Dying Light – Review

Title   Dying Light
Developer  Techland
Publisher  Warner Bros
Platform  Windows PC, Linux, PS4, Xbox One
Genre  Action RPG, Survival Horror
Release Date  January 28th, 2015
Official Site  http://dyinglightgame.com/

Dying Light has absolutely no business being one of the first big releases of 2015. It’s an open world, role playing, first-person zombie apocalypse game. Another zombie videogame for a market saturated with zombie videogames. Dying Light is the latest creation from Techland, who made the opinion-splitting Dead Island. Some people loved it – I wasn’t one of them – so to find out that they were having another crack at a zombie game filled me with a certain amount of unease.

Dying Light places us in the boots of Kyle Crane, a secret operative sent into an area by the Global Relief Effort, tasked with the mission of finding another operative who has gone rogue since the infection began. As we landed via parachute into the city of Harran, things went wrong and we ended up owing our lives to a local group of survivors. Being somewhat indebted to them and needing their general help and resources to aid our secret objective, we began to help them strengthen their base of operations in an apartment block known as The Tower.

The story that evolves from the initial opener has its own twists and turns but is fairly by the numbers. This isn’t a bad thing, although it would have been better had there been more to it. I didn’t need the philosophical depths of BioShock but at least something that got me a little more invested in how it was all going to play out.

Even if the story was a little predictable, I’m glad to say that I enjoyed that characters and their reactions to the goings on in the world. Kyle Crane comes across as a man struggling with the weight of the task at hand, while trying to comprehend the events unfolding in front of him. It makes for a likeable and realistic character, and the same can be said of the supporting cast; even if they’re lacking depth overall, they do sound like they are desperate, tired and struggling to survive, which is just what you want in this setting. To be honest, there are so many people dishing out information, not to mention the supporting cast in the two opposing camps, that I’m not surprised they seem shallow. Again, this isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but there are an awful lot of people to meet (and thankfully, they come in all shapes and sizes, ethnicities and accents).

Dying Light’s world is extremely brutal and unforgiving to begin with, regardless of your background. It will teach you to respect its take on a zombie apocalypse and if you can’t handle it, it will kick you in the teeth anyway. In the opening hours of Dying Light, you will never really feel equipped for the job at hand, and everything you do involves tremendous amounts of effort mixed with an exhausting struggle for survival. This becomes especially relevant during the night phases, but we’ll come back to those later. It’s only after playing for nearly twenty hours, that I now feel ready to take on Harran, and even then I get caught out. This is one of Dying Light’s best features, in that it gives you all the tools to become a zombie-slaying machine and you will constantly push your luck, getting yourself into increasingly dangerous situations because you feel like a superhero. It’s only when you mistime a jump or a swing that it all comes crashing down around you, terrifyingly quickly.

Before you can achieve this faux-superhero status, you’ll need to get used to the movement and combat systems. Techland’s take on parkour and free-running is pretty awesome and represents some of the best movement I’ve seen in a game, rivalling Assassins Creed, Mirrors Edge and Dishonored. Crane moves freely around the environment like a leaf on the wind and it seems to be an aspect of the game that Techland have absolutely nailed. The simple rule of ‘if it looks climbable, it probably is’ applies and allows for unparalleled access in and around Harran. Having these abilities makes the city feel bigger, adding verticality and depth in equal measure to a medium that regularly focuses on the straight and narrow. Titanfall felt like the freshest first-person shooter I’d played in years, and that was in no small part due to the movement abilities of the individual pilots, as opposed to the Titans – the same can be said for Crane in Dying Light. As far as I’m concerned there is no other game doing what Dying Light achieves in terms of character movement and environmental manipulation for achieving movement in the first person.

