Let there be light?
Techland’s latest entry into the zombie apocalypse genre is a technically brilliant offering, but how does the pernicious parkour party hold up?
Going into this, I must say, I’ve enjoyed the previous work from this studio, with the Dead Island series being some of the better times I’ve had with a zombie game, the original being the game that made me fall in love with the genre, so whilst being professional and giving this a clean slate, I was immediately delighted to find an Easter egg within the opening mission referring back to the brilliant Coolio-inspired theme song.
But that’s simply where the similarity ends.
Whereas Dead Island was a very simple yet fun game that offered very little mechanically or graphically but was insanely fun to play, this game immediately displayed its intensity and firmly placed itself in a totally different bracket from a graphical standpoint.
SOLID VISUALS, AND A GREAT WORLD
The game does look good, it has to be said. And it does the thing that post-apocalyptic worlds seem to do so well where somehow you ignore the rotting flesh around your feet, because somehow, the way the sun peeks over the abandoned windmill in the distance is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, and God, it makes you miss the good old days of civilisation. It also holds up really well throughout the game’s many upscaling and performance options, meaning that on a weaker device, you won’t have to sacrifice much in the way of visual fidelity in exchange for a smoother performance experience, which is really something you can’t compromise on.
The gameplay is entirely dependent on fluidity and knowing the environment, which for a brand new player can be a VERY steep, but enjoyable learning curve. The game doesn’t give you that much in the way of obvious visual “climb on this” cues, so being chased and leaping off the edge of a building and hoping to goodness that your character grabs onto what looks like some kind of ledge only to watch on helplessly as you scrape your soon-to-be-eaten face along the outer wall of a building as you plummet to the ground at terminal velocity. It’s frustrating, but once you get it down to a fine art, you’ll soon be flying effortlessly over obstacles and barely flinching as you clear rooftops to escape hordes of the undead or chase down those who are soon-to-be.
The general pacing of the game is quite slow as the scene is set carefully, gradually introducing you to the dystopian surroundings you now call home. On one hand, this is useful for easing the player in gradually, not risking drowning the new player what is admittedly a lot of information, but at the same time, it can also feel like a REALLY long pseudo-tutorial that spans potentially over an hour before the game really lets you loose with the apocalypse.
Thankfully, there’s a LOT to do and discover and have fun with, so in the long haul, that lengthy easing-in will become a distant memory, but in the moment, it can definitely drag.
A TALE OF REVENGE, BUT IS IT ANY GOOD?
The story itself is, without spoiling too much, one of discovery, vengeance and reconnection. The world falls into disarray in the not-to-distant future and the remaining people are somehow attempting to “live with the infection” following the poor handling of the initial outbreak (sound familiar?) and you are a pilgrim, something of a courier, travelling between the sparsely distributed communities doing tasks for inhabitants and surviving as long as you can. Whilst searching for someone from your past, you encounter a village currently embroiled in a bubbling turf war between the local residents and a militia who claim to protect them. In order to get what you want, you’ll need to curry favour with both sides in a town where the politics are as dangerous as the environment, and while good, the story isn’t anywhere near the best part of the game. Open-worlding has the thing that the story lacks – fun.
Have you ever been for a meal out and the sides are better than the main course? This is one of those situations. It’s not that the main course is bad by any stretch, just that everything else is more fun. From carrying out side quests for the inhabitants of the city to chasing down bandits as part of your daytime Punisher impersonation credits or sneaking through zombie-infested Dark Zones looking for rare materials and upgrades, the free-roaming is where this game shines.
Where the main story takes itself incredibly seriously with gritty themes and suffocating tension, the open world is truly your oyster, albeit a rotten zombie-infested one with death awaiting you with every chewed mouthful, but that’s the fun of it.
The overall world itself is a strange one, because whilst a lot of effort has clearly gone into making an interlocking web of personalities and relationships, the player’s interaction with them feels the furthest thing from dynamic. Maybe it’s the dialogue, but everything seems like a series of static set pieces and the world doesn’t feel like it’s going to progress without you. The side quests that these open up can be a lot of fun in bursts, but generally, the world itself feels like there’s a lot going on but also, at the same time, next to nothing at all. And that seems to be the overarching feel for this title: most of the game ambles along occasionally providing highly enjoyable, dynamic moments of tension, but generally shuffling in one direction or another, offering less in the way of enjoyable engagement than in previous incarnations, very much akin to the zombies themselves.
From the same studio that was able to give us a light-hearted-yet-incredibly fun title such as Dead Island, they’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum: a game that offers a lot from a technical and mechanical standpoint, but unfortunately, it didn’t mesh together into a fun end product for me.