Tell me if you haven’t heard this one before. Massive viral outbreak in a small island region, a scrappy group of survivors trying to let the world they are still alive, waiting to be saved. Surely it’s another zombie game, oh boy. The tried and true zombie outbreak scenario makes a return in Dying Light, from makers of the infamous Dead Island. Ah yes, a game with an emotional trailer that convinced millions of gamers to purchase an otherwise average co-op game full of as many bugs as zombies, and let’s not forget the even less impressive follow-up Riptide. Needless to say Techland has a bit of a disappointing track record from a purely technical standpoint. You’d be forgiven for having fairly low expectations of Dying Light if you played their previous efforts. Luckily, by act of god or otherwise, Dying Light shares few, if any, similarities to their previous efforts in the best way possible.
As Kyle Crane, a GRE agent sent to Harran, the location of the outbreak, you are tasked with locating and securing a top secret file. After being dropped right into the thick of it, Crane is not only confronted by members of the resident warlord’s army but is bitten and infected himself. After being rescued by survivors from “the tower”, Crane begins taking on missions for them as a runner in an attempt to discover who holds the documents and where they are. The story is decent enough, but there were plenty of opportunities to make this 12 or so hour adventure much better. The obvious solution would be to avoid the cliches Dying Light relies so heavily on, the ones you’ll surely spot while playing. It seems at many points that Techland is setting you up for a game changing decision, only to never give you the choice. The possibility of choosing your fate, or that of another, could have been a defining feature. Instead, Dying Light always seems to take the “easy way”, or the way that finishes the story the quickest. It’s tough to say that adding player choice would have been an absolute game changer, however, it would have prevented the game from feeling as average as it does in this regard.
Crane, however, is anything but average. When not playing the role of teacher’s pet, Crane is reporting back to the GRE with progress reports and receiving orders contrary to what he believes. This could be as little as being told to steal research that could potentially lead to a cure, or as extreme as being told to destroy life saving medicine just to get close to a target. This conflict of orders and morals gradually eats away at Crane to the point where he takes an active role in saving the people of Harran, defying those who sent him in. While even this internal struggle is quite familiar, it makes Crane stand out in a world of, well, zombies.
It’s nice to see a game like this with a character whose number one objective isn’t just “killin’ zambies”. Crane’s personality shines when he interacts with the different factions, snapping off witty retorts and some genuinely funny dialogue. He hates the same infected you do (all of them) and there were a few times where it seemed like he was taking the words right out of my mouth. As familiar as Crane is as a character, his type, the way he acts, etc, in the environment of Dying Light, he was refreshing. In fact, he stands so far apart from just about every other character; it’s almost as if he was created/written by an entirely separate team. While the villain Rais manages to steal some quality screen time, Crane is truly the star of the show.
As good of a character as Crane is, he isn’t the focus. That would be the parkour gameplay elements that define Dying Light’s very existence. It would be too easy to just make another Dead Island type game, albeit a higher quality one, and call it a day. Rather than take the easy way out, Techland decided to breathe new life into the tired zombie formula, to great effect. The rush from leaping across rooftops, climbing away for dear life from the infected below, and sprinting through the darkness trying to reach somewhere safe, these are the moments that define Dying Light. These are only made possible with the well designed parkour mechanics and tight controls. The game does a fine job of introducing the mechanic in baby steps, taking you through a controlled environment and teaching you the very basics, enough to survive anyway. It’s fitting given the fact that in the “real” scenario an in-depth tutorial isn’t something you’d probably expect. Much of the mechanic is learned by doing, by learning the lay of the land, the shortcuts, and the various nuances of what you can and cannot climb, at least not yet.
Over the course of play you’ll gradually become better and better, both in your own skill and with the addition of new moves and overall faster execution from Crane. The way you play early is very different from the way you play late in the game. By the time you are blissfully channeling your inner Spiderman, grappling from building to building, and leaping gaps that would otherwise seem death defying; you’ll realize you still haven’t had quite enough as you seek out more challenges to conquer. Most of those challenges, unfortunately, will come from confusion about climbable objects. The vast majority of the time if it looks like you can climb it you either can, or are just missing the ability to do so at this time. Then there are the times, specifically when engaged in a life or death chase, that you reach out to grab something only to find you can’t, or simply won’t climb it. As wonderful as this system is, it is just as frustrating when it doesn’t work. Again, these instances are not frequent, but they happen enough to urge a bit of caution.
Parkour isn’t the only satisfying gameplay available in Dying Light as combat is visceral. Much of the emphasis is placed on melee combat, which has great fluidity and gruesome effects. Targeting different limbs will sever them, while focusing your efforts on head attacks will make generally short work of opponents, at least your basic infected. As you use your weapons, they degrade and lose effectiveness. You can repair them, but even that is limited. To maintain the durability of your weapons you can use the various environmental traps set up around the city. Whether it’s a spike wall, ledge, or UV Light, these can be just as effective as the “direct approach”.