Being able to climb on, in and around everything would turn Harran into a playground if it wasn’t for two very important factors. Firstly, Crane’s a little bit shit from the word go. He can’t run far, he can’t climb much and, after a minute or two, he’s pretty tired out. This changes as you level up, which is done somewhat naturally, but to begin with you’re pretty rubbish from the outset and, given how you’ll want to jump straight in and start scrambling over everything like a hyperactive toddler, you’ll find yourself coming up short.

Secondly, zombies are everywhere. I mean this quite literally, too, because they’ll be on the ground, in the buildings, in the sewers, and you’ll be rubbing shoulders with plenty of them. You can regularly find yourself surrounded by five or six of them, which in almost any other zombie game isn’t really an issue, but here it becomes a very quick death sentence. Much like with Crane’s climbing abilities, he can’t defend himself very well to begin with. If you’re fighting one on one with a zombie, there is no reason why you can’t crack its skull in with five or six good swipes from a piece of rebar or wrench and emerge unscathed. This plan is totally flipped on its head when introduce just one or two more zombies, as you then become some sort of undead-juggling clown.

Techland have understood what it is zombies do and no longer will they just hit you, because zombies are more into eating people than punching them. Instead, one will hold you in place to make it easier for him and his friends to gnaw on you. These things understand that your greatest asset is your speed and manoeuvrability. If they deprive you of that, the playing field becomes very even and very dangerous for you – controlling a group is straightforward, but having the ability and strength to kill them before they kill you is an entirely different matter.

The combat itself is extremely satisfying and visceral; some incredibly bloody chunks get taken out of people with these weapons and each hit to a skull feels hefty, sticky and wet, like the tool is drenched in bits of skull and brain. Thankfully different weapons illicit a different response from the opposition. Wrenches, hammers and crowbars are likely to send zombies stumbling left and right, knives and cleavers are quick and vicious, with sickles and swords able hack off limbs with devastating ease. You also have a small collection of guns, but the ammo is quite rare or expensive and although they pack the punch that a gun usually would, the noise they generate will only attract all the wrong customers to enquire as to who is ringing the dinner bell.

Most of what you find will be melee weapons, and they will be your best friend throughout the adventure, although they come with their own set of problems, in as much as they degrade and need repairing. Unfortunately, each weapon has a limited amount of times it can be repaired, which, despite the complaints I’ve read, makes perfect sense – after all, there are only so many times you can fix a hammer before it finally loses structural integrity. When you do fix your weapons the repairs are actually represented as a physical change, for example, it might be strengthened with some metal parts and a piece of tubing, or re-enforced by a metal frame and masking tape. It’s a really nice touch to have a visual representation of something that could easily have been overlooked.

Whether you’re running away from them or standing to fight, Dying Light has a fairly decent array of enemies. A good majority of the time it’s regular zombies, but once you’ve done the first couple of missions the game unlocks its full spectrum of enemies, its day and night cycle, and everything in between. The opposition goes from simple zombies to the slightly more dangerous Virals. They’re fast, good at ducking and dodging your swings and can inflict a fair amount of damage if they attack you in groups. You’ve also got the bile-spitting zombies, the exploding suicide zombies and the seven foot tall, concrete-block-carrying fuckers. They’ve all got their own strengths and weakness but each provides something else to deal with, a challenge you either need to face or work out an alternative solution for. Learning how to think on your feet is a very important skill for survival, especially at night.

Dying Light has an outstanding day and night cycle that is simultaneously one of the most brilliant and terrifying things I’ve ever experienced in a game. It is such a subtle mechanic, and one that completely transforms how the game plays and how you play it. You go from being fairly confident and cocky with your actions into calculating every move and second guessing every step. The night phase brings with it a zombie horde with increased abilities in terms of speed and ability to deal damage. There will also be the inclusion of Volatiles. Volatiles are the zombie equivalent of Reapers from Blade II, jacked up with steroids, and with degrees from the Assassin’s Creed school of movement and free-running. They are not, under any circumstances, to be underestimated.

