Zombies have become, for better or worse, a staple in nearly every form of consumable media. They appear in comics, series, films and games, and often take up the same role across the board. These lumbering, clumsy undead often epitomize the need for something fresh, but we’re all still pretty content with them hanging around.. In a way, the familiar trope surrounding zombies perfectly sums up Techland’s latest title, Dying Light. Like the appearance of the undead, Dying Light doesn’t bring any surprises along with it, but remains an enjoyable experience to undertake nonetheless.
Dying Light shares a lot of its DNA with that of traditional zombie lore, which is immediately apparent from the second you start playing. Kyle Crane, an operative for a typically shady governmental organization, is dropped into the once gorgeous city of Harran, which has been quarantined after a massive viral outbreak. The organization in question, the GRE, assigns Crane the task of acting as a triple agent between themselves and the two factions fighting within the city walls, all in the hopes of attaining a file with undisclosed, vital information. There’s an underlying sense of conspiracy from the outset, but one that never evolves past the trope it is so heavily relying on, taking predictable steps along a path to a disappointing resolution.
Dying Light is filled with characters, but the sum total of their actual depth couldn’t even be compared to a shallow puddle on the street. Kyle Crane in particular is a bland, predictable sculpture of the government agent who just wants to do what’s right, while the soldiers on either side of the turf war fall into the buckets listed “angelically good” and “inexplicably evil”. It’s laughable at times, and I found myself cringing at most of the dialogue you’re forced to endure between quests. At one point big bad guy Rias even screams your name into the skies instead of taking a clear opportunity to blow your brains out. It’s comically bad.
And while the inhabitants of Harran lack any standout uniqueness, the city outdoes itself. The slums of Harran are gorgeous to behold, especially at low light times such as dusk and dawn. Although inhabited by the undead, it absolutely blossoms with life that makes the lack of any fast travel nearly a non-issue. Becoming familiar with parkour routes and safe back alleys became one of my favourite pass-times thought my campaign, with the sheer amount of detail poured into the design of the city truly paying off. Dying Light is a stunning game, and even more so on a beefy PC. It’s a bit jarring when an identical zombie appears just after you’ve seemingly decapitated him, but for a game this incredibly large (and dense), it’s quite remarkable that technical issues are a bit of a rarity.
It’s also notable that among the mess of abandoned cars and derelict buildings lie immaculately designed, well thought-out routes for you to run, jump and fall your way through. Dying Light brings together everything that a game like Mirror’s Edge was and mashes it together with former Dead Island attempts. You’re encouraged to fly rather than fight – rooftops become a safe haven from the hordes below and miss-timing a jump leads to a swift and untimely end. It’s interesting that a game primarily focused around zombie horror actually doesn’t derive fear from its players through these creatures, but rather through an undeniable sense of vertigo. Gravity is your greatest enemy in Dying Light, and it takes a while for you to truly understand how to tackle it.
While Crane might be a specially trained agent, he has the parkour ability of an infant child at the beginning of the game. He can walk on two feet and jump a fairly standard distance, but that’s pretty much it. But like anything in life, practice makes perfect. The more you run and jump, the better Crane becomes at it. The simple act of getting around rewards you with Agility Points, which slowly fill a level meter and unlock more complex, rhythmically sound parkour moves to pull off. Grabbing ledges becomes easier, and before long you’ll be stringing together slides with kneecap crunching kicks, sprints with body rattling slams and double jumps with elegant falls into heaps of trash.
Dying Light doesn’t make the act of getting around a chore as it usually is in games like this, but rather an absolute pleasure. It takes a little time at first to get used to the brilliant control scheme, but eventually everything just feels natural. Parkour hasn’t been nailed this well in a game before, and the few that aim to replicate it in the future would benefit from a peek here and there. The game does somewhat abuse it at times, forcing some incredibly boring climbs up ridiculously high towers, but for the most part you’re free to pick your path through Harran and just let loose. It’s a fabulous system, and easily the best part of the entire game.
