Two fears struck me in the build up to Dying Light. One was that Techland would fail to learn from its past mistakes, especially in the ambitious but messy Dead Island and the second was that the whole fiasco regarding the game’s launch in Europe and late review copies was an omen that the first fear was all the more true. Yet everything I’d seen about the game seemed to suggest it was heading along the right path. Dead Island meets Mirror’s Edge? Cutting the last-gen versions to concentrate on getting the best out of the game? A dynamic Day/Night cycle that adds gameplay variety? Sold, sold and sold. So how does the first major release of 2015 actually turn out?
Dying Light puts you in the parkour shoes of undercover operative, Kyle Crane, as he tries to infiltrate the quarantine zone of the Turkish city of Harran; a city in ruins thanks to a viral outbreak causing the people infected to become something that degenerates into the shuffling undead and the handiwork of a sadistic dictator. Poor old Kyle is in Harran mere minutes before he is having thugs attempt to break his legs and a zombie takes a bite out of him. Luckily he is saved by a group of survivors and given a suppressant to prevent him turning. From here, Crane inserts himself into the survivors group in order to complete his mission and so begins many a moral quandary as he does his best to help them while keeping to his mission. This is a pretty by the numbers tale to begin with and it is seemingly mere window dressing for the rotting meat and potatoes of the actual game, but it does pick up significantly as you progress. It never reaches The Last of Us levels of storytelling, more like a superior overall tale to say, Far Cry 3. I say Far Cry 3 because it focuses on a struggle of the resistance fighters with a tyrant and has a lead who initially contradicts himself with dubious reasoning skills.
Crane is not going to go down in gaming history as a memorable, loveable character, caught in that place between trying to remain empty enough to impart your feelings onto him and having some personality with which to properly interact with the rest of the world in a meaningful manner. The result is you will find it tough to care about Crane as a person because his feelings are so forced. There is an interesting supporting cast filling out the story for the most part though, and even if you don’t really get a lot of time with some of them to justify any perceived attachment, they at least serve their purpose and fit into the world better than Crane does.
The biggest compliment I can pay Dying Light is how right everything feels. There is a genuine passion for the zombie phenomenon on show here; especially noteworthy is the atmosphere of Harran itself, a place that feels like it was lived in before the virus struck, but is now full of creeping dread over what may be lurking just round the corner. This is heightened by the brilliant soundtrack, a great accompaniment to the atmosphere and clearly inspired by the original Romero ‘Of the Dead’ trilogy, as is much of the game’s design and visual style, but it also draws from The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and even I am Legend for the whole day/night shift. Dying Light also does a fair imitation of games such as Fallout 3 and The Last of Us at times, in fact there are entire sections that tread similar ground to Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, but are different enough to not feel like an outright copy.
Visually, Dying Light is the right side of beautiful on PlayStation 4, with some stunning vistas and the use of well-realised lighting being particularly effective in nailing the mood. The transition from evening sunset to night is wonderfully done and the night is realistically pitch black in unlit areas, meaning the undead can be inches away and you won’t even know it without your torch on. It’s also worth mentioning Dying Light runs pretty smoothly for the most part. Only twice have I seen frame rate drop significantly in thirty hours, that, and the freezing and crashing usually associated with Techland, is mercifully absent as these were always the biggest bugbears with the Dead Island games.
Coming back to Harran, you have a large expanse of this city to maneuver and loot through, a maze of tower blocks and boarded up slums with plenty of the undead to avoid in between, but this is made simpler thanks to the parkour. At first it’s a bit odd to get used to R1 for jumping, but before long the rhythm of movement becomes much more fluid. It’s so thrilling to escape a horde by jumping over their heads and just clinging onto that ledge above, turning your head and quickly vaulting to the opposite walkway and dashing off before the slowpokes have raised their arms to try and claw at your ankles. As your skills increase with various upgrades, the ability to think on the move becomes more and more important as not all the undead are shuffling husks and the dynamic shifts frequently, constantly keeping you on your toes and ensuring you don’t go into any situation without knowing the routes of possible escape.
This whole mechanic and the wonderful freedom of movement it affords you (if it looks climbable then it probably is) is the biggest difference Dying Light has over its spiritual predecessors Dead Island and DI: Riptide. Travelling from A to B was a bit of a chore after a short while in those titles whereas here the variety of ways to reach objectives makes it far more pleasurable.The parkour fits well because despite having plenty of opportunity for combat; you will need to learn avoidance as much as you need to lamp corpses round the noggin to survive for any length of time in Dying Light
The combat is almost identical to that found in Dead Island. You start off with shoddy melee weapons that break easily after a few hits on a zombie’s melon and eventually get better ones with tasty upgrades that add extra damage with electricity, fire and the like. Guns get thrown in there later on and are great equalisers in a firefight, but come with the distinct disadvantage of being incredibly noisy. They are another aspect that might take a little getting used to as aiming down the sights is done with a click of R3, while secondary weapons are mapped to L2, something that can cause confusion for seasoned shooter fans.
