Available on PC
You know damn well you shouldn’t move. You’re crouching in the long grass, pressed against a boulder, watching a masked killer move through the brush. Your heart beats rapidly, so loud you can barely hear, but you must sit it out, hope you’re not spotted. But then he turns his gaze towards you and you can’t hold the panic back. You jump up, try to run for cover, zigging and zagging to throw him off the scent. You race towards an old shed, but can’t move fast enough. Just as you’re diving through the window the killer grabs you. You’re in a world of hurt.
Dead by Daylight has a central concept so great you wonder why nobody's done it before. Inspired by the slasher-flick cycles of the seventies and eighties, it’s a 4vs1 asynchronous multiplayer, pitting one of three monstrous killers against four survivors, the survivors trying to escape before the killer tracks them down. Think of it as Evolve meets Left 4 Dead meets Friday the 13th, Jeepers Creepers and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though probably better than that sounds.
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The action takes place in the kind of remote farms, forest lumberyards and wreckers yards you’ll have seen in any classic slasher movie, each map filled with abandoned buildings, piles of junk, areas of woodland and other spooky scenery. Each map is surrounded by a fence with a single powered gate, which requires three generators to be started. The survivors, then, have to track down and start the generators before making a run for the gate. The killer has to …. well, you can probably guess what’s in his job description.
Here’s where things get clever. The survivors can walk, run and crouch. They can clamber through windows and pull down loose objects to slow down the killer, or they can hide in tall lockers or duck down in long grass. The one thing they can’t do is hurt the killer. The killer moves faster and has a hacking weapon that can take down a survivor with two blows. They move slowly through windows and have to smash pulled-down objects before they can pass them, but they can grab survivors fleeing through a window and each killer has one signature special power.
There are also big – and crucial – differences in how the two sides see the world. Survivors get a wide-angle, third-person view, making it easier to keep an eye out for the killer and avoid being caught unawares. They also get a pounding heartbeat, rising in pace and volume as the killer nears. The killer has a first-person view with a red sight cone that gives away their presence. However, as the killer you can ‘see’ the sounds survivors make, whether it’s someone running, a generator blowing a circuit as it’s powered up, crows disturbed by a careless misstep or a bear-trap snapping shut. You can also follow fading scratch-marks left by fast-moving survivors, making it easier to track them down if you know where to look.
While you can whack survivors and leave them to bleed out, the most surefire way to get a kill is to hang them from the nearest nasty-looking hook. Leave them there long enough and the claws of a cruel contraption slam shut, sacrificing the poor survivor to your dark master. In case you’re still wondering, Dead by Daylight isn’t what you might call a pleasant game.
This in turn gives the survivors something more to do. An injured survivor can be healed, meaning they’ll be able to move faster and won’t make a whimpering noise. Even the ones hanging from hooks can be rescued, and the game encourages survivors to hold on with DIY escape attempts and a last-minute, button-mashing panic to keep those fiendish claws at bay.
Of course, any sensible killer leaves a hooked survivor as bait to trap generous have-a-go heroes trying to save their friends. In fact, even wounded survivors can play the same role, as being near-death enables them to see and crawl to nearby allies. As a survivor, nothing’s more stressful than the heartbeat growing louder as a wounded buddy gropes their way through the long grass towards where you’re cowering.
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And so the stage is set for some fascinating battles, both between killer and survivors and between altruism and self-preservation. Hook rescues are risky and even healing takes time. Should you rush to your team-mate’s aid or try and start a generator while the killer’s busy? Cleverly, the game awards its currency, survivor points, for heals and rescues as well as escapes and objectives, and even throws in points for boldness, turning daring runs for the generator or attempts to distract the killer into viable options. Your chances are slim but the rewards great, and you will see survivors out-foxing the killer and escaping to see another dawn.
Killers, meanwhile, come in three basic types. The Trapper (think Friday 13th’s Jason) is a brutish axe murderer with nasty bear-traps, which he can collect and then set around the map. The Hillbilly (basically Leatherface) is a hammer-wielding monster with a secondary chainsaw charge attack. Finally the Wraith is a creepy bandaged critter with a bone machete and a bell that fades him in and out of the astral plane. In short, he can cloak, enabling all kinds of nasty surprises.
