Tag Archive: Techland

Don’t rage against the dying of the light—just let it happen

I was a fan of the original Dead Island. I didn’t think it was the end-all, be-all of zombie games—and the open-world undead action-adventure has come so far in such a short time—but I thought developer Techland had laid a wonderful foundation of gameplay mechanics, and I was excited to see what they’d do next. Then they gave us Dead Island: Riptide, practically a carbon copy of their first game that did little to further the gameplay or lore of the world. It left a sour taste in the mouths of many, myself included.

The announcement of Dying Light gave me hope that maybe Techland had merely hit a sophomore slump with this genre and that a new franchise would be just what they needed to get back on track. Dying Light would offer the developer a fresh start, with a new open world to craft, new characters to explore, and new gameplay mechanics to tinker with. Unfortunately, it just serves as the latest failure to enthrall the zombie-enthused masses.

Techland’s biggest blunder comes with the story. Dying Light stars Kyle Crane, possibly the most incompetent special forces agent in the history of video games. In the opening cutscene alone, Kyle botches his insertion into Harran (the fictional city that serves as the setting of this latest zombie outbreak), gets himself infected, and allows the guy who saved him to be killed. As the game progresses, Kyle’s stupidity begins to feel like a running joke, more sad than funny (I mean, I think I murmur more intelligent things in my sleep than this guy said over the course of the entire game).

Kyle is only the start of the story’s problems, unfortunately. Dying Light is full of one-note characters like the primary antagonist, Rais, a man reminiscent of a cheesy B-movie villain who kills hapless henchman on a whim and angrily pontificates about order versus chaos. There’s also the strong independent woman/potential love interest, Jade, who’s pretty and nice to you—and, therefore, you must care about her and her plights.

At times, though, Dying Light does seem to stumble onto some potential emotional gravitas. On more than one occasion, Kyle’s ineptitude gets friends killed, usually as a result of unwittingly leading Rais’ men to where survivors are hiding out. Despite Techland dragging me around by the nose like Curly in a Three Stooges short, I still grew to care about some of these survivors. Techland mercilessly stomped on those moments by quickly moving into prolonged action sequences, however, instead of allowing me to feel the full weight of their deaths.

Whereas the story completely failed in its endeavor to entertain me, at least Dying Light’s gameplay remains as a bastion of sorts from the loophole-laden cutscenes and dialogue that haphazardly forces the story forward. Take the day/night cycle, for example. During the day, the zombies, while still hostile, are far more manageable than at night, where the horde has larger numbers, moves faster, react more intelligently, hit stronger, and several new types of purely nocturnal zombies come out—some of which can deliver one-hit kills.

Daring to go out at night in these worsened conditions rewards the player with double experience—and even an XP bonus if you survive until sunrise. This provides an enjoyable risk/reward system, and adds some much-needed tension to the story’s scripted nighttime sequences.

The best part of Dying Light’s gameplay, though, is its world-traversal system. I’m hesitant to refer to it as “parkour,” because you’re rarely ever truly parkouring—and even if you are, because of the first-person camera, you really can’t tell. But being able to actively climb on almost anything in the world, grabbing onto nearly every ledge, and quickly conquering the world’s verticality is an invigorating feeling.

The parkour makes traversing Harran more enjoyable, and it also gives you the option to run away from a fight if the zombies ever become too much to handle—you simply scramble up the nearest scaffolding or building façade. This helps keep the repetitive hack-n-slash melee action seen in the game—also an issue in Dead Island—feeling a bit more fresh.  

Not everything borrowed from Dead Island becomes less humdrum here, however. Dying Light uses a similar crafting and weapon degradation system, encouraging you to tediously look through or lockpick nearly every crate you find. Sidequests are also the same—unexciting fetch quests I’ve become far too accustomed to at this point. Some, infuriatingly, require multiple stops before you get the little bit of cash, XP, or item the questgiver will award you. Plus, the two distinctive areas of Harran don’t change or improve if you complete these quests. They just feel like a cheap way to lengthen the experience dramatically, since there seem to be about three sidequests to every story objective.

I did appreciate how different Harran’s two areas felt—they even forced me to change how I played. The game begins in the Slums, and about 60 percent of the story takes place here. The Slums have a decidedly Middle Eastern flavor to them, and although the area isn’t as graphically vivid as I’d like, the world feels crafted to take advantage of the traversal gameplay with plenty of ledges and easily crossable gaps between shacks.