Those aforementioned secondary weapons include throwing stars, molotovs, grenades and firecrackers, the last of which are great for leading the horde away from somewhere you want to be. There are also upgradeable combat maneuvers for Kyle himself that are in keeping with the whole free-running vibe such as grappling, shoulder-barging and the super-satisfying dropkick. These moves are incredibly helpful tools for getting through large crowds and thinning numbers relatively unscathed, something that crops up fairly often because as I mentioned earlier, the shambling, regular zombies are only your entry level obstacle.
The regular undead are well-realised, they behave as you’d imagine: easy meat on their own, but in larger groups they can quickly close in if you’re dawdling and take a bite out of you. It can be all too easy to get distracted by some looting shenanigans while one walker spots you, then another and another, then before you know it, you’re being whirled around for snog with Mr or Ms Biteyface. Then the variants start creeping into the game world and give you even more reason to stay aware of your surroundings, especially with the runner zombies, who cause panic initially when they come gunning for you after you felt it was a good idea to blow up that gas canister (they tend to appear when you make overly loud noise), but disappointingly become a bit of a chore later in the game when they are seemingly everywhere. Fortunately they are one of the easier types of foes to kill, but they have a habit of just jumping you out of nowhere. Elsewhere there are hulking great zombies called Goons that are not unlike the Big Daddy from Romero’s Land of the Dead, hazmat-suited ones that can’t bite, but have a potentially dangerous (and potentially hilarious if you hit it right) canister on their back, Toads; that hurl green vomit like undead snipers, Exploders; who walk around a bit and, y’know, explode and several other types that don’t arrive till much later on.
Of course, the stars of the show are too shy (desperately allergic to UV light) to show up in the day, but the Volatiles make for a tense experience in the often pitch-black night. They are incredibly powerful, fast, tough to kill and have a charming knack of yelling for their mates if they spot you, but with a trusty UV flashlight and a knowledge of the area, you can evade them quite easily. A good thing too as the reward for surviving the nights outside safe zones (extra xp and ability points) balances out the risk nicely. Indeed, if there is any fault with the whole night cycle and the Volatiles themselves, it’s the realisation that for all the panic Volatiles cause you at first, they become far easier to outmaneuver as time goes on, thus dampening the effect they can have. Human enemies also come into the fray, usually survivors or paid thugs that you can lure into a fracas with the undead, take out silently with throwing weapons from afar or unwisely run and flail at them directly. Guns are probably the best solution to taking out hired goons as there are a few situations where they will be armed to the teeth and no amount of sneaking about with an electrified meat cleaver is going to dispatch of them that easily. Overall, there is a better mix of dangers than Dead Island managed, but there are other aspects that haven’t evolved from Techland’s zombified past.
The missions, for example, tend to vary in quality for a variety of reasons. Nonsense fetch quests are present, but arguably you could attribute them to a learning experience as they tend to revolve around clambering the scenery in the correct manner. There could easily be a more efficient, logical way though, but hey, that’s game tropes for you. Away from those, the bulk of the game is a case of ‘get this to do that and have something terrible happen at the end.’ It makes sense considering the story and setting is about the dead chewing on the living and how that makes people into bastards, but there are too many that follow that exact pattern in quick succession at one or two points. Thankfully some of it is broken up by indoor missions, where creeping around sewers and buildings with no room for using your parkour skills and a bigger reliance on stealth makes for a nice change of pace, if not spectacularly original.
The boss battles are sadly all together in a bag of boredom and frustration. There seems to be no point to their inclusion beyond filling out the missions and they all revolve around stripping you of your weapons and kit to ‘’survive’’. In fact, a particular boss fight is precluded by a rather trippy sequence that caused me to die more times than any other part of the game simply because a set of jumps were so fiddly. As a result, this entire mission ended up being rather disappointing despite a strong start. For all the complaints I may have about the story missions, they at least keep the variety level up. Once the final story mission is done and dusted, I found the game lost a little of its freshness, but in fairness, I had played for over thirty hours at this point.
I played most of the game solo as even though the game has co-op, I felt Dying Light is more of a single-player focused title, but I did jump in for a few hours to help out a friend and it vastly improves the fetch-questing when you are looking out for each other, laughing at failed jumps, zombies being launched off building tops and competing via challenges that appear sporadically. As a result, co-op is great fun with friends as it evokes the best of zombie fiction by letting you work together to take on missions. With strangers you will naturally be getting pot luck over how useful/helpful they can be, but again, that also fits in with the themes. The other multiplayer mode is the intriguing ‘’Be The Zombie’’ mode that lets a random player invade your game as a superior version of the Volatiles. In this mode the humans are tasked with wiping out the nests to weaken and destroy the zombie player for good (they can be killed beforehand, but they respawn), while the zombie vaults around the map with its tendrils doing a decent Spider-Man impression and has to kill the humans ten times to be victorious.
At its best, Be The Zombie is thrilling. With three or four of you it feels like being in a monster movie, knowing any straggler is likely to get picked off easily, while being the monster is immensely satisfying as you stalk your prey with methodical menace. The downside comes if you are stuck in a one-on-one situation, there is little joy in being hounded without back-up and no satisfaction in the hunt when you have to kill the same poor sap ten times.
So, Dying Light turned out to be a nice surprise on the whole. Sure, it has its faults and they certainly hold it back from being a truly brilliant game, but the positives are more than enough to suggest Techland have kicked on from the horrid mess of potential that was Call of Juarez and Dead Island and can only improve from here on out.