It’s hard to say exactly when it started, but at some point over the last few years, gamers became obsessed with zombies. Whether it’s another Resident Evil remake, or more CoD: Black Ops DLC, much like the mindless horrors that they star, zombie-themed videogames are impossible to get away from.
So in a market already saturated with the living dead, how do developers keep the undead theme interesting? For Techland, the answer was simple. Take an open-world, zombie survival sim and splice it together with Mirrors Edge style, first-person parkour.
The result isn’t all that bad, and they’ve called it Dying Light.
You play as Global Relief Effort operative, Kyle Crane, airdropped into the quarantined city of Harran to retrieve an important document from a rogue agent. A difficult task in itself, and one made even harder by the army of darkness that lines the city’s streets. The mission doesn’t get off to the best of starts though, as thirty seconds in, Crane gets himself beaten up by some thugs and bitten by an undead. Some passing survivalist types come to aid the hapless hero, and drag him off to a fortified apartment block where he’s patched up, and given some errands to run. Cue open world exploration.
Once you’ve been let loose in the city, it won’t take long for the ‘inspirations’ from other IPs to make themselves glaringly obvious. Ubisoft’s Far Cry feels like it’s had the heaviest influence on Dying Lights design; from it’s mission structure and levelling system, to it’s harvestable plants and curious obsession with radio masts. As you monkey about the place, greyed-out parts of the map are gradually uncovered, revealing side-quests, challenges and other optional distractions. To navigate between them all (without being eaten en route), you’re encouraged to run, jump and climb as much as possible. And whilst the parkour does an admirable job of emulating EA’s Mirrors Edge, it’s just not quite as fluid. This is mostly down to the world’s non-linear design, but consequently you’ll find yourself having to stop and look around a lot before moving from point to point.
Of course, you can’t avoid the hordes forever, and sooner or later you’re going to have to fight something. The vast majority of combat is melee based, and consists of caving zombie’s skulls in with blunt instruments. Which wouldn’t be all that bad if it weren’t for the impossibly delicate weapons Crane is made to use. Each one you pick up has its own durability, which deteriorates at an alarming rate. Pressing Y while something’s equipped will allow you to repair it, but only a finite number of times. Meaning that even the rarest armaments will only last so long before they’re gone for good.
As a result, you’re encouraged replenish your arsenal using the in-game crafting system. If you can find some blueprints and a few household materials, you can create tools of destruction on par with Dead Rising’s level of ridiculousness. Electrified stun batons, flaming tomahawks, freeze shields, there really are some imaginative designs, and plenty of them. But actually putting them together is a hassle, and they suffer from the same frustrating flimsiness as every other weapon in Harran. There are enough generic metal pipes and claw hammers lying around to make the crafted tools completely redundant. And at least when a found weapon breaks, you don’t feel like you’ve wasted precious time and resources jury-rigging the thing together.
Health packs, molotovs, firecrackers, etc. all need assembling before they can be used. And while the whole system seems designed to add to the ‘survival’ angle of Dying Light’s story, it really only serves to break the flow of gameplay and increase the amount of time spent in your pause menu.
The fluidity of both combat and movement do see a drastic improvement once you’ve made progress in their respective skill trees though. A bar at the top of the screen indicates Crane’s agility and strength, and each level increase is rewarded with a skill point to buy a new ability with. The starting moves on offer are fairly basic: charge attacks with melee weapons, breakfalls out of big drops, etc. But eventually the fun stuff becomes available, like grappling hooks for swinging about town, and stealth takedowns on unaware enemies.
The scale of these skill trees is simultaneously one of Dying Light’s best and worst features. As while there really is some tremendously fun stuff on offer (the running dropkick being a personal favourite), it’s a long time before you get access to anything useful, and you end up feeling horribly underpowered in the early game.
It’s a system that rewards persistence, but whether it’s worth persisting with for Dying Light’s story is questionable. The narrative is sub-par at best and isn’t helped by a cast of uninteresting, bored-sounding characters. There are some great set pieces in the mid to late game, but they’re few and far between, and a lot of the main missions feel like padding for the sake of longevity. Lazy quest design is even more evident in the side-missions, which seem to almost exclusively consist of ‘go here and retrieve item X for person Y’.
In short, just how much fun Dying Light has to offer will depend very much on the player. For those that are patient enough to plough through the first fifty percent of the campaign, there are some interesting areas to explore and some truly memorable gameplay sequences. Sneaking around at night to avoid more powerful enemies is tremendously tense, and the chases that follow are exhilarating. It’s not a bad game, but it does take a long time to gain traction. If you don’t mind the repetitive missions and combat, there’s a huge amount of content to be found here. The story plus a handful of side quests will easily occupy fifteen hours play. Allow some time for the games co-op multiplayer and the now free-to-everyone ‘Be the Zombie’ mode, and you’re looking at closer to thirty hours or more.
The narrative is generally weak save for a few interesting twists, but you get the feeling that it was never the focus in the first place; and that the game is really just an excuse for putting together some silly weapons and having fun with a city full of undead.
If that sounds like your thing, then grab the flimsiest monkey wrench you can find and jump right in.