Old Town, meanwhile, is the exact opposite, with grandiose buildings and towers that have a Western European feel. Bright colors and exotic signs are everywhere, and the area’s not nearly as scarred by the outbreak as the Slums. Old Town offers much wider streets, however, making it more difficult to traverse safely across the rooftops without the aid of a zipline. I found the differences between the two areas enjoyable, even if I’d rather play in the Slums.

Like with most of Techland’s work, I see the potential in Dying Light. But it comes across as yet another project where the developer can’t seem to get out of their own way. The parkour and risk/reward systems of the day/night cycle are nice aspects, but whether it’s in the writing or the game design, Dying Light tries too often to offer something for everyone—and instead offers nothing of real note to anyone because it never digs past the surface of its characters or mechanics.

Maybe one day, Techland will be able to put it all together and make that grand zombie epic they’ve been dreaming about. Given Dying Light’s boring, repetitive quests and complete mess of a story, though, we should just let it quietly fade to black.

Developer: Techland • Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 01.27.15
The parkour and risk/reward of the day/night cycle are nice features, but they aren’t enough to overcome the abysmal writing or the boring, repetitive fetch quests that unnecessarily bloat this game.
The Good Risk/reward system of the day/night cycle; parkour is surprisingly competent.
The Bad Abysmal writing; the entire game is one long monotonous fetch quest.
The Ugly We’re starting to scrape the bottom of the zombie-naming barrel with descriptions such as “Biters” and “Volatiles.”
Dying Light is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review.

Dying to disappoint

The first Dead Island turned a lot of heads by blending open-world and RPG elements with survival horror. It lacked the polish to make a truly significant impact, but this solid core led many to believe that the inevitable follow-up would only improve on the strong foundation laid by the first game and deliver an experience that could be enjoyed by zombie slayers everywhere.

Man, were we ever wrong.

Dead Island: Riptide opens with the four heroes from the first game—along with terrorist hacker Charon and Yerema, patient zero of the Banoi outbreak—landing on a military ship in their commandeered helicopter. The soldiers on the ship immediately take everyone into custody, as a mysterious figure named Serpo wishes to experiment on the immune for undisclosed reasons. Yerema freaks when grabbed by the soldiers because of her bad experiences with male authority figures and bites one of her assailants, thus spreading the infection onto the ship.

Following a short cutscene where our heroes awaken from a drug-induced stupor and exchange pleasantries with new playable protagonist John Morgan, we take control of the characters for the first time and discover the ship has now gone to hell. After a brief tutorial segment, the carrier crashes onto the nearby island of Palanai, and a very familiar scene is laid out before us: a tropical haven torn asunder by the zombie outbreak.

And while this paradox of hell in paradise is still an interesting concept, the punch it had with the first game will be lost on returning players, as they’ve seen this before. In fact, as you continue to play through the game, you’ll realize in many instances how very few differences there are in terms of story pacing and location from the first Dead Island to Riptide. The result is usually a less than satisfying sense of déjà vu.

Even the things that were being hyped as major additions were simply meant to fool us into thinking there was something new to be found in Riptide. The “improved gunplay” we were promised has been instituted by removing most of the required gunplay from the game and putting an even stronger emphasis on your melee weapons. Using a boat to get from point A to B is available in only one section of the game—and ended up making for a more frustrating experience, as all that water consistently causes framerate drops and horrendous screen-tearing. At the least the themes of water and flooding are consistent throughout the game—even if you can avoid it in most areas.

And the new quest types we were promised? They’re there, but they’re every bit as much of a grind as the fetch quests that dominated the first game. There are still plenty of fetch quests here, too—so many that almost you almost want to willingly dive into the waiting, diseased maw of some flailing zombie just to end it all.

The first new objective type involves the relatively straightforward task of saving a survivor who’s stuck on high ground, surrounded by zombies below. The second type is the highly touted siege quests. The survivor quests were fun the first couple of times, but when you realize there are literally dozens of survivors scattered about the world—too stupid to help themselves or realize that the zombies can’t climb—a part of you wants to leave these pitiful NPCs to their fate. By contrast, the siege quests are actually a lot of fun and require some complex thinking and strategy, but given that they only occur a handful of times through the entire game, I can’t help but wonder why Techland stressed something so relatively insignificant.

