Dying Light exhibits so much polish, scope, competent design, and edge of your seat gameplay that I can’t believe it’s from the same studio that made Dead Island. This is a huge improvement over the sloppy and tonally dissonant zombie game is in every conceivable way. Whereas Dead Island had a campy, 1970s slasher flick vibe, Dying Light feels like a John Carpenter film (I say that because the game’s soundtrack is so evocative of a Carpenter flick).
Moving away from sandy beach resorts, Dying Light puts the player in the quarantined city of Harran, a fictionalized recreation of a Eastern European city that, amidst preparations for a global Olympics-style event, collapsed under the weight of a zombie outbreak. A government agency called the GRE has been acting as Harran’s external support, delivering supplies and medicine to the survivors trapped inside. Kyle Crane, a GRE operative, has been dropped into the city to put out a dangerous fire: a politician has stolen sensitive GRE documents, fled to Harran, and threatens to expose the information to the world. Crane’s drop immediately goes sour, as he is attacked by bandits and a swarm of the undead. He is rescued by a Runner and led to a survivor base but is bitten and infected.
The nature of the zombie virus in Dying Light is different from the atypical George Romero breed. Contained within the GRE drops is Antizin, medicine that halts – but not cures – the zombie plague. Crane’s infection manifests itself periodically through sudden seizures and decreased stamina, however these episodes only occur when it is most convenient to the story. Where Dead Rising 2 had you administering regular doses of Zombrex, this particular infection doesn’t require any attention.
Like Dead Island, Dying Light is an open world action game that has you completing story missions and performing side activities to fill the time and strengthen your character. Player progression is one of the best aspects of the game because it matures as you work through the game. Skills and abilities fall in three different skill trees: Survival, Combat, and Agility. Survival points are earned by completing objectives and delivering GRE cargo drops to quartermasters. Combat and Agility are earned with every strike of a weapon and free running action.
The game’s parkour-based traversal system is implemented well and recalls memories of Mirror’s Edge. With no way to fast travel from one safe house to another, the player must huff it from point A to point B on foot. This generates a wonderful amount of tension as the prospect of running across a town overrun by zombies is a daunting task. Free running makes the journey a little easier, as Crane can climb atop shacks, rooftops, and walls to avoid the undead mob. Not only is parkour a viable means to get around and avoid combat, it is the best way to increase Crane’s Agility skill. As an added, Pavlovian bonus, points pop up on the screen every time you perform a parkour move. The same goes for combat, as well. Earn Combat points and develop new ways to slaughter zombies with every strike and kill.
There are two distinctly different playgrounds in Dying Light that make upgrading Combat and Agility points an easy feat. The Slums, which represents about 75% of the game, houses the city’s less desirable runoff created during Harran’s preparations for the world games event. As a matter of fact, the dilapidated nature of the area brings to mind the result of 2014’s poorly managed Sochi Winter Olympics. Small hovels and worn down communities are placed around train yards, underneath overpasses and frame poorly constructed urban developments. Old Town is stylistically different and is clearly the Harran city delegates and games officials want the public to see. The old world glamour shines through the architecture as tall residences create artificial walls around large courtyards, parks, and community areas. I really liked Old Town for its design but its easy too easy to avoid danger by keeping to the roofs. Why hassle with monsters when you can easily avoid them?
The threats against Crane are many. Zombies are numerous and flood the streets with their shambling corpses. The undead have their own hierarchy, with Biters standing at the lowest level. Biters are slow and stupid but get too close and they’ll lunge, pulling you in close for a quick bite. Above the Biters are Volatiles, a sort of super-zombie class of monsters that are faster and deadlier than your average walking corpse. Base level Volatiles do nothing more than run faster and have the ability to dodge and evade attacks. Other Volatiles come with special attacks, like the Toads who spit poison and Bloaters that explode when you get too close. The Volatiles are the only creatures that can be detected on the mini-map and care must be taken in fighting and avoiding them. The most dangerous Volatile are those that show up when the sun goes down.
Dying Light‘s night cycle does a fantastic job of instilling a sense of danger and fear. When darkness falls, it is almost impossible to see anything without the aid of a flashlight or flare. The final class of Volatiles make their appearance at this time and in darkened areas. These terrifying and ugly masses of flesh can kill in two hits and are even deadly in groups, no matter how strong Crane has become. All Volatiles react to light and loud noises, but these monsters have a line of sight that shows up on the mini-map. If you get spotted, the best thing to do is run like hell to a safe house or lure them into UV light traps. The light won’t kill them but it’ll break off their pursuit long enough for you to catch a quick breath and find a safe zone. Death can be a real pain in the ass because each time you die, you lose Survivor points. There’s an implication that with losing too many will make you go down a level. However, I died a great deal and didn’t see any noticeable downgrade in my abilities. Plus, story and side missions offer a generous amount of points making it easy to recover from any deficit.
