Game developers are nothing if not persistent, as the recent influx of zombie games dribbling out of Steam and off store shelves clearly demonstrates. It would seem as though it’s become something of a necessity to feature some form of undead horde for players to cut down like so much overgown lawn, and Dying Light is one of the latest, already being available for a while digitally, a month before its psychical retail release.
Unlike many zombie games currently doing the rounds, though, Dying Light already has a proven pedigree, even if it is a new IP. That’s because the developer behind it was responsible for Dead Island, one of the most promising zombie survival games of recent years. Deep Silver decided to take Dead Island in a different direction to its original developer, however, and Dying Light is the game Dead Island‘s creator actually wanted to make.
Boasting a more serious and contemporary tone than Dead Island, Dying Light immediately reveals itself as a far more polished game, and one that’s not only more ambitious, but more focused. The experience gained whilst working on Dead Island has taught Techland a thing or two about game design, and it benefits from these. Controls are tighter, combat is more fun, and traversing the world is far more interesting. Despite this, it still feels very much like Dead Island, implementing the better parts of the sun-soaked zombie release.
Instead of tropical climes, Dying Light takes place in the fictional Middle-Eastern city of Harran, which has been hit by a mysterious zombie virus. Now quarantined, survivors inside struggle to stay alive, breaking into factions, and all looking for the only method of postponing the zombie transformation, a drug called Antizin. The GRE (Global Relief Effort) air-drops supplies into the city, but these are fought over, and are being hoarded by a local warlord.
You play Kyle Crane, sent into the city by the GRE to find a stolen document, which if used incorrectly, could spell disaster. After your insertion goes awry, you’re forced to go undercover, joining a local survivor group, and this is where your adventure begins, one full of zombie slaying, parkour navigation, and a lot of running.
Dead and dying
If you’ve played Dead Island, you’ll know exactly how Dying Light plays out. Within the game’s large, open world, you have to perform various tasks for people, find supplies, and both fight and avoid the zombie threat. You do this by finding makeshift weapons, which can be made more effective by crafting them into more powerful tools, such as electrified pipes and fiery knives. You’ll also need to use your athletic parkour skills.
The survivors of the city have made it this far by avoiding combat with the zombies when possible, and the best way to do this is to stay off the streets. This means climbing buildings and running along rooftops, shimmying along walls, and leaping from safe spot to safe spot. The game puts a heavy emphasis on this skilled free-running play, and it also helps to quickly navigate the sprawling city and find hidden item caches and weapons.
The controls for the game are, thankfully, quite good in this regard, and although not perfect, for the most part it’s easy to run through the city, grabbing ledges, sliding under obstacles, and scaling towers. The button combinations for this are simple, and not overcomplicated, and although the camera can be awkward when climbing some structures, such as communication towers, it’s rarely an issue. This is very fortunate, as you’ll certainly need to move quickly and smoothly when night falls.
Between night and day
One of Dying Light‘s major features is the transition from day to night, hence the game’s title. Although the zombies can be easily avoiding and defeated during the day, at night ‘the ‘volatiles’ come out. These special, buff zombies are super strong, move fast, and can kill you in a second. So, the best option if you’re caught out at night is to avoid them, and run if they see you.
During the night, your radar shows the vision cones of volatile zombies, so you can try and stay out of sight and avoid confrontation. This is by far the best tactic, as these zombies don’t mess around, and are very tough opponents. You have a UV light that can stun them and hold them back, as well as various lights traps spread through the city, but even with these you’ll find it hard to stay alive. Running is your best course of action, and by running, I mean running, climbing, vaulting, and jumping. You have to use the environment to your advantage, as these deadly zombies can climb and jump too.
One of the game’s best features here is the look back camera. When you’re being chased, you can press triangle to quickly look behind you. This triggers a slo-mo view as you’re running, and shows you just how close you foe is. It can be amazingly tense, and is a great inclusion, often showing zombies in mid leap as they reach for you. Scary stuff.
