The city of Harran is in tatters, ravaged by an infection that has turned the populace into shambling zombies, but as the government collapses, two main factions of survivors spring up, trying to do their best to survive. There is a glimmer of hope that they might just manage to do so, as scientists on the ground struggle to find some sort of cure.
Except that’s not really your job. Kyle Crane is an operative for the GRE, dropped in to try and track down a person of interest who has seemingly ended up at the top of the pile of one of these rival factions. The drop doesn’t exactly go too well, first found a group of thugs from one side, then alerting nearby zombies and getting bitten as you’re rescued by the other side.
That’s right, you’ve been infected, but thankfully, this isn’t the kind of infection which turns you quickly, but more of a slow burn. Antizen isn’t a cure, not by a long shot, but it will stall your turning and is in quite limited supply. Antizen will quickly become one part of a juggling act, in which you have to not just complete story missions and those from lesser characters too – and try to do so during daylight as much as possible – but also try to reach and supply drops for both food and Antizen.
There’s the potential for a lot of high pressure situations which will have you rushing to different corners of the city, and it’s here that the new free running and parkour systems will really come into play, compared to the Dead Island games. Playing from the first person, this isn’t something that we get to see very often, with Mirror’s Edge the most notable example, and yet Techland seem to be pulling it off with aplomb.
There’s a nice sense of weight to the character animations, as you drag yourself up the side of the building after a particularly tricky jump, and you need to be making sure to build up momentum, or you’ll find yourself falling to the floor. Sometimes you want to though, leaping from several stories up and making use of the piles of bin bags to break your fall – the modern equivalent of piles of hay. The control scheme will feel like it’s hindering you to start with, with jumping on a shoulder button, and Kyle isn’t particularly adept at jumping between rooftops to start off with either – there are three skill trees that track your actions for Survivor, Agility and Power – but you’ll learn together how to get around the world better and the world itself.
Thankfully, the game is quite forgiving when you do stumble, at least in the early stages. The zombies on the ground aren’t particularly fast or aware of where you are during daylight hours, subdued by the sunlight, so it’s quite easy to dodge past them. You can fight your way through the crowds that do appear, but it will often be a better option just to skip past them on the ground, jump over them between rooftops, or draw them away and distract them with a firecracker. They’re easily distracted by loud noises, and this is a tactic that can even work on larger enemies.
It’s at night time that they come alive, so to speak, as they more actively chase after you and more dangerous mutations emerge. Even at the start of the game, knowing what could be out there and not having full use of your sense in the darknes adds a lot of tension, and I found myself a little more cautious and more hurried to reach the safety of the unlockable safe zones that bask in UV lights – these act as spawn points should you die, so the more you secure, the better.
The game will, of course, push you to explore the world at night at times, and working with the pleasantly characterised Dr. Zere sees you trying to track down a Bolter. As part of his experiments to find a cure, he’s actually created further mutations which act as a kind of proof of concept. Bolters are just one such mutation, but they only come out at night to feast on already dead flesh, and will run away when they spot you.
A little like Far Cry’s animals, their general territory was marked on the map, but heading there is far from simple. This is when Hunters are on the prowl, and trying to avoid alerting them altogether is your best course of action. All of a sudden, this is a stealth game in which you are the prey. Even using your flashlight is risky.
Using your survivor’s sense, which can probably be explained by you being infected, you can detect their position with a sonar-like ping. You can then also draw them around the map using distractions, such as setting off rigged up alarmed cars, knocking on the sides of shipping containers to make noise, and so on.
However, once you’re their quarry, your best option is simply to flee, using every rooftop, every zipline and shortcut to your advantage. Killing the lesser zombies and smearing their guts over your body will, at least for a little while, disguise your stench of life and let you gain a little distance. Needing to hunt the Bolters at night, though, adds an intriguing new aspect to this, not allowing you the luxury of sleeping through the night in safety. Instead, there’s a game of dog and cat and mouse, as you are both the prey and the predator, needing to make a kill and escape as quickly as you possibly can.
In many ways, the first games in the Dead Island series were diamonds in the rough, a silly and over the top action romp that suffered from numerous flaws and bugs, but was a bundle of laughs with friends. It served to make people a little wary of Techland’s capabilities, but Dying Light is a fantastic opportunity to prove themselves.
Everything about this game feels like an improvement. There’s the raw first person combat in common and the potential fun in co-op play, but it’s a clear step up in everything from the world they’re creating and the characterisation of its inhabitants to the way you get around it and the dramatic shift in atmosphere and pace as soon as night falls. So, as long as it’s not too buggy…