Stepping out into an apocalyptic wasteland is certainly a harrowing and hellish experience. Fallout 3 showed us how dire, and yet how beautiful, those first few steps outside can be, and Dying Light successfully hits on those notes within its opening moments. A hesitant trundle begins your journey into a zombie-filled nightmare, but this slow-paced walk eventually transforms into a full-on hurdle, as the game’s speed, along with its fun, increase rapidly as the decaying denizens of Harran are sliced, bashed, fried and dismembered. Techland have significantly improved upon their earlier creation of Dead Island, and while the story still suffers from a severe case of deadness, there are plenty of thrills to be found through some awesomely quick gameplay, in this scary, scary world.
The speed here, of course, comes from Dying Light’s much-emphasised free-running mechanics. Instead of the slow and shambling approach of other zombie offerings, the game’s protagonist, Kyle Crane, jumps, dodges, sprints and plummets his way around a huge open world. Parkour is not just an option here; it is a necessity. Frantic moments are extremely common in Dying Light, and quick reflexes are constantly needed to vacate the vicinity with style, in order to escape the chomping mouths of your pursuers. While you can sometimes get stuck on pieces of debris, or perhaps misstep a few jumps here and there, the traversal is mostly fantastic. The satisfaction of making a well-timed leap never grows tiring; it is a great way to manoeuvre around the world when combat is not an option.
Of course, combat is sometimes very much an option, and thankfully, myriad weapons are available for use in any situation. If you need to cut off a few limbs, there are swords; if you need to bash in some heads, there are baseball bats (wood and aluminium!); if you need to deal with some tricky zombies en masse, then a host of guns are close at hand to rain down lead upon the decrepit multitudes. Melee combat is just as good, if not better than the parkour. Confronting enemies is always a pleasurable experience, and cutting off limbs and heads has never been so wonderfully gory. Although swords, machetes, and cleavers are satisfyingly brutal, the heavier firepower options are less than stellar. Pistols and machine guns may help you out of some tight spots when melee weapons just won’t cut it, but they are difficult to aim and are exceptionally clunky. Unfortunately, no proper first-person shooter mechanics have been implemented here.
Hitting a zombie with a heavy bludgeon may bash its skull in successfully, but sometimes a little more power can go a long way. A series of blueprints are available to upgrade weapons, through the additions of fire, electricity, or bleeding effects. These can increase your chances of survival significantly, as groups of enemies can be quickly dispatched with one fatal swipe of your deadly flame sword. These aren’t the only upgrades that Dying Light sends your way however, as Crane’s various skill sets can be bolstered periodically; granting him more strength, agility and survivability as he progresses.
These upgrades become essential as you get deeper and deeper into Harran’s troubled territory. The beginning missions may have you cowering in fear at the weakest zombies around, but eventually you begin to feel more powerful, and as a result, the more disgusting and mutated creatures that you face turn into little more than cannon fodder. During the day, there are zombies that spit radioactive waste, those that can run with startling pace, and even toddler-like variants that call forth others to aid them in their torment. Enemy encounters also remain varied with the inclusion of humans. Battling a person feels decidedly different than wildly hitting a blunt object off of a zombie’s face. This begs to be likened to The Last of Us’ combat system, as humans are far less predictable, and a great deal more skill is needed to take down even the most feeble of raiders.
Dying Light does a great job at highlighting your strength during the day, but at night, the game changes into a terrifying survival horror, where you feel anything but powerful. Your watch will beep at around nine o’clock in the evening, and this is when it is time to worry. The sun goes down, and you are plunged into an incredibly dark world; not just a little dark, but a completely black landscape. The regular zombies will, of course, remain outside, but even more horrific creatures, known as Volatiles, leave their bloody nests to hunt you down. They react to even the slightest noise, and facing them in combat generally ends in your sticky demise.
The only choice here is to run, and in doing so, you gain extra points towards your agility skill. This added incentive in leaving your comfy home behind at night is a nice reward, but for those that are too cowardly to do so (myself included), the game doesn’t beat you over the head with this mechanic. Instead, you can sleep to push the clock forward, waiting until morning to brave the slums once again. Thanks to Dying Light’s four player co-op, these night-time forays are a little more manageable, but can still provide a difficult challenge for even the most experienced team of apocalyptic explorers.
The first area available for exploration, a rusty shanty town that makes me wince for fear of tetanus, is a beautiful mess. Its crumbling structures and piles of trash are strongly juxtaposed with its crystal clear waters and shimmering palm trees, but everything in sight looks gorgeously polished. You then travel to Old Town, a zone that keeps things fresh with its architectural brilliance and awesome verticality; it truly feels like a first-person Assassin’s Creed. Sending careless zombies toppling from great heights onto the cobbled streets below may be an enticing activity, but there’s plenty more than that on offer here. You can complete challenges, find hidden collectibles and exterminate infestations within quarantine zones to keep you busy for dozens of hours. Either alone, or with friends, this world is perfectly expansive, deep and forever entertaining.
The gameplay may be a sublime treat, but it contrasts starkly with the lacklustre story. Crane is tasked with finding information on how to cure the remnants of society from this zombie plague. Roger Craig Smith may provide some much-needed humour in this overly serious affair, but his central character appears to be almost schizophrenic in his portrayal; he goes from the joking buddy to the generic soldier within seconds. Interesting ideas are brought to the table regarding Crane’s moral standing, as he struggles to help both his government agency and Harran’s people in need, but this is never truly capitalised on. He seems to question his ethics at times, but then proceeds to do what is perceived as “right”, without considering its effects. A good morality system could have been implemented here to create a foundation for a morally ambiguous, and more interesting, characterisation.
The main quests are often generic ventures down corridors of enemies, and bashing zombies with clubs out in the open-world is much more preferable. Characters along the way are also underdeveloped, especially Jade, who is essentially a nobody for the first two thirds of the game, and is then ramped up into love interest territory within its closing moments. Furthermore, Dying Light’s writing sometimes ventures towards the unintentionally humorous, with flecks of melodrama that become hilariously comical. A favourite utterance of mine was a particularly deep phrase said by Crane himself, after almost drowning: “Oh my God. My lungs.”
However bad the main story may be, the game’s side missions are surprisingly great. They are often twisted tales of humanity’s increasing degradation, as it is faced with the devastation of an apocalyptic threat. There is an insane citizen that had created an artificial mother for himself out of old boxes, bottles and sticky tape, and even a babysitting wizard that is in denial over his wife’s horrid transformation into a cannibalistic soul. These hit on emotional notes that are almost nowhere to be found amongst the silly antics of the main quest.
Uninteresting story elements aside, Dying Light is still immensely enjoyable because of its reliance on an exceptionally fun traversal system, terrifying night-time encounters, and powerfully destructive weapons. The shambling monotony of Dead Island has been replaced by the fantastic free-running of Assassin’s Creed, to create a zombie experience that abounds in beauty, brains, blood and fun. Good night, but an even greater game.