers a uniquely thrilling sort of fun, but for every moment you spend having a good time, you'll spend just as many frustrated by its shortcomings.
This review was based on a purchased copy of Dying Light for the Xbox One.