18 February, 2015

Review - Dying Light, Shining In Places

As the game started and I parachuted down into the streets of Haran, I am quickly thrown into the action being bitten by an infected and attacked by Rais’ thugs. Thanks to the quick intervention of Jade and Amir, I am able to escape and survive, though Amir is not so lucky.

Dying Light

Amir is mourned for about 5 minutes and then the game moves on. Near the end he is briefly mentioned but by this point I had forgotten who he even was. This is one of the problems that plagues the story; forgettable characters. The game introduces many characters at the start, but fails to engage the player with them and their struggles. These characters talk through their lines with little emotion and with poor animation. In the cutscenes, it’s difficult to understand the emotions the game is attempting to portray. There are small glimpses, small moments that really do suck you into the bleak world of Harran and the plight that has struck the city. However, these moments are brushed over and the game resorts back to bland voice acting and poor facial expression.

Which is a shame, because Harran is such a beautiful and diverse city. The slums; your home for the first half of the game, is a well-designed shanty town that sits under a large motorway. Small fishing villages litter the coast, with a large train station on the other side of the map. It’s a large area to explore and I was pleasantly surprised to see there was another full sized map to explore in the Old Town. This second area is just as large and as visually pleasing as the first. This is a refreshing change, because the larger buildings and more open streets led me to a different style of play. I found myself spending more time on the streets in the second half, as I felt more confident with my weapons and with larger areas, and safer with more room to manoeuvre.

Dying Light eases you nicely into its parkour system. At first I did find the system disorientating as I clumsily navigated the streets, awkwardly mistiming jumps and bumping into walls. Though in time, I began to travel with ease, leaping and climbing high above the streets below, which is required at the start of the game. The stamina system, used in Techland’s previous games, returns and is agonizingly quick to deplete, for a good chunk of the game. The sheer number of zombies, or biters, the game throws at you is phenomenal and it is very easy to get overwhelmed. I would find myself dropping down to dispose of one or two stragglers and suddenly be surrounded, desperately climbing onto the closest car or building I could find.

The game splits your progression into three categories; Agility, Strength and Survivor. As the names suggest Agility and Strength are tied to parkour and combat respectively, giving you abilities and perks that help in those areas. While Survival is tied to missions and night time traversal. I found my strength lagging behind due to the difficulty of fighting, forcing me to place myself in dangerous positions just to gain a bit of XP. The combat is very basic, with a few variations of swinging your weapon and a kicking to distance yourself from your foes. Only being able to swing your weapon three or four times before having to wait for your stamina to refill was frustrating, especially as my weapons did very meagre damage. As my weapons increased in damage, I found myself being limited by a new factor, durability. All weapons, apart from guns which I will get into later, are limited by how many times they can be used before being repaired and even then, have a certain number of possible repairs, the most common being three. While perks obtainable later in the game can increase durability and give you a 50% chance to not use a repair, I found myself at some points very reluctant to use my “good” weapons out of fear of not having them in more dangerous situations.

This became even more apparent with the use of upgrades. Weapons, apart from firearms, can be upgraded with elemental abilities, such as; fire, electricity, poison, and other effects. While extremely useful, I felt reluctant to use a weapon which I had used my limited resources on to upgrade, because it becomes useless later on. The game does have a dismantle ability but this only gives one metal part which, certainly in my play through, was a poor and small reconciliation for what goes  into a weapon. I came across my first gun quite early in the game and was excited to have a strong ranged weapon to gleefully kill my enemies from afar. I soon found out however, that guns come with quite a strong drawback. The loud sounds emitted attracted the more dangerous infected, in particular the Virals who have no trouble keeping up in most basic sprinting and parkour. Instead, I used guns to fight the human enemies of the game who, for the most part, are the henchmen of the main
antagonist, Rais. Initially, I largely avoided these fights, as I grew in levels and strength, I was more willing to attack. The problem with these fights is that they are able to block melee hits, something I was unable to do at all. I was quite surprised to see that the only means I had to block an attack was using a shield, which has to be unlocked through the Survival tree. Without that all I could do was dodge which did not always get me away from danger. These fights were frustrating, as I desperately tried to get a few hits to land, they easily parried my attacks and returned their own. Firearms seemed to be the most practical way to deal with them, even with the onslaught of zombies.

As I found myself more capable of bypassing large hordes and dealing with the bandits, I became more confident, but all of that was tossed aside when I encountered my first night. This mode is gut wrenchingly terrifying, lighting is all but gone, only a small minimap and your “Survivor Sense” can be used to see the evils lurking in the dark safely. You're equipped with a torch but I found myself very reluctant to use it, especially in my first few nights. Night-time is when the deadliest of Harran’s enemies come out. The Volatiles are terrifying, high-health monstrosities that will kill you again and again if you're not careful (even now when I’ve finished the game, I don’t dare fight them). Your only tool against these enemies is your UV torch and flares which will momentarily “stun” them and allow you to get away.

The story frustrated me in this sense, because early on, it talks so much about not going out at night and staying safe, even reminding you late in the game when it’s getting dark, yet very early on giving you missions you have to complete at night. Collect X at night, or go *here* at night. Completing these missions was incredibly fun, I tried to find the fastest and safest way to my objective, jumping from safehouse to safehouse. But it’s a situation I found too many times in the game; the story seemed to take away, or be in conflict with gameplay. I’d be left confused as to why I was doing what I was, or why characters were behaving as they were. Some characters just seemed to drop out of the game without no explanation, as if they had served their purpose and were no longer needed. Dropping into the game at the start you are bitten, but this is seemingly forgotten and only used in scripted events as no more than a little reminder, yet other characters seemingly change within minutes of infection. What could have served as a good plot point and even an interesting game element is pushed to the side, which is what a lot of the story feels like, a side note to push the gameplay along.

Aside from the story (and its abysmal ending leaving more questions than answered), I enjoyed my time in Harran. I gleefully traversed the days killing zombies with ease and completing the large array of side quests, while spending my nights fleeing in terror from my deadly pursuers, or crawling around trying not to be spotted. Despite the frustrating fights against bandits that the game funnels you into, Harran is such a wonderfully crafted place, with the potential to have great characters and story. Unfortunately, while the base was created, the story that was built atop is shabby and full of holes, bringing the game down with it.

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