Dying Light has been out for about two weeks now, and this survival horror game hasn’t failed on what it promised to deliver: zombie awesomeness. Still, it would be a misconception to reduce the game to its undead counterparts à la Left 4 Dead. What Techland has created instead is a vivacious open world set in fictional Harran, a city presumably based on the ancient Mesopotamian city in Turkey. From the architecture to the haunting vocals, the Middle Eastern undertones given to the game adds to its novelty and originality. In an age where zombies infiltrate most mass media art forms, the genre tends to become somewhat stale in execution. However, Dying Light attempts innovation through added elements that set it apart- but not without its own shortcomings.
The story itself is somewhat predictable, yet sufficient. Harran was a few days away from hosting an Olympic-esque competition when the outbreak happened. Pandemonium abound, the entire city was shutdown and quarantined. Fast-forward a few months and in drops Kyle Crane (the protagonist), an undercover GRE (Global Relief Effort) operative sent in to retrieve a sensitive file that was stolen. His airdrop operation failed when he was ambushed by Bandits and subsequently bitten. He was saved by a group of survivors stemming from the sanctuary “The Tower” and that is when Crane’s journey into humanities darkest time begins. In order to maintain transparency, I’ll admit that I was somewhat jaded as I sat down to play. It’s predecessor, Dead Island, was riddled with problematics that made me dislike the game. In essence, though, Dying Light is very much like Dead Island in style and realization, but altered enough for me to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The weapon deterioration, the upgrades and the constant scavenging, however, acted to maintain the residual spirit of Dead Island.
The combat, though still heavily focused on melee weapons and face-kicks, improves slightly. The mechanics still feel clunky at times, and slicing specific body parts off was constantly a hit or miss for me. However, as you progressed through the game and build up your skill tree – which are divided into Survival, Agility and Power- the controls became more manageable and enjoyable. While you do eventually get your hands on powerful guns, it’s for certain situations only, and comes with a price: the zombie lurkers are sensitive to noise and will ambush you on all ends; leading to your imminent demise in a game that you don’t want to die in. I actually found this aspect quite brilliant and vindictive. If you die, you lose points in your survivor skill set, forcing you take steps back from upgrading essential skills. This bodes well for a game that is survival horror, for dying actually has tangible consequences, making you scared to die. Also, since weapons are fragile and essential to your survival, the game forces you to make wise choices as to what to carry, what to dismantle and what to upgrade. Also, weapons likes molotovs, grenades and exploding throwing stars are crucial. A band Rais’s thugs found the drop of survival supplies before you did? Don’t even fight them. Stand afar, chuck some fire at them and watch them burn.
Luckily for yourself and Crane though, you’re a parkour expert. Evading and avoiding fights (when you can, of course) is fundamental to success. The addition of this limitless movement to Techland’s zombie game blueprint is both a godsend and incredibly fun. For naysayers who find parkour overdone and stale in video games will find themselves pleasantly surprised in Dying Light. The height and depth in which Harran is built acts as an immense playground where you can run, jump and climb onto everything at high speeds. The vertigo-inducing scale of the city is also breathtaking, especially when you find yourself on the rooftop of Tower, just staring down at Harran during the night. As with the combat, there is a learning curve where your parkouring skills transform from being clumsy to seamless. While the omission of fast travel is annoying, the parkour and the graphically stunning makeup of Harran’s open world remedies the issue, making travelling the crowning glory of Dying Light. That, and the day/night cycle of course.
The game is transformed once nighttime hits and you hear “good night and good luck” over your transmitter. As you see the sun setting (which it does magnificently), fear sets in and the game’s true element of horror becomes apparent. Daytime Harran, with the running, clobbering and jumping on zombie heads, feels like a Mardi Gras celebration in comparison to nighttime Harran. The most vicious and terrifying creatures come out play and you must strategize in order to survive the night. While I avoided nighttime as much as I could because of the feelings of dread that would creep in, there’s incentive to do so. You gain extra XP and it allows your to level your skills much quicker. Stealth, use of firecrackers and vigilant checking of your map is paramount to your survival at night.
I mentioned it earlier, and I’ll mention it again: the story is probably it’s weakest point. In an age where narrative elements are just as important for immersion as is setting and mechanics, it’s predictability is also bogged down with plot holes and just general messiness. The characterization, though definitely a step up from Dead Island, doesn’t leave you with a profound impact. While there are some characters that interesting, most notably Jade and Rahim, the rest are just a bunch humanoids you run up to and press X to receive a mission. Also, Crane is pretty much as generic as a protagonist can get. While I obviously don’t expect the story to match up to the literary wonderment of The Last of Us, it could have been spruced up a bit.
Even with all its limitations, Dying Light is nothing short of a good time. While combat can feel repetitive at times, even boring, there is still a multitude of ways to keep the gameplay fresh and enjoyable. The side missions, while many of them follow the good ole’ fetch-quest structure, there are others that are actually cool and surprising. Also, you can invite some buds to survive the zombie apocalypse with you, or have a random player “Be The Zombie”, a mode where you can stalk other players as a “night hunter”. The graphics are superb, especially in the environment. The characters still look a bit weird but, again, an improvement on Dead Island. As with the combat and parkour mechanics, the use of the d-pad to switch between weapons, ranged weapons and boosters isn’t smooth, and can be unresponsive especially when you’re in the midst of a fight, or running from the terrifying volatiles.
Though as predictable and aimless as the story may be at times, the context in which Dying Light is set, is solid. The contrast between day and night, life and death and the characters’ will and strive for survival under devastating circumstances makes the game deeply human.
And the music. The music is amazing. The instrumentals are a throwback to late 80’s, early 90’s music reminiscent of John Carpenter and George A. Romero horror films. It definitely adds to the ambience of thrill and fear in Dying Light.
Fluffiness aside, Dying Light is a good zombie slaughter fest and has the potential to remain fun for a while. Is it worth $69.99? That’s debatable, but if you’re on the fence, it will undoubtedly be discounted soon as the rest of the 2015 video game roster slowly trickles out.
Dying Light is available for PC, Xbox One and PS4.