With a game like Dying Light, stealth elements, if implemented poorly could ruin the game. This isn’t the case here, and the day and night variations break up the game nicely, and add a sense of urgency, as you strive to make it back to a safe house before night falls.
It’s good that the game’s day and night cycle makes for different gameplay styles, as the actual missions of the game don’t really have as good a time of it, and this is where Dying Light really falls flat for me. As the protagonist even remakes in-game, for the most part you’re simply an errand boy, performing go here, do this, missions for people. These are often, go flick this switch, go see this guy, go climb this thing. They’re just goals, though, and the actual gameplay is good, but more thought really needed to go into what you’re actually doing. You have this impressive, open city to play around in, and you spend a good deal of your time simply rushing from point A to B, and it’s a shame.
The game is crying out for some well structured, multiple stage missions that make the most of the parkour and day and night differences, but it rarely pushes this. Things do take a pleasant change when you move into the second part of the city, which has far more options for free-running, but the game’s objectives remain largely the same. It’s good, then, that the actual core mechanics and combat are good enough to keep you interested.
Combat in the game is good, with both melee and ranged combat. Melee is the highlight, of course, as there’s nothing quite as satisfying as beheading a zombie with a perfectly executed baseball bat swing. On the whole it’s far more polished than Dead Island‘s clunky melee system, but you’ll need to put up with a very limiting stamina level at first. Three swings and Kyle’s puffed out, which is a little silly. I’m no special forces soldier, far from it, but I’m pretty sure I could handle more than that.
As you progress, though, you’ll earn skills points which you can spend to beef Kyle up. survival skills help him learn how to craft more effectively, barter with stores and such, agility skills increase your stamina and parkour skills, as well as adding more moves, and power skills enhance your combat abilities.
The three skill trees have a ton of abilities and boosts to learn, with the drop kick being infamously useful and hilarious in equal measure, and it’s here where another issue raises its head.
What starts off as quite a challenging game, with zombies that are actually a threat, eventually becomes far, far easier as you level up. Eventually there’s little to no challenge. Even at night you have little to fear, and this undermines the whole point, diluting one of the game’s best features. Some balancing, or at least a higher difficulty level option needs to be implemented for those that relish the true survival challenge. As it stands, if you want to keep the sense of fear and tension, you may want to hold off on learning some of those skills.
Any shortcomings with the game’s challenge or dull missions can be offset by getting a friend or two to join in, and when playing in co-op mode, Dying Light takes on a new, er… light. When you’re roaming the city with other people, a whole new level of gameplay is uncovered. You can help each other by acting as distractions, split up to tackle multiple objectives at once, and as a team you can more easily take down larger, more powerful zombies. It’s also even more tense and enjoyable at night time, as you and a team try to avoid conflict, or have to help each other reach safety should you be detected.
There’s also an asymmetrical PvP mode, in which players can invade other people’s games and ‘be the zombie.’ This pits human players against powerful, human-controlled volatile zombies, and it’s a lot of fun to play. The zombie’s skills are great, with Spider-Man like environment traversal thanks to their tendril grapples, and you can pounce on unaware foes for an instant kill.
Humans aren’t defenceless though, as UV lights and a range of weapons, not to mention the weight of numbers, can be more than a match. It’s an interesting mode, and whilst it’s not exactly Evolve, it’s still good fun, and should help break up the game if you’re getting tired of playing the errand boy.
The dead walk
In a market that already has far too many zombies games, Dying Light actually manages to succeed, and it’s one of the best zombie action titles around. It takes the framework laid by Dead Island and gives it some much needed polish to produce a gorgeous-looking open world that sucks you in, and keeps you interested for the duration. The parkour and day/night cycle are great additions that work well, not being simple gimmicks, and the multiplayer options further enhance the already plentiful content.
It’s a shame the missions are a little underwhelming, and the challenge eventually peters out, but if you’re looking for a first person zombie survival title where you’re not griefed by other players, or forced to fight at gunpoint, this is a good choice, unless someone invades your game as a zombie, of course.
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