With the night time’s increase in difficulty, what are the incentives for exploring during the wee hours? Agility and Combat points are doubled at night and extra Survivor points are earned for evading pursuits with Volatiles. As tantalizing as that sounds, there really is no reason to venture out at night unless you’re looking for a challenge. Very few story missions are set at night – not many secondary missions either, for that matter – and if you spend the majority of the daytime fooling around and taking in the world, you’ll easily acquire high level skills.
Not all of Harran’s monsters are zombies. When Crane arrives in town, he falls in with a group of good Samaritans organized by a parkour instructor. On the opposite end of town, a ruthless warlord named Rais is representative of everything wrong about humanity in a crisis. Opportunistic and cruel, Rais is well armed and well equipped to handle the apocalypse and uses force to secure the supply drops brought in by the GRE. In the Slums, airdrops occur throughout the day at random intervals, their presence indicated by the sound of a cargo plane and a vibrating controller. This is your cue to consider whether or not you want to break off from the main path and capture the supplies. Time is always against you during these drops. Get there soon enough and you’ll get the full compliment of supplies uncontested. Take too long and they’ll get stolen by Rais’ men. You might even stumble upon them collecting the goods and itching for a fight. Supply drops can be traded with the quartermasters for a good chunk of Survival points.
Rais’ crew might be better equipped but that doesn’t mean you’re completely defenseless. Dying Light makes use of a craft system that is well realized and doesn’t feel like it was added because crafting systems in video games is so hot these days. You’ll find respawning crafting tools and implements all over the city that can be combined to make medkits, special boosters, and weapons. There are also blueprints to seek out that imbue knives, bats, and wrenches with elemental features of varying strength. The only caveat is that weapons degrade over time and come with a limited number of repairs. Most weapons can be fixed three times before they become useless. There are special skills to be earned by levelling up that offer free repair chances. The degradation system sounds like more trouble than its worth, but you’re never too far away from a weapon. By the end of the game, I had more machetes, pistols, and rifles than I knew what to do with.
There’s a great sense of progression in Dying Light. The game can be pretty difficult at first but it gives you many opportunities to understand how it all works that you’ll be strong enough to handle anything thrown at you in no time. There are, however, a few unavoidable annoyances. The Bloaters quickly become my most hated and feared Volatile. Unlike his brethren, the Bloaters are difficult to distinguish from other zombies if you approach it from the rear. Countless times have I attacked what I though was a regular Biter only to die from the Bloater’s explosive attack. In what can only be describe as pure masochism on Techland’s part, they sometimes position Bloaters on the other side of an open door. If they spot you, it takes them about a second to explode, leaving you some time to get away. In an areas tighter confines death is often unavoidable and extremely cheap.
Another oddity are the shops. With every safe house you acquire, there’s a chance someone will set up a store. Apart from crafting supplies and medkits, they’ll offer a suite of expensive melee, firearms, and throwable weapons, many of them costing an exuberant amount of money. Compared to what you can craft to the stock weapons in the shops, this is a complete waste of time. You’re better off paying the meager funds to buy up all of the supplies. Although it can be found practically everywhere, money gets inconsequential pretty quickly.
Finally, add Dying Light to the list of games that use Quick Time Events for their final boss encounters. There are very few instances of QTEs in the game outside of pushing away attacking zombies and opening certain panels (and even then, you’re just pushing one button repeatedly). In a game that does a decent job with boss battles, trading combat with a cutscene that allows the villain to spout cliched muck is a real disappointment.
I’m surprised with how much I enjoyed Dying Light. Obsessed, actually. Earning points for performing regular fights of combat and agility is more rewarding than it sounds, especially as you watch Crane get more and more experienced with each level increase. Even the game’s playground is wildly fun. This is one of those environments where you’re(almost) free to go anywhere you want. The world of Dying Light is compelling, interesting and fun to explore. I even made use the companion app which was a great way to earn extra supplies outside of the game. You can put together a care package filled with the usable crafting items, weapons, and medkits your scouts discover and pick them up from any quartermaster in the game. The game has its share of faults but none of them muddy the water.
Last minute observations:
- Drop kicking zombies off roofs will never, ever get old.
- Pathfinding during the game’s chase scenes got really frustrating. I have yet to see one game that can make getting around the map while other people shoot or chase you easy and headache free. It’s made all the worse here by losing Survival points.
- Dying Light‘s sewer system area is much, MUCH better than the god damned nightmare it was in Dead Island. Jesus Chrsit, I still break into a sweat when I think about that terrible place.
- I was hypnotized by NPCs chewing gum. It’s both hilarious and incredibly unsettling. Especially when it’s a kid.