I’m so sick of zombies. They’re in our video games, our movie theaters, our TVs, and our fiction. Using the undead as a foil has become so cliche that seeing a zombie shambling down the street in real life wouldn’t even be scary any more. I’ve seen enough to know how to effectively deal with them. All fear would be gone.
But when Techland, the developer behind 2010’s Dead Island, built their newest game, Dying Light, they did something incredibly interesting. They used the undead as a tool, an obstruction, a puzzle to solve, and not just as an enemy, and in so doing, they’ve created a marvelous first person survival game that thrills for all the right reasons.
Dying Light takes place in a fictional middle eastern city called Harran. An outbreak there has caused the dead to not remain silent, and the world’s governments have quarantined the area, trapping still-living survivors inside.
The player jumps into the boots of Kyle Crane, an operative for the GRE, who is sent into the quarantine zone to retrieve a file that can supposedly save Harran, but the file is in the hands of a tyrant named Suleimon, and Crane must get it back. Of course, nothing is ever that easy, and from the opening cinematic of Crane parachuting into Harran, the game — and Crane’s world — goes bad quick.
Dying Light is told in first person, which helps amp up the tension when the player is running the streets filled with zombies. You never know what’s behind you until it’s too late. But the crown jewel here is Techland’s addition of parkour to the game. Crane can essentially climb anything, and the slower biter zombies can’t climb, so it gives the player an early advantage. Harran is filled with places to climb on, and running and jumping and climbing is just as thrilling as they would be in real life. But let’s be clear, there are things in the world that can — and will — climb, so don’t get too comfortable on the top of a bus or a shack, or even the three-story tall rooftops of apartment buildings.
The parkour elements make free running an exhilarating exercise. Crane becomes a “runner” for a group of survivors, and he is tasked with going out into the world and securing items and air drops for the greater good of the survivor community. So running and jumping becomes second nature very quickly.
The graphics and voice work are both solid, and the game looks good. I’ve noticed some de-rezzing around shadows, which is rare on the new gen systems (I’m playing this on a PS4), and some of the character models don’t look as good as others, but it’s not a game breaker by any stretch of the imagination. Harran itself is massive, with multiple areas to play in, each with its own unique style, and the lighting effects in both day and night are gorgeous. It’s just the fine details, like the shadows, that I notice but it doesn’t ruin anything for me. The power of the new gen systems really comes out in the sheer number of zombies in the streets, or the particles of ash that float in the air. There is a lot going on visually here, so de-rezzed shadows can be forgiven.
Combat in Dying Light is melee-heavy. Crane starts with a pipe and the weapons choices go up from there. Machetes, crowbars, even baseball bats all become your best friends, and each weapon will wear down and the number of times you can repair is limited. There are also buffs that can be added, like combining nails and duct tape with a hammer to create a zombie-shredding tool of destruction. Crafting plays a huge role here, and there are blueprints spread out over Harran for bigger, stronger weapons and upgrades.
I didn’t even get a chance at a gun until about a third of the way through my game (which for me was about 20 hours in), and when I did, I still preferred the melee weapons, solely because the quieter kills. Techland was smart and made firearms a provocative choice. Sure, you can obliterate most things with one shot, but that gunshot is noisy and will bring about a swarm of faster, more vicious zombies, called Volatiles, and these enemies can climb!
The player progression is very balanced as XP can be spent to upgrade nearly everything on Crane. It felt very natural as I grew in skill during my time in Harran, and I’m much stronger and more bad ass now than when I first started the game. There was no steep learning curve as the game nudged me where I needed to go and I learned what I felt I needed to to survive, based on how I was playing. These RPG-like elements really helped to draw me into the world of Dying Light, and by the end, I felt like I had actually contributed to that world. That alone speaks volumes for how this game is designed.
Another element that completely alters gameplay is the day/night cycle. When the sun goes down, a whole new type of monster emerges, one that actively hunts the player. You can shack up in a safe house or at home base and sleep the night away, but if you are caught outside, prepare for trouble. I’ve found that the majority of the people I’ve played with online enjoy being out at night, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I do not. When the light fades, I make a beeline to the nearest bed to sleep my way to dawn. And when an early story mission dictated that I had to go out into the night, I hated it, though I was able to get the needed materials to move the story along. But that’s just how I play, and that may be the best part of Dying Light: choice.
Since the game is open world, the player dictates the pace and how the story unfolds. I spend so much time gathering items and doing side quests that it’s taken me two weeks after launch to get this review ready to go. I’ve spent entire game sessions just leveling up by hunting biters and gathering needed items to make bigger and better weapons. And Techland has peppered the game with so many interesting easter eggs and other hidden gems that you never know what you may find. To say that I’m living a second life within the quarantined walls of Harran would be an accurate statement.
There is an option for up to three friends or complete strangers to join in your game. Playing with others is fun, and the assistance on certain quests is very much appreciated. You can opt in to join a game or to open your doors while in any safe house, and then the game will matchmake with players who are close in skill level. As I previously mentioned, the draw back here for me is that the majority of these folks want to play in the dark (and to be fair, XP is awarded with a bonus at night, so I understand the draw). But I have found a few groups that play like I do, and the group can create “games” like who can kill the most zombies or loot the most in a set period of time, which adds a whole new level of play to Dying Light.
The last major feature of the game is the “Be a Zombie” mode. It’s an online game where one player becomes a super-zombie and is tasked with hunting the other players, all the while they are trying to survive. This “super zombie” has some cool moves and can even direct the other zombies, which makes from some very unique scenarios. This mode was originally a pre-order bonus, but is now available as DLC. And as of this writing, the first DLC drop, Cuisine & Cargo, has hit the PSN Store and Xbox Live Marketplace. This is the first of three scheduled DLC packs that will extend an already massive game even further, and a season pass is available to snatch all three at one low price.
Dying Light skipped the busy holiday 2014 window and that choice may have been brilliant. The extra month or so gives the game its own time to breathe. Dying Light is a deep, thrilling, and fun game that offers players so much to do, and just when it might seem to be heading to monotony, the game changes with a new story element or zone, and the thrill of discovery starts all over. Techland has done an amazing job here, and Dying Light is the best game of 2015, and while that may be silly to say for a game that came out at the end of January, the bar has been set, and set pretty darn high.
Dying Light is available in both a retail and digital form for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One. This review was based off the Playstation 4 version, provided by Warner Bros. Games.
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