Making too much noise will bring out virals which are much more fearsome foes. They will chase you up buildings and dodge your attacks, making them much more difficult to defeat. Even worse, these particular infected have retained enough of their humanity that they will ask you to stop attacking or put up their arms in a fearful defense, before the virus retakes control and renews its attack. It’s jarring the first few times it happens, but it is something you unfortunately learn to overcome.
There are other powerful zombies that swing large clubs and hulking zombies that charge and throw you, but the most fearsome of your foes is the Volatile. These powerful infected only spawn at night and will chase you down if you are in their line of sight for too long. Even late in the game when you are at your strongest, the Volatile can quickly overwhelm you and send you packing back to the nearest safe zone. Many of the game’s most tense moments follow a Volatile spotting you at the worst possible moment. While many of these enemies are fun to fight, infected like the Toad and Bomber tend to be more annoying than anything else. Toads fire long range attacks that, at long range, are generally easy to avoid. However, get in close and they seem to become unavoidable. Even if you do dodge it, they can explode and attract Virals, making for even more trouble. Bombers are just what they sound like, they explode. All too often you’ll open a door or run through an unassuming pack of infected only to be blown to bits, and just as with the Toad, survival rarely means safety as the ensuing explosion will only serve to attract more threats.
During the day, most threats can be handled with relative ease; it is at night that things become truly dire. At first it might not seem so bad, the regular infected get a little antsier and keeping to the rooftops seems more beneficial than ever. The next thing you know, you’re running blindly through alleyways with the fear that if you turn on your flashlight the Volatiles will spot you again. Night time is dangerous, of this there is no doubt, but it can also be the most fun. Pulling off a full night survival without being spotted is immensely rewarding, both for your pride and for Crane. Power and Agility experience is doubled at night and the longer you stay away from safe zones the greater your XP becomes. For a player confident in their ability, the rewards far outweigh the risks, but even the best are one mistake away from and almost assured death.
It is stunningly impressive how well Dying Light sets the mood, but then again, Techland showed a certain level of prowess in this regard in Dead Island. Seeing city slums full of infected, signs saying “survivors inside” only to find infected, it sets an exciting tone. Hearing blood curdling screams in the distance, and later learning that those screams are coming from very real enemies, injects a surprising level of fear in a game where you might not expect it. Hearing stories from random survivors about how or why they are in Harran, and how they saw the world around them effectively end keeps you grounded in the idea that the situation is bleak. It’s just a shame that most of your interactions are not with these characters but those of the tower or Rais’ men. These dullards simply spew repetitive lines seemingly irrelevant to the current situation or exist only to fill some obligatory zombie movie role. It’s a shame that these shortcoming overshadow such a quietly but well realized setting.
While challenging the hordes of infected littering the streets is fun enough solo, adding in a friend or three can make for exciting and hilarious moments. There is just nothing quite as satisfying as jumping off a friend’s shoulder into a massive dropkick. You’ll need to get through the opening tutorial before you can invite friends to your game and play every mission except for the very last. Co-op is very well thought out in the sense that it tracks progress only for missions you are on, warns of spoilers if you are on a mission you have not yet reached, and allows you to share weapons and equipment no matter your level or progress. Co-op is easy to get into and hard to put down, making the game far more enjoyable than just going it solo.
Even once you’ve finished the game and think you’ve done everything, there are still plenty of collectables to find and side quests to complete. Zombie statues and flags are hidden high among the rooftops and inside various shops and homes. Plenty of NPCs are desperate for your kind of help, and while some of them truly need the help, others could be trying to record a massive movie scene or cure their lycanthropy. While most quests, side or otherwise, tend to be of the dullest variety, a few really stand out as enjoyable either from a gameplay perspective or in regards to the short stories they tell.
You’ll likely want to continue exploring the game thanks to its beautiful visuals. The overall artistic design isn’t particularly stunning, but Dying Light is one of the most technically impressive games you can buy. At time’s you’ll surely have some hiccups, but these are fairly rare events, though it is safe to say they are more likely on PC. There are some obvious optimization issues, especially if you try to exceed 1080p, but with the right rig you’ll be in for quite a treat. Even more impressive is the soundtrack, which seems to come out of left field in the best possible way. The almost Mass Effect sounding tracks are punctual and moment defining. One of my favorite things to do is capture safe zones, just to hear the brief track that plays once cleared. Just when you think you’ve heard its best, the game throws another surprising track at you that will have you searching for it on YouTube. The voice acting is passable, but just barely for most characters. Weapon effects can be as gruesome to hear as they are to see, and I imagine they are accurate since I lack both the pipe and skull to smash to prove them wrong.
Dying Light does a lot to avoid being just another zombie game, without going the full extra mile to do so. The focus on parkour makes for exciting gameplay and visceral combat makes slaying infected a blast. That being said, the story lacks anything special, despite having a surprisingly strong main character. As easy as it is to want to hate on Dying Light, the things the game gets right are about as good as they can be and are more than good enough to make Dying Light a game well worth playing. It may be just another zombie game to some, but it is the best just another zombie game out there.