The day cycle in Dying Light lasts approximately sixty-four minutes, while the night cycle lasts seven minutes – and it’s about seven minutes too long. Every advantage and benefit given during the day is gone and your only choice are safe zones and UV lights, which the Volatiles hate. You’ll spend most of the night creeping around, using your ‘sense’ that acts like sonar to pick out where these guys are and working out a route to avoid them altogether – killing them is not an option for quite some time.

And yet despite the very obvious danger that night brings, you find yourself refusing to sleep to move to the day phase. Night brings with it the bonus of doubling your agility and power points, for a start, but if you die (which is a very real possibility) you risk sacrificing thousands of experience points. Travelling at night is also fraught with danger because Techland have done an excellent job of making the night completely pitch black, robbing you of your ability to move quickly and see what trouble lies ahead.

Ensuring that you’re fit for such tasks can be achieved by levelling up your character. It’s a pretty straightforward affair with the usual bevy of upgrades you’d expect: health boosts, dealing more damage, climbing faster, learning to slide, learning to jump over zombies, increasing your critical hit chances and so on. It’s straightforward but they all feel useful – no FarCry 3 skills here that you’ll use twice over a thirty hour playthrough. The method of levelling up actually makes your character feel quite personal and unique, to a certain degree. Do a lot of climbing and you’ll level up your free-running skills quicker and you’ll see results as your rank rises. Ignore the free running and focus on caving in some skulls and your combat skill will rise. Finally, your survivor skills can be increased by saving lives and recovering aid packages dropped by aircraft.

It’s not all roses, though, and I do have some concerns. Death doesn’t seem to bring much of a penalty, which I find a little jarring given how much focus there is on trying to survive. Techland says that they want to reward people for staying alive, rather than punishing them for dying. Seems like a reasonable mantra to me – people who explore and ‘survive’ the night, rather than going to sleep to forward the clock, will be in line for experience point bonuses and not having to race NPCs to supply drops. Still, death is more of an inconvenience than a punishment and the difficulty, although tricky at first, can plateau at various points as you ramp your character’s skills. If you become fully immersed in Dying Light, you’ll find that Techland want you to take increasingly stupid risks as a higher level character, getting yourself into more dangerous situations, and it’s here where you’ll be pushed to survive. Of course, if you just take your high level character and play it by the numbers, you’ll likely find the game gets a little easy in places.

There are a lot of systems in play within Dying Light that we have seen before elsewhere, and while we could consider this a negative aspect, no other game that I’m aware of combines them together with such flawless ease. The gameplay is top class and that is in no small part due to the fact that all these systems work and complement each other so well. If the combat and levelling was deemed excellent but the parkour just lacked the same amount of polish it would have had a seriously negative aspect on the overall product, so bravo to Techland for producing gameplay that maintains a constant high of fun and excellence.

Techland have also made a beautiful game and the screenshots don’t really do it justice. Smoke pours from buildings, dust whirls up around a plethora of bite-ridden corpses, and the sun burns into tin roofs – it’s a horrendously alarming vista to fall in love with, and yet, you’ll struggle to not be captivated by the sights around you. Adding to this are the excellent character models, the details on weapons, the damage you can cause to zombies, and the little details on everything you come in contact with. Some runners have their torches taped to their shoulders, whereas some have pocket torches; some zombies have army uniforms, whereas some were doctors or joggers, and while you’re busy hacking limbs or dodging human opposition, you’ll notice some Banksy-style art under the overpass and you’ll stop for a moment to admire the fact that someone from the art team went to the trouble of putting this seemingly pointless piece of art in one of the darkest corners of the game. Dying Light comes to life visually as the sun sets and rises – it’s just a sight to behold that I regularly get up high just to watch dawn break across the real city that never sleeps.