It is, also, one of the only real innovations Techland brings to the table with this brand new IP. Dead Island is famous for its brutal melee combat, and it makes a seamless transition into Dying Light. Weapons range from broken table legs and rusty old wrenches to sharpened machetes and brutally efficient axes, all of which are used to bash in zombie heads and sever limbs. The combat is just as wayward as Dead Island; acutely aimed swings seemingly doing no differentiable damage to wild, less planned ones, although the sheer brutality of it all is gratifying. Heads and blood fly all over the place, and critical hits are rewarded with slow motion close ups and neat little x-ray views of shattered bones. These encounters are rewarded with Power points, which fill up a second skill tree dedicated to increases your undead killing prowess.
These skills increase your stamina, which handicap your ability to swing your weapon endlessly, while others unlock offensive moves such as a ridiculously satisfying drop-kick. These go hand-in-hand with weapon durability, which for once isn’t that annoying. Weapons break (often), and the first few hours are insanely frustrating. Not only are the weapons you find bland and weak, they also break extremely quickly, forcing you to hunt around for better coloured, rarer items. It makes some early encounters almost insurmountable, but before long better weapons start surfacing and blueprints unlock a whole new array of customization. Strap on a blowtorch to your favourite knife and cook zombies alive, or add some pressurized gas for a nice little kickback effect. There’s a wealth of selection when it comes to dealing death, although it’s all wrapped up in cumbersome, confusing menus.
However, it all comes together rather nicely. Although Dying Light encourages you to avoid fights where possible, the times where you are going toe to toe with enemies is undeniably fun. That is, at least, when the sun is up, because at night Dying Light transforms into a whole other game. Larger, more vicious Volatiles roam the streets, and the game is transformed into a light stealth title as you creep around these beasts and head for one of the many safe houses you can unlock. Things get really interesting when one of them is alerted though, as your parkour skills are then called upon and tested properly. You scrabble on the rooftops as the vertically unchallenged enemies chase in quick pursuit, with only the sanctity of UV lights and various traps coming to your aid. The Volatiles are as invulnerable as they are frightening, and being chased by even one is a tense, sweat inducing affair. These moments alone are better than any of the scarce jump scares the game throws at you, relying rather on great enemies and a horrifying sound effects to create true fear.
And while you can simply skip night cycles by hitting the sack at a safe house, you’re encouraged to stick it out. Agility and Power points are doubled when the sun goes down, which can fast track your progression in very meaningful ways. The risk comes with dying though, which subtracts points from a third, Survivor trait – and ultimately hinders your most important skill tree. Dying Light strikes a delicate balance between the two, although it may not feel that way in the first few hours. It’s probably better to stick to day missions early on, but soon you’ll realize that the night isn’t as terrible as it seems, and the rewards it brings outweigh the risk (even if ever so slightly).
Although sometimes the game doesn’t give you a choice in the matter, plunging you into quests that have to be taken at a certain time of day. Quests in general aren’t that thrilling, with most falling prey to the staple fetch quests that open-world titles are so often plagued with. There are a handful of quests that are merely decent rather than outright terrible, but thankfully the mix of combat and movement more than make up for the stale objectives. Still, some clunky shooting segments put a damper on things, and some horrible design choices lead to cheap deaths on a few occasions. It’s almost as if Dying Light forgets why it’s fun, and then forces you to endure missions that go against what it is at its core.
Thankfully, no matter how terrible the quests, nearly every single one of them can be played with up to three friends. This takes the tense out of certain situations, but injects a different brand of fun into the game at the same time. You might like up-close, silent engagements, while a friend might see firing on red, exploding barrels as the best way to approach things. Having this type of unpredictability (on your side no less) transforms the entire experience of Dying Light, and it almost feels like it’s the way it should be played from the start. If you have the choice, bring a few friends along for the ride. Also, don’t be afraid to keep Be the Zombie mode one – you never know when someone will decide to assume direct control and chase you all over the slums. Dying Light is a game that often puts its best foot forward, and you’ll find it hard to leave Harran when it does.
Last Updated: February 2, 2015