Thursday, March 26, 2015

A GIFfy REVIEW - Dying Light.

Polish team Techland have said that their ambition for Dying Light was to produce the studio's first triple-A game.  For fifteen years, the developer has slaved away on a lot of forgettable titles, but they struck upon something, in 2011, with Dead Island.  Specifically, they created a game with exceptional first-person melee Vs. zombie combat, and its fun factor is nothing less than profound.

They beat the same drum (to similarly successful effect) with 2013's follow-up, Riptide, but by then Techland were feeling the bootheel of publisher Deep Silver upon their collective throats.  Deep Silver own the Dead Island property, and would have been content to squeeze every last drop from that stone - but Techland had other plans.

They created their own, new intellectual property which took what the studio did best - first-person open-world zombie bludgeoning - and combined it with that wonderful first-person free running we all loved to death in Mirror's Edge (2008), without letting it be quite so finicky.  It's still open-world.  It's still a co-op action-RPG with a very real sense of progression, but unlike the Dead Island titles, it is not harried by bugs, mid-tier production values or a story you'll be itching to skip.

This is, indeed, Techland's first triple-A game.  It is the deadly, elegant love child of Dead Island and Mirror's Edge.  Dying Light is

It's not a game that lives up to its promise the first time you pick up the controller. You're dropped into the besieged city of Harran with a sliver of a stamina meter and little in the way of combat and platforming mechanics.  You can run, you can jump, you can climb, and you can swing a pathetic weapon - but you'll find yourself tired out just taking a single zed down and oh my God there's three more behind it eek!

And you run, boy.  You run.  You get to know its platforming mechanics well - you get to know the feel of it - and while you could pull some crazy hairpin wall-running stuff in Mirror's Edge, what Dying Light lacks in mad depth it more than makes up for in breezy player expression.

The first lesson is anything in the world that looks climbable is climbable.

You have total freedom of movement at almost any time, and are soon flying across the city's slums in some of the best platforming since inFamous 2.

It avoids the limp, meaningless auto-parkour of Assassin's Creed.  Every leap between rooftops, every fall broken with a lifesaving roll, every obstacle slid under is chosen by the player's press of a button - it's meaningfully under your full control - and it feels wonderful, in the hand.  The city of Harran is your sprawling jungle gym, and Dying Light becomes one of those lovely titles you play just for the very sake of play.  You lift a treasured, vicious weapon, point your sights to the horizon and set about flowing over the scenery as quickly and elegantly as possible, to discover what trouble you can get in to today.

You'll come across random encounters, here - other friendly survivors being attacked by zombies or the thugs of the local warlord, or precious humanitarian aid supplies that can be returned to the local quartermaster.  You'll want to get involved, not just because each life saved, enemy foiled and care package grabbed nets you a huge experience boost (and thus, more powerful skills), but because it's always fun to come flying off a building to take out your chosen target in one beautiful strike.

Imagine an air assassination from Assassin's Creed in first person, without any of the auto-pilot.  You see a problem on your minimap, and pivot towards it.  You tap R1 and go soaring off the roof, slightly adjusting your course mid-flight to line things up and snap down the right trigger at just the right moment to execute a drop attack.  You yank the sword out of its chest, stand, and accept the money the civilian offers in return for your efforts, along with the experience.

And then you're off!

The slums of Harran - all claustrophobic alleys and shanty towns - feel comfortable and easy-going. Few rooftops are more than two storeys worth of climbing above you, and there are no blind alleys (though it's a wonderful sprawl - beaches and caves, rail yards and highway overpasses).  Things become far more dangerous - more interesting, and even more fun - when the game's second half dumps you into Old Town, an upper-class neighbourhood of taller buildings and huge, open plazas thick with the undead.  Buildings that'll kill you, if you fall off them unintentionally - plazas that are death traps, if you aren't entirely sure of what you're doing.

The first time you stumble your way through Old Town, you may want to turn around and get right back to the easy-going Slums, but it is here that Dying Light keeps its promise, and becomes the game you and Techland want it to be.

In the slums you run.  In Old Town, you fly.

The fact that Techland pulled this off is an accomplishment that cannot be overstated.  I'm of the opinion that the platformer is the single funnest genre of video game in existence - any game that lets you enjoyably run and jump between one platform and another, slightly higher platform is a beautiful thing.  Monkeying around in inFamous 2, Mark of the Ninja, Rayman Origins or Gravity Rush tends to be the most purely fun game experience in any given year, and it is here that Dying Light actually bests Mirror's Edge.

Moving around its world is just more fun.  It's less gritty, but it's smooth and supple and still requires your complete attention.  It's wonderfully fun, and then... you also get Techland's patented, phenomenal first-person combat in the same game.

Techland's patented, phenomenal first-person combat, it's worth noting, produced some of the funnest games of the past decade, without the benefit of a meaningful jump button.

"It is perhaps best described as the Yin to Bethesda's Yang. One accepts the middling combat of Oblivion and Fallout because the world, its narrative and your effect on it are so compelling. Here, one shrugs and accepts the amateurish narrative because it is the thing that permits you to wander off into its world and get in awesome fights with zombies - and these fights are awesome.