It is on these high peaks that you can soak in the sounds of the city, too. There will always be a growl of a zombie, a murmur of death around the corner, or the screams of someone else lost to the living dead, and it makes for a more believable environment. Most of the noises you’re going to be hearing will be from zombies and they certainly sound more threatening in groups – the relentless hum of their hunger a constant reminder that they shouldn’t be underestimated. All of this is good but it’s the soundtrack that is excellent, composed by Pawel Blaszczak, who has previously worked on The Witcher, Dead Island and Call of Juarez. I won’t go into tons of detail but trust me when I say, the soundtrack has been nailed and it acts as both a tool to ramp up the tension and help deliver some emotional blows in equal measure.

If you don’t want to do any of this alone you can do it with three other people in the co-op, which I’ve played extensively and can say is a blast. Not only can you experience this with other people but you can set up challenges on the fly at the push of a button in order to throw down the gauntlet to your team mates. It’s a great laugh and certainly one of the few occasions where I found myself wanting other people to come into my game for a few hours of zombie slaying. There is also the ‘Be A Zombie’ mode which came free for everyone. At the time of writing, I’ve only played the tutorial because I can’t seem to get into a game, which is certainly problematic. While I’ve not suffered any of the technical problems that other people seem to have, this is one that I can’t seem to get around. For now, however, I’m not penalising the game because it feels unfair to mark it down for such a small portion that I wasn’t expecting to have anyway.

Finally, it’s worth noting the longevity of the title, which looks to be keeping me busy for some time. There are so many side quests, random encounters, supply drops, quarantine zones and challenges to distract you from the main mission that you’ll start to wonder when you’ll find time to actually save the city. The side missions are varied, interesting and usually provide twist and turns to keep you guessing. Some start out as fetch quests but soon take on a life of their own, while others seem to be completed only for a curve ball to come in and change things up at the last minute. Random encounters and supply drops both boost survival points, as do quarantine zones, although these are tough, tricky and, at times, terrifying. Finally, the challenges involving running via checkpoints or killing things, and given how fun those individual systems are, the challenges are a good laugh to break up the gameplay. Overall, this is a game that will be a real time sink – after twenty-five hours played I had completed less than half of it – and I don’t even want to get started on what the modding community may get up to in the coming weeks and months to further increase the game’s life.

  • Amazing movement and parkour systems
  • Visceral and entertaining combat
  • Exciting and well created day and night cycle
  • Excellent graphics and sound
  • Plenty to see, do, and get lost in
  • Some players may find it too easy once levelled up

I'll leave you with, what I think, is the perfect example of what Dying Light is as a game. While completing a Quarantine Zone mission inside a tunnel to retrieve five aid packages, things went a little pear shaped, to say the least. It was pitch black inside and I accidentally stumbled into a large group of Virals, while low on health and weapons. The group was six strong and had cut me off from the exit, so I doubled back and managed to find a door that allowed me to hide. They all saw me and piled into the closed door, hands and arms writhing through the gaps. They were screaming 'No, help me' and 'Please' as all recently turned Virals do - grasping onto the last slithers of humanity as they tried to kill me. I figured I had them where I wanted them because I'd use the exit at the other end of the corridor, bringing me out closer to the main exit (I'd seen it while running past in the first instance). I jogged down to the other end only to find that it was blocked by a fallen pipe.

I was trapped. Not only was I trapped, but I was trapped with no first aid kits, no firecrackers, no Molotovs and no means of getting any supplies. It was fine, though, because the door had openings for arms, which meant it had an opening for weapons. I started hacking away at the now eleven strong group and figured I could kill some and whittle down the numbers before making an escape. Then the dreaded words appeared on my screen: 'Night is approaching'. I now had five minutes to get to safe zone before things got really bad. I laughed aloud and leaned back in my chair, a grin across my face. This entire situation was self orchestrated, unscripted and that's what Dying Light does.

It's fast, frantic and dangerous. It's scary, terrifying and exhilarating. It's tactical, methodical and careful. It's fun, unrelenting and the first must-have purchase of 2015.

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