All the powers are balanced by downsides. Traps are slow to set and pick-up, though perfect for leaving below windows or near a hook. The chainsaw charge is vicious, but get it wrong and your quarry has a good chance of escaping. Even the Wraith’s cloaking is restricted by a slow fade-in and fade-out time, during which your killer can’t attack. What’s more, ordinary blows come with a momentary pause right after; a hit will slow a survivor down but a miss gives them the chance to get away.
Beyond individual games Dead by Daylight has a persistent experience system, known as the Bloodweb. By spending your survivor points you can unlock a range of expendable items, item upgrades and perks, plus offerings that have more subtle effects on the map, swinging the selection towards a specific map type or varying the amount of light and fog. These items can be game-changing, enabling you to heal friends faster or stun the killer with a well-placed flashlight beam. Killers also get bloodwebs, unlocking new powers and perks for them to slay with.
The risk with any upgrade system is that it disrupts the fragile balance of the game, but in Dead by Daylight that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Early on you’ll have concerns that the killer may be overpowered and the survivors too weak, while the business of starting up generators seems unnecessarily slow and prone to loud, attention-grabbing faults. After a while, though, I’m not so sure.
Play as the killer and you’ll appreciate both how difficult it is to keep four survivors on the run and the work and strategy better players put into making it look easy. A team of smart players who know when to rescue and when to lie low can still get a few players out in many matches, and it’s the kind of game where even death can’t spoil the fun.
More importantly, the challenge level helps keep the game feeling tense and scary. As a survivor, you know the killer’s out there and that your chances of escape are slim. You can’t afford to be seen. When the in-game heartbeat pounds, it’s a struggle to stop yours pounding too. As the killer, you know you’re a badass and that the biggest threat is your own clumsiness and stupidity. Play cunning and use your abilities wisely and those poor kids don’t have a chance. Play dumb, miss the signs and they’ll start making you feel like a victim.
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Only two things count against Dead by Daylight. One is staying power. It’s a remarkably tense and exciting game, while the use of procedurally generated maps prevents either the killer or the survivors building too much of a tactical edge. Maps will have elements in common, but the layout and the placement of the hooks and generators always differs. All the same, the maps aren’t that varied, and it’s the behaviour of the players that really makes the difference from one game to the next. Even with three killers is that enough to keep you coming back for months? I’m not so sure.
The other major bugbear is the lobby system. If you want to play with friends you can only start a Kill Your Friends private game, with character progression disabled. Otherwise, the only way is to cross your fingers and hope. I’m happy playing with strangers and don’t really see Dead by Daylight as much of a social game, but if you’re looking for a game to play with pals, consider yourself warned. Of course, too much interaction between survivors breaks the game, which only works when you can’t coordinate your actions, but there should be some way to let friends play together and earn experience. Throw in some long waits for games if you want to play killer, with different players connecting and disconnecting, and occasional connection issues even if you’re a survivor, and the irritations start to mount up.
These complaints affect the score and the Left 4 Dead meets The Walking Dead visuals are just a little dated, yet I’d urge you to try Dead by Daylight anyway. While it lasts, this is possibly the most nerve-wracking multiplayer game I’ve played since the days when everyone learnt the hard way not to disturb Left 4 Dead’s thrice-damned witch. At £14.99 (or £13.49 at launch) it’s also perfectly priced. Who cares if you’re not playing it so much in a month’s time. Better a stripped-back, intense nightmare where everything works than some bloated, muddled mass that never hits you where it hurts.
It might be short-lived and plagued by lobby issues, but Dead by Daylight is whip-smart, original, exciting and genuinely frightening. It puts you right at the centre of your own slasher movie, then asks you if you’ve got the guts and cunning to slay or survive. Only time will tell whether it can evolve into a long-term hit but, right now, it’s a terrifying new entry on the multiplayer scene.