Lose your head and they are a frantic, panicked affair - desperately swinging your bludgeon at a swarm of grasping, cold and rotting hands that will tear you limb from limb in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Keep your cool and you are a grim reaper of dead souls."
-from the Dead Island review-
It's simultaneously larger and faster than Dead Island combat - your enemies have greater reach, and you have far greater abilities to skirt out of the way and zip back in to strike.  At first, it feels like your standard (classic) kick doesn't give you nearly enough of a stun when you smack an enemy in the face with your heel, but it's tuned precisely to what Dying Light requires - and it requires you to be quick like a little ninja bunny.

You find that kicking an enemy in the face in fact gives you a very generous window of time - enough, for example, to slip behind them and perform a stealth kill.

I don't want to belabour the point of Techland's combat - this is what the studio does best, and they're second to none at it - but again, it doesn't reveal itself to be quite so spectacular until after the game's opening hours, when you've invested a bit in your upgrade trees and have become so comfortable with its controls and your repertoire that you're chopping dudes out of thin air, lopping off heads without looking, tossing enemies to the ground in one quick move and nonchalantly kicking them in the face so hard their skull explodes.  When you're soaring between rooftops to transition into a drop-kick that sends your target flying.  When a zombie comes and you pull a sweet judo move on him, and use his momentum to throw him off a bridge (rarrrrrrrr sploosh).  When you go dashing down a street in Old Town and hear one of the warlord's men call "it's Crane, get him!" and you don't hesitate.  You don't flinch.  You run right towards him.

You run up him, leap off his face, do a one-eighty in mid air and come crashing down on him blade-first.

(Jazzy hands!) Dying Light.

From a gameplay standpoint - as a pure opportunity to dive into a virtual world and have some fun - Dying Light is spectacular.  It is the most purely fun game I have played on the PS4, as of March 26th, 2015.

Beyond the significant overhaul in mechanics and sky-high fun factor, though, Techland are offering what is, by far, their most polished title from every angle.  There's the (very effective) whole day/night cycle, which sees you cowering beneath the sun at the beginning of the game, terrified to go out after dark, and sleeping through the day towards the end to ensure you only wander the streets at night - when it's far more dangerous and far more rewarding.  There's the three skill trees, each with their on experience bar.  There's the ridiculous amount of weapons to find and custom mods to build - and all that's lovely - but I'm talking more about the effectiveness of the world Techland created, this time around.

Dying Light takes place in a more interesting, more cohesive, more... painterly reality than the studio has ever created before.

The world feels like a more thoughtful reflection on what might happen when everything goes to hell than some of the weirdness you'd see in Dead Island.  Here, you'll come across heavily-barred shops, staffed by lone, grizzled men surrounded by expensive, lovely-looking weapons.  You'll find tiny patches of civilization, where guards man the gates and children play under the watchful eye of survivors. You'll come across little tableaus of how a families decided to go out - "dungeon" sequences that see you diving into the interior of an apartment building or a hotel, where the game's atmosphere turns thick as lead and it suddenly feels like a straight-up horror title.  You move from room to room, piecing together what happened here - the bodies tell the tale of which ones turned and which ones died fighting - and unlike any of Techland's previous efforts, you find you remember their stories.

There's a woman in the water just off the coast in the slums.  She didn't turn.  She's not bitten.  Maybe she drowned?  Maybe she threw herself off the cliff above.  Maybe she was thrown, but she died alive.

I can't help but feeling she went out better than most in Harran.  Like maybe it was her call, and she made it.  Either way, she didn't turn - that's better than Dawud.

Dawud was a resident of the tower.  He convinced me to find him a gun in return for the key to his pawn shop, so he could fight his way out of Harran and get his family to safety.  Stupid of me to believe him.

He took his son, abandoned his wife, shot his way out of the tower and left without a plan.  A day later, I get a call on my radio.  It's Dawud - that rat - begging for help.  Says he's been bitten... says the boy's still with him and he can't stop himself from turning...

I find him.  Still wearing that ratty suit, his lips peeled back in death.  His eyes sunk.  His breathing ragged - standing in front of the closet he made his son hide in before he turned.  He warned the boy not to come out - that Daddy would hurt him if he did.

I made it quick, and clean.

As clean as it gets, in Harran.

The fact that there are children in Harran lends it a very real and doubly tragic edge.

Techland did such a lovely job, with this.  This is the zombie apocalypse I've always wanted to play through.  It's almost luxurious.  The art direction is solid, the graphics are excellent, the vistas are gorgeous, the framerate is smooth, and sometimes - just sometimes - when you take a zombie's head clean off?

They stumble around for a second, like a decapitated chicken.  They take a few more steps and those dead hands lash out, one last time, before the body gives up and collapses.

That is awesome.  And it's not even canned.  The post-swipe fall is driven by physics!

There's never been anything quite like Dying Light before.  
  • Incredibly fun
  • excellent combat
  • excellent platforming
  • adrenaline-pumping chases at night
  • excellent graphics
  • super-immersive
  • solid framerate
  • a huge, well-drawn, well-designed world to play in
  • a ton of collectibles and challenges
  • memorable quests and characters
  • "incredibly fun" is worth two
  • so is "excellent platforming," particularly in an open world
  • you can slap a blowtorch on a machete, and then use it to kill zombies.
Instant classic.  Buy this game. 

1 comment:

  1. ...and that's a GIFfy review! Good? Not good? Let me know ^.^