Developer Techland has had a crack at the open world zombie action/survival genre a couple times now with the releases of Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide. Decent if not spectacular, they return to have another stab at the undead in the form of Dying Light. Is it third time lucky, or another case of close but no cigar? Read on to find out.
Game: Dying Light
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
(Review code provided by publisher)
Confession, I wasn’t really a fan of the Dead Island games. Everything from the gameplay to the presentation was clumsy and awkward. It had some redeeming qualities, like the crafting, but nothing about it really stood out. The same can’t be said about Dying Light. It does stand out. You see, Techland has taken some elements from Dead Island, improved on them and added a little bit extra on for good measure. At its core Dying Light is a first-person open world survival game filled with zombies (that’s a mouthful), just like Dead Island, but the tone and feeling is completely different. Plus, it’s far more polished too.
You play as Crane, a GRE operative, sent into the zombie infested city of Harran to retrieve some vital information that has found its way into the wrong hands. Upon arrival, things go a bit haywire, and from then on it’s all about surviving while trying to retrieve the aforementioned information. You’ll come across various different human factions, teaming up and completing tasks for whoever gets you closer to completing your main objective. There’s some back and forth between yourself and the GRE via radio, but for the most part you’re left to fend for yourself. I must say, I found it a little strange how easily your character befriends the humans in Harran and just does what they ask of him, but I guess you have to do whatever to survive. Also, it’s not like the story is amazingly deep or filled with amazingly memorable characters. It’s all just about good enough to see you play through until the end, nothing more and nothing less.
The gameplay is where Dying Light truly shines bright, especially when it comes to the first-person parkour. It’s not as fluid or as fast paced as Mirror’s Edge (not initially anyway), but in the context of the game and who you are it more than works. If you look at an edge of an object and press R1, you can literally climb almost anything or anywhere in Harran. It’s so much fun. At times, the zombies almost became a side dish for me as I just simply wanted to run around and climb things, especially after levelling up my agility to a decent point. Yes, that’s right; you can level up one of three areas as you progress through the game, increasing your agility, power and ability to survive. The latter area ties into a nice little crafting system, allowing you to scavenge loot scattered around Harran to create things like medkits, molotovs and some inventive weapons. You have to find the corresponding blueprints before you can create certain objects, but once you do it’s simply a case of going into the crafting menu and pressing X. Voila, item created. If you can’t be bothered to find blueprints or look around for parts, you have the option of buying from “shops” or paying a visit to your quartermaster to pick up any items you might need. It’s better and more rewarding doing it all on your own though. Trust me.
Okay, despite me implying I almost forgot about the zombies thanks to the fantastic parkour, they play a huge part in Dying Light. Obviously. They are a constant, present in various different shapes and sizes whether it’s day or night, especially the latter. You see, during the day the majority of zombies (some are quick/agile) are slow and lumbering, being more of a nuisance or things to play around with. I prefer the second statement, mainly because I found it highly amusing testing new weapons out on them or luring them into explosive traps. That’s a testament to the quality of the combat, something that I found to be (pardon the pun) hit and miss in Dead Island. Just like Techland’s previous zombie efforts, melee combat is the order of the day. You can use anything from planks to pipes to bash zombie skulls in, but you do need to be careful as you have limited stamina and weapons will eventually become useless. Hey, it’s a survival game, right? There has to be some element of realism. As touched upon earlier, stamina is an element you can upgrade so that’s somewhat in your control. However, with weapons (even though you can upgrade) you can only repair them a limited number of times (usually one or two), therefore you need to use your best ones wisely.
At night, the balance of power shifts dramatically, with the entire mood of the game changing. The standard zombies remain, but new ones turn up too (volatiles). These undead are faster, smarter and just plain deadlier than anything you encounter during the day. Everything about Dying Light just becomes more tense and sinister. You also earn more XP, but at some cost! It’s brilliant. You can go about your business as usual, smacking zombies without care, but that wouldn’t be the sensible approach. You’ll just end up as dinner for the volatiles and be surrounded by the standard zombies in no time. In the dark, it’s best to use your survival instincts (allows you too see nearby zombies) and sneak your way to safety. This will usually mean working your way to higher ground or a safe house, bringing into play another facet of Dying Light’s gameplay.
Kind of like the towers in Far Cry (or almost any other Ubisoft game), you can choose to power up safe houses around Harran, making your life easier during the night. There are usually a few bigger zombies or faster ones lingering around these areas, so getting a safe house up and running is anything but easy. That’s where the risk-reward factor comes in, adding some level of depth to the gameplay. There are other side missions for you to complete too, many coming your way courtesy of characters you meet. Some are simple fetch quests, but the majority tie in quite nicely with the very good main story missions, keeping your interest rather than just being something extra to do. Plus, with the zombies a constant presence, quality parkour and fun combat, you’ll want to explore more of Harran anyway. I certainly did.
This might sound strange, but Harran is a visual treat. It’s no The Order: 1886, but given the size of the city and what it houses, it’s very impressive. During the day, sun rays caress the buildings and streets, showing off the overall detail very nicely. At night, the light from your torch illuminates the environment, helping to create a tense atmosphere. The dynamic weather system in Dying Light is also brilliantly implemented, whether it be the wind blowing tree leaves or the rain lashing down as you scythe through a group of zombies. On that topic, the undead are very well animated and modelled. Sure, you’ll see the same character model a few times, but that can be somewhat forgiven. What is less unforgivable is the horrible lip syncing present with every character. It’s clear to see in every cutscene, and a shame given that the voice acting is decent. Crane, the character you play as, voiced by Roger Craig-Smith (Batman in Arkham Origins) is the standout performance, but kudos to the other actors too. Special mention to the implementation of the radio chatter and other sounds coming out of the DualShock 4’s speaker, they’re all excellent and only help add to your immersion.
If you just focus on the main story missions, Dying Light will take you around 14 hours to complete, but throw some side missions into the mix and you can bump that number up to 25 hours. Before release, Techland stated there would be 50 hours of gameplay present, but that if you do everything. Like, literally everything. You have the option to play through the story with up to three friends. The co-op angle works extremely well, turning Harran into a bit of zombie bashing playground whether you’re playing at day or night. It’s great fun, even with randoms as I found out. Last of all, you have the Be the Zombie mode, allowing you to play as one the undead and join other players’ games. It’s a decent enough mode, but nothing more than a bit of a side dish to the main course.
The story isn’t great, featuring some weak characters, and the lip syncing is horrible, but that doesn’t take too much away from what is an excellent game. As far as open world zombie games go, Dying Light is up there with the best. The first-person parkour is glorious and the combat brutally satisfying. It’s safe to say, Techland has learned from their mistakes with Dead Island and crafted a deep, satisfying experience. Thanks to a clever day-night cycle, at times, it’s incredibly tense too. If you like your open worlds filled with zombies, make sure you take a trip to Harran.