The zombie survival genre seems to be here to stay with big releases like Dead Rising 3, Dying Light and soon the anticipated continuation of the Dead Island series. But can this genre survive? How many electric machetes and flaming baseball bats can you make before it all blends together? I’m going to highlight what I think makes Dying Light stand apart, where it falls short, and how this genre can improve itself.
What does Dying Light get right?
For starters, as you might gather by the name, the time dynamic is a great twist on a zombie survival game. In other zombie games, things progress and get tougher, but for the most part you get a feel for the rhythm and pace of the game and settle in to the level of alertness required for moving around. The flow of Dying Light, however, is regularly under the threat of the coming night. Once the sun sets you have the danger of lack of visibility, stronger and more aggressive zombies, and the “night only” volatile zombies will show up anytime you make some noise or commotion. Earlier in the game the intensity and challenge of the night will motivate some players to simply avoid it. Thankfully the pace of the game picks up and the weapons and movement improve enough that you should quickly enjoy moving through the night as long as you are careful or have some friends with you. My other favorite thing about playing at night is when it storms. If you thought the game was intense, just wait until there is no moon light and trees are blowing in the wind with amazing lightning flashes that briefly illuminate an enormous crowd of zombies blocking your way. This is when the game shines, and really puts its best foot forward. It is visually stunning, gritty, and reasonably scary. Unfortunately, too much of your time is spent bogged down in what I consider to be tired clichés and unnecessary crafting mechanics.
What does Dying Light get wrong?
To be clear, I’ve enjoyed the game and would recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed a zombie genre video game up to this point. But these games won’t progress until they shed some of the following unnecessary things. For starters, the “pick up everything” dynamic is just tiresome and needless. It makes you shift gears so unnaturally when you slug it out and slice through zombies in a beautiful slow motion bloody gory mess to then have to tediously loot hundreds of bodies and pick up neat little cocaine-bag-looking packs of zombie meat left behind. The problem is you end up feeling pulled out of this graphically brilliant game by having to constantly stop and do what amounts to tying your shoes thousands of times. And then you are apparently carrying hundreds of bags of coffee, along with an insane amount of other random items, and just sell them in a rote repetitious mechanic of generating money that you apparently still need in a zombie apocalypse to buy sickles, shotguns, and swords. Again, these types of mechanics just unnecessarily and continuously pull the player out of the awesome world the game devs have designed. Also, I believe the zombie genre needs to leave behind the annoying flat tire of weapon durability. Instead of weapons being exciting and a crafting mechanic that is fun, weapons just become a means to an end, constantly wearing out, only able to be repaired so many times, so all the mods and materials are turned into fodder. Some may disagree with me on this, but it ends up making the weapons very un-special as you keep making and throwing them out. If I had to slowly build up and find the right pieces to make an electric sickle, I would be thrilled to finally have it, especially if it’s stronger and better than my current weapon. So the repetition of picking up, selling, and using materials just untethers the gamer from the experience by constantly putting them into the very mechanics of the game. Most of this would be easy to overlook if not for two other significant and ground level annoyances…
First, the co-op mode is a fantastic and fun filled blast, but the mission tracking makes absolutely zero sense. The first day my friends and I played we took a decent chunk out of the story only to find that our own games had not progressed at all, just the host did. This, to me, is a huge misstep in a game that regularly promoted its 4 player co-op mode. Who wants to play 2 hours with their friends only to turn around and have none of that progress count in their game? The silver lining here is that you still get XP for doing the already completed campaign missions in your game. But when I have to play by myself, I end up feeling trapped by the monotony of replaying all the parts that we have already done, and the story and intensity start to have less punch. The guy who hosted our first couple of games is also stuck as he doesn’t want to advance the story without us. At the very least you should have the option of advancing your story missions by syncing with the host since most players are probably hooking up with the same people for co-op sessions anyway.
The second repeated frustration I have is the failure rate of the climbing mechanic when you are using the grappling hook. This is another major problem because the climbing and parkour movement is foundational to the entire game and experience. I actually end up taking far more damage and die inordinately more from falling damage and failing to grab a ledge than anything else. And these aren’t times where I’m making reckless or rushed jumps. Nobody likes dying over and over in annoying ways, and this irritation is compounded by the fact that you lose experience points for dying. Moving around, fighting, and surviving is a constant source of XP that levels you up, so losing large chunks of XP isn’t that big of a deal, but it just adds insult to injury as you fall like a clumsy lemming to your death for the twentieth time.
Overall the game delivers on its promises with solid levels of intensity and scariness as you hack and run your way through crowds of zombies and rooftops with your friends. I just hope that the zombie survival genre starts to progress past tired mechanics of repetitive looting and crafting that hinder and pull away from an otherwise fun and engrossing experience.