And that’s the kicker, really. If you played the first Dead Island, it’s hard not to notice how little has changed between the games. Even the glitches from the first game have returned, imparting the sense that Riptide needed at least another six months of polishing before ever reaching the hands of consumers. There are the little things, like radios that magically and inexplicably rotate 90 degrees when you turn them on, and big things, like times when the audio drops out completely, breaks whatever quest you’re on, and forces you to quit out and restart from your last checkpoint. The zombie respawn timer is also far too fast. In many instances I would see zombies I just wiped out literally start respawning not 15 seconds later. Polygon by polygon, they would fade back into existence right in front of me, and I’d have to run or deal with them all over again. It’s always nice when a developer uses an in-house engine, as it usually gives them mastery over that which they are trying to create, but it comes off that the Chrome engine still can’t give the smooth experience most gamers demand from a game nowadays, especially one with so much hype.

And the shortcomings aren’t just technical. The story this time around has even more plot holes, and does nothing to further develop any of the characters. Not to mention that Charon and Yerema—two of the most important characters from the first Dead Island—completely disappear once you leave the ship from the game’s opening cinematic/tutorial mission. Characters don’t ask about them, collectibles don’t explain their absence (if you can even look past the all the typos in the various collectibles’ scripts), and when you meet the bad guys again later in the game, it never comes up that two people you arrived with are just gone. Their existence is ignored in order to help further a plot that maddeningly undoes much of the first game’s. All this leads up to one of the most pitiful and poorly developed end bosses I’ve seen in a while, one that pales in comparison to the Ryder White fight from the end of Dead Island.

As much as I may be bashing Riptide, though, some of the good from the first game was able to make it over into this sequel, and there are a couple of nice new features as well. Being able to import your original character is a great touch; it was nice playing with Sam B and already having my skill trees largely filled out. Since the level cap has been raised to 70, you’re also able to further flesh your imported character, as well as try out new abilities, like the Charge maneuver. If Riptide is your first experience with the Dead Island franchise, however, there’s nothing to fear. You’ll automatically start at level 15 with a new character, so you can fill out your tree a decent amount and jump right into co-op without having to worry about other players having to carry you.

The co-op is also a critical returning feature, as many of the missions have been specifically tailored to take advantage of group play—specifically those where you have to carry weapons or supplies to a vehicle while other players cover your rear. The addictive nature of bashing zombies in the face with some trusted cohorts, especially with the weird assortment of weapons you can craft at benches, is as enjoyable as ever in Riptide.

Also, the new enemy types, like the Wrestler, the Butcher, and the Screamer—along with the addition of 13 boss zombies scattered throughout the world—provide some nice monster variety that was noticeably absent from the first game. If as much effort was put into the rest of the game as was put into creating the new zombie monstrosities, I suspect my review would have a dramatically different tone.

Still, as much as I hated the glitches and lack of story development, there were times I couldn’t put Riptide down for hours upon hours. The sheer fun of the co-op zombie-slaughtering gameplay was strong enough to carry the burden. The fact that the rest of the game can’t live up to this promising foundation is nothing short of heartbreaking. It’s a reboot of a game that only came out two years ago. It’s a nightmarish expansion pack with only a handful of new gameplay elements and two new bugs for every one that’s been fixed. If this is your first experience with the franchise, then you might be able to look past some of the more glaring flaws, but if you played the first Dead Island, Riptide is a difficult game to recommend.

Developer: Techland • Publisher: Deep Silver • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 04.23.13
Newcomers to the franchise will likely be more forgiving of many flaws, much like many of us were with the first Dead Island, considering the fun zombie-bashing core and unique dichotomy of an apocalypse in paradise has remained intact. Veterans of the first Dead Island, on the other hand, will feel cheated, as they’ll recognize the cheap carbon copy that Riptide actually is. Combine this with glitches galore and a plot with more holes in it than the sinking ship the game starts off on, and it’s hard to recommend Riptide to all but the most naïve of zombie enthusiasts.
The Good Enjoyable zombie hacking and co-op remains intact.
The Bad Frequent screen-tearing and quest-breaking glitches; tons of plot holes.
The Ugly The fact that I’d actually hoped this would be better than the first game.
Dead Island: Riptide is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.