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Dying Light on Switch - another mobile miracle?

An intelligently designed, impressive port.

Last month, developer Techland revealed that its open world survival horror game - Dying Light - would be coming to Nintendo Switch. Bearing in mind its sheer scale and scope, plus the fact that the game targeted 30fps on the much more powerful PS4 and Xbox One, we had to wonder... could this conversion possibly work? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Dying Light has obvious compromises but the game is content-complete, performance is decent, image quality is better than expected and played in handheld form especially, it's a treat.

To a certain extent, this port bucks the trend - many Switch conversions from the current-gen consoles run at 30fps from source material that ran at 2x frame-rate (an easy way to save on CPU and GPU resources). Meanwhile, resolution often comes crashing down, to the point where upscaling artefacts and blur can cause problems. Then there's the whole concept of an open world with granular detail - a test for Switch's memory, CPU and bandwidth, but an environment that simply has to be delivered with quality on a game like this.

So, first things first - Dying Light for Switch is based on version 1.43 of the original game and brings most of its visual features to the table, along with some changes. Techland is using what seems to be a new TAAU feature - temporal anti-aliasing with upscaling. The idea here is to reconstruct the image over several frames to match the target output resolution: either 1080p in docked or 720p in portable. Naturally, the actual base resolution is lower, often counting around or below 720p in docked mode, but the result is interesting: it looks reasonably close to native when standing still but as you move, you'll notice some image break-up. Usually, when comparing Switch ports to other more powerful machines, the resulting image is blurry and obviously of a much lower resolution but Dying Light really does compare more favourably than usual.

The Digital Foundry breakdown on the Switch rendition of Dying Light.Watch on YouTube

Compromises are inevitable though and here, we're on familiar ground. Shadow resolution is significantly lower, shadows on vegetation are gone, texture quality takes a hit on both characters and world textures, while motion blur is absent. Once in the open world, it's more noticeable that distant detail and dynamic lights are pared back, producing a pop-in effect much closer to the player. However, depth of field and other post-processing effects are intact and look great on Switch. Despite the changes, it's very much Dying Light, as the video above demonstrates.

Another change I noted is a reduction in overall zombie numbers, but the full extent of this compromise is a little tricky to define. There are still areas packed with lots of zombies, but I did notice a thinning out of the horde during normal exploration. So, it seems as if it has been scaled back slightly which, honestly, makes the game slightly less frustrating at times. Some areas seem emptier than expected then, but others - such as the beginning of The Following DLC - seem to be as busy as ever.

The comparisons in the video should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect but to my mind, the cuts feel somehow different than certain other Switch conversions we've tested - overall, it looks and feels good, certainly in handheld play. The thing is, all of the features and gameplay complexities are preserved and elements like loading times are actually comparable. In fact, in my tests, the Switch version had faster loading than the PS4 game. So, it's obvious that the Switch port doesn't fully match the prior console release and that should be expected, but I like many of the decisions Techland has made here. It's clear this must have been a very technically challenging conversion to pull off: it's a game doing things the Switch really isn't designed to do, but it does actually work well.

Dying Light performance is uncapped on Switch, often running at circa 30-36fps. A 30fps cap would reduce instability.

This brings us to performance and the results are interesting. You may note some instability in camera motion and movement, but it's usually not down to performance drops, but rather that the game runs with an uncapped frame-rate, often running at 30-36fps. On paper, this may not seem like a big deal, but what's happening is that we're basically seeing inconsistent frame-times of 16ms, 33ms and 50ms - and this results in inconsistent motion. It's like incorrect frame-pacing but slightly different in how it manifests, creating a slightly jerky look to the action. The good news here, however, is that the frame-rate does stay above 30fps most of the time and after raising this issue with the developers, I was informed they are looking to solve the problem with a patch. There are genuine drops beneath 30fps - in the city at night, for example - but I think that if Techland can implement a decent 30fps cap, this should make the game look and feel smoother overall.

In conclusion, Dying Light on Switch is an intelligently designed port that holds up well. Some of its cutbacks are a little too obvious in docked mode, but played in handheld mode, the game is a lot more appealing - looking especially good on the Switch OLED Model display. And on a more general note, revisiting Dying Light on PS4 for this piece, it's a game that looks good and plays well, despite having been released way back in 2015 - so I'm really looking forward to the recently announced patch for the new consoles, which should deliver a meaningful upgrade, even over the FPS Boost rendition for Xbox Series X. The sequel may be coming soon, but the original Dying Light clearly still has much to offer.

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