Zombie games have become a dime a dozen in recent years, especially with the success of The Walking Dead television show and comics, though zombies have been a staple in videogames for quite some time, most notably with the Resident Evil series. Techland opened things up a bit in 2011 with Dead Island, giving you the large open world environment of Banoi to explore and battle the undead masses. They followed that up with Dead Island: Riptide in 2013, and now with the newest generation of consoles they’ve up their zombie game a bit further. Dying Light again gives us a large open world to explore with the city of Harran, which is divided into two sections- the Slums and Old Town. Things are varied up a bit throughout Harran, though they may be familiar to survival horror fans. There are sewers, ramshackle huts, warehouses, and apartment buildings to explore. Moving about the environment is what sets Dying Light apart from other zombie themed games, and that its use of parkour. The game is quite as stylized in its running as say Mirror’s Edge, but it does work smoothly, once you get used to the control scheme.
The game uses R1/RB to jump and grab on the consoles (the space bar is used on the PC), and it does take a little getting used to. Fortunately, things start off easy enough and give you time to get adjusted. Once you do (and it really doesn’t take that long) it becomes second nature as you leap over abandoned vehicles littering the streets and across the rooftops. In the second half of the game when you reach Old Town things take on even more vertical environments, as the buildings are taller. As it’s set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Harran, movement around the buildings becomes reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed. Once you get the grappling hook (which, sadly, this comes late in the game) moving from building to building is even more of a breeze. The platforming is fairly solid, however, though forgetting to press the R1/RB to jump and then pressing it again to grab can lead to some unnecessary deaths. The deaths never feel cheap, but it can get frustrating in spots, especially during the platforming heavy final mission in which you need to make jumps while being pursued by a zombie horde. Keeping a cool head and nimble fingers is crucial here. But when it comes together, it works beautifully, and you may find yourself leaping and running around the city just for the fun of it. Exploration is rewarded by finding supplies needed for crafting, blueprints, flags, statues, and other collectables.
The game does have a surprising amount of depth to it. The thirteen missions that make up the main story are lengthy, and completing the main story alone will take you around 25-30 hours. Add to that plenty of side quests, some of which for mini-stories of their own, and you have a game that can easily hit the 60-70 hour mark for full completion. Then there is New Game +, where the zombies are even stronger. You can play the game with up to four friends (you can drop in and out of co-op), though everyone will be playing the same character, that of Kyle Crane, the lead for the main story, voiced by Roger Craig Smith (Batman in Batman: Arkham Origins). It would have been nice to have a little customization, but the most you get are various outfits that you unlock as you play. The outfits are mostly cosmetic, and unseen anyway as you play the game in first person view. The main story has its share of twists, though none are too surprising and most come in the first half of the game. Voice acting is very good throughout, and there are a nice variety of characters for you to meet during your time in Harran. The villain of the piece, Rais, makes for a formidable foe. The other characters you ally with are equally done well, especially Jade, who rescues you in the beginning of the game. And then there are the zombies.
Dying Light gives you a variety of the undead to deal with. Most common are the slower moving Biters, but don’t take them lightly. They can mob you and overwhelm you easily, especially in the early going. Virals are recently turned and move swiftly and are highly aggressive, pursuing you relentlessly until you kill them or they kill you. In a nice twist, they even sound like they’re pleading for their life as you pummel them with your melee weapons, even as they continue to attack. There are zombies in Hazmat suits, zombies that explode, spit poison, and large zombies called Goons that wield massive weapons. Then there are the Night Hunters. They only appear at night, along with the more passive Bolters, and they can be quite terrifying. Cones of vision appear on your mini-map to aid in sneaking around them, but if they spot you, the chase is on until they catch you or you reach a safe house. Getting caught outside at night is a nerve wracking experience, and even the game warns you to get somewhere safe as darkness falls. Safe houses allow you to sleep until dawn, though it is possible to survive outside a safe house at night provided you’re up high and don’t get spotted. It can get a bit tense listening to the screams below as you huddle waiting for daybreak to arrive. The musical score adds nicely to the tension, and overall evokes horror films from the 80s, most notably the music by horror film director John Carpenter that he created for his movies. The sound of the morning bells are quite welcome, and it was always a joy to see the sky becoming light and the notice that you survived the night.
There is a Be the Zombie mode that allows you to play as a Night Hunter. The tutorial for this is a lot of fun, and you can play as long as you’d like, but that’s the extent of being a zombie in a single player experience. The mode allows you to invade other players’ games, where you are tasked to protect Nests from human foes. UV light is your worst enemy, though you do have a nice stealth attack that you can launch from a distance. For those not wishing to be invaded, you can turn the option off in the menu. Matchmaking was sketchy when I tried the mode a few times, but that may change as more people complete the single player campaign.
To aid you in combat you have a wide assortment of weapons, from baseball bats and rusty pipe in the beginning of the game to firearms in the later stages. Weapons can be modified to inflict fire or electric damage, but you’ll need to find metal parts to repair them. Yes, weapons will degrade after a while (the controller on the PS4 made a distinctive sound when the weapon broke) though you can carry up to four at a time. Switching is simple using the right directional button. The left directional button switches your throwing weapons and items, like Molotov cocktails and firecrackers. Combat is entered using the R2/RT button and throwing weapons utilize the L2/LT button. The scheme works nicely and feels natural, though combat is clumsy initially. Also combat is tied to your stamina bar, which can deplete rapidly. Dying Light is as much about running and escaping as it is about fighting, and you’ll be best served if you know the proper time for each. Fighting, running, and just surviving earn you skill points across three skill trees, and you’re free to spend those points as you wish. It’s a nice leveling system, but never makes you overpowered against enemies. Those who blindly charge in may die often, as things often require a more measured approach. Checkpoints are fairly generous, so dying generally doesn’t set you back much. The only time I found where a couple of extra checkpoints might have made things less frustrating was in the final mission. Dying while exploring puts you back in the nearest safe house, so it is a good idea to unlock as many safe houses as you can. There is no fast travel, so be prepared to make lengthy treks to mission points. It would have been nice had that been included, but it does force you to explore and move about the city, and that benefits you by gaining skill points. Dying loses points, so take note of that.
Overall, Dying Light was a pleasant surprise, with its depth and variety of missions. The gameplay is solid, though the control scheme make take some longer to get used to than others. The story and voice acting is pretty good, and visually the game looks great, with plenty of detail in the environments and character models. It takes a lot of familiar elements (climbing towers, fetch quests, and the like) but uses them all well. The parkour flows smoothly and becomes a very fun way to traverse Harran. The game, while having some moments of frustration due to tricky platforming in spots, is mainly a blast to play, and its length definitely gives you the bang for your buck. Dying Light is one of the most fun I’ve had with a zombie game in some time. Running scared was never so entertaining.
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