Dying Light isn’t developer Techland’s first punt at the survival horror genre. In 2011 the Polish studio released Dead Island, a game which many will no doubt remember for its tear-jerking trailer and fumbled execution. A couple of years later, Techland revisited the infested shores of Banoi with the launch of Riptide, a “sequel” that felt more akin to a weighty expansion as opposed to a true successor. Although the game went on to enjoy generally favourable reviews, fans were left wondering what could have been, at least up until now.
In many ways Dying Light feels like a continuation of the series, albeit masquerading under a different name. It’s genuinely as if Techland finally got the greenlight to do a proper sequel to Dead Island. Although Dying Light sports a few innovations of its own, there are an abundance of unshakeable similarities – some good, some bad.
The game gets off to a fairly ambiguous start with players taking up the role of undercover operative, Kyle Crane. Although charismatic enough he’s hardly 007, leaning more towards the everyman hero archetype. Tasked with tracking down a rogue agent and retrieving government intel, Crane goes through a baptism of fire the moment he touches down in Harran.
Having recently been quarantined, the fictional city has succumbed to the outbreak of a deadly virus. What’s worse is that it’s not just killing people, it’s mutating them too – twisting them into all sorts of nightmarish monstrosities. On top of that, the man you’re searching for isn’t exactly easy to find, forcing Crane to make friends and run errands in order to narrow down his location.
Much like its predecessors, Dying Light isn’t an easy game to categorise. Instead of fitting snugly within the bounds of a single genre it spreads across several, creating a patchwork of sorts. Aside from open-world exploration, there’s a fair amount of first person combat along with survival and role-playing mechanics. It’s an ambitious amalgam of elements that enables the game to thrive in some parts while holding it back in others.
Navigation is without a doubt the highlight here. Unlike most first person action games, where movement is restricted to a single vertical plane, Dying Light allows players to explore freely thanks its innovative parkour system. Whether scaling buildings, climbing poles, or jumping between rooftops, all free-running actions are assigned to a single button. Naturally, there will be comparisons to 2008’s Mirror’s Edge but, in truth, the two parkour systems are completely different. Where EA’s first person platformer focused on small, condensed areas, Techland had to kit out an entire open-world with its navigation mechanics in mind. As a result, Dying Light’s movement isn’t as sharp or precise, and getting used to the controls does certainly take time, but succeeds in giving the player complete freedom to improvise, no matter what situation they are in.
The game’s weakest link, on the other hand, is its combat – a shame considering the amount of time you’ll spend up close to the infected. Techland has near enough lifted the base combat from Dead Island and retooled it to work in tandem with Dying Light’s parkour. Aside from simply swing your weapon back and forth, you’ll also have to option to grapple, ram, and even drop kick your opponents. In moderation, combat scenarios are actually a joy, especially when you’re able to toy with a small cluster of zombies. As the numbers start to build up, however, it becomes messy, often forcing the player to retreat. With that said, it can be argued that this is a intentional design choice. Even after unlocking many of the game’s high tier perks and equipment, you can’t simply wade into a horde of the infected wind-milling a cricket bat and expect to survive. Dying Light demands that players pick their fights sensibly or else risk being overwhelmed.
To spice things up there are also a number of projectile weapons and gadgets to boot. Throwing knives, molotovs, firecrackers, shields, and other crafted goodies provide you with plenty of ways to engage (or evade) the enemy. Speaking of crafting, players can also upgrade and modify their weapons too, adding extra damage and speed while also assigning specific elements like fire or electricity which can set zombies alight or see them spasming on the floor.
Given it’s open-world structure, there are a shedload of side activities to partake in when not pursuing the campaign. Aside from gathering resources you’ll be able to take on challenges and carry out side missions. The latter are mainly comprised of simple fetch quests that often feel drawn out and pointless. Paradoxically, these errands also make up some of the best parts of Dying Light, introducing players to a series of unhinged and memorable characters looking to stay alive.
Explore for too long and eventually night will fall, triggering a series of major changes. The first and most obvious of these is the darkness that blankets the entirety of Harran. Although players have a flashlight at their disposal, it does little to illuminate the environment around them. That’s a problem, especially when you consider what creatures now lurk in the shadows.
These “volatiles” are much quicker and stronger than their shambling zombie counterparts, with direct conflict rarely being an option and the tension ramping up noticeably as you try to avoid them. However, by reading the minimap which displays their lines of sight, using the Survivor Sense to show them through wall and by using diversions, you can evade them entirely. If that doesn’t work, however, you’ll be forced to leg it back to the nearest safe house. So, you’re probably wondering, what is point of staying out after dark? Well, aside from gaining access to exclusive missions, you’ll gain experience points at double the rate.
If you don’t fancy braving the streets of Harran alone, Dying Light also packs a comprehensive multiplayer option, allowing co-op wherever and whenever. Although finding matches can be a gruelling process, playing with other human players really does make the game much more enjoyable. Realising that, even when working together, players tend to get competitive, Techland has worked in a number of quickfire challenges that spring up from time to time, tasking survivors with gathering loot, racing to checkpoints, or killing enemies.
Although a sound game, Dying Light just falls short of greatness. Compared to its predecessors it looks stunning and has picked up a raft of new and interesting ideas. Several hours in, however, and a familiar sense of fatigue will inevitably set in. Unless roaming Harran with friends in tow, Dying Light isn’t one of those games you can comfortably sit and play for hours on end. Zombie enthusiasts are still in for a treat though, as well as anyone looking for an unconventional first person action game.