There aren’t many games that are controversial before they launch, and there are even fewer that have don’t have the words “grand”, “theft” or “auto” in the title. Techland games however seem to excel at creating negative publicity just before they come out, and that puts you in two minds on whether you’re going to buy it or not. The Dead Island Riptide grotesque bikini statue special edition derision arguably hurt sales, and we’re yet to see if Dying Light’s release policy in the EU will be problematic. For whatever reason, Warner Bros/Techland decided to hold back the retail release by 4 weeks, forcing eager gamers to pick up the digital version – and pay a higher price. Was this deliberate? We don’t know, and it’s an odd decision given that discs are available in the US. Whatever the reason, if you haven’t bought it already, should you pick it up when it finally hits stores?
Dying Light does what we know Techland for. It’s an open world, first person zombie survival game with melee combat at its core, and the addition of parkour for locomotion around the world. Think Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed meeting Dead Island after a few years of bug squashing and stability work. Set in the fictional city of Harran, you play Kyle Crane (a mix of Red Cross aid worker and Navy SEAL), who’s been thrown into the city to investigate the viral outbreak that’s caused the entire place to be isolated from the world. Establishing yourself as a “runner”, the plot has you working your way around the free-to-explore areas trying to find a cure for the outbreak, and keeping yourself away from the local psychotic warlord in the process. Oh, and there’s zombies. Lots of zombies.
The number of zombies on screen and available for hacking and slashing your way through is pretty impressive. You’ll encounter individual ones on rooftops (ripe for booting off!); small groups in alleys; huge flocks in open areas; and even nests of the damn things. There are shamblers, fast runners, giant tough-as-nails ones, and exploders, all nicely mixing up the experience so you never get too complacent with the situation or environments. The fast running Virals are an absolute pain to deal with because they’re attracted by noise, even that of the exploding zombies that somehow manage to sneak up on you despite their size. But really there’s nothing different here from other games in the genre, so how does Dying Light differentiate itself? The clue’s in the name, night time changes the world into a very, very different place.
Daylight is your friend, night is your enemy and when your watch beeps to tell you it’s time, you better be somewhere safe or things will get dicey. All zombie types become stronger and more aggressive, and Volatiles come out of hiding and start hunting for prey. These are far deadlier than anything you’d usually encounter and your only option is to run and hope you lose them. Adding in a purpose for the day/night cycle gives Dying Light an edge that manages to turn the open world into an oppressive and claustrophobic experience where your senses are heightened and tuned to the slightest sound or movement. Early on in the game the best option is simply to be at a safe house when darkness falls and get some sleep. When you get braver you’ll venture out, but are still always on the look out for your nearest bolt hole.
Staying up through the night has its advantages though. If you’re out and about in the city your power and agility points are doubled and you also earn more survivor points, so you level up faster. The three strands (power/agility/survivor) have several tiers of abilities that unlock, and make for decent breadth of choice when you’re choosing how you want Kyle to develop. Many of the selections available aren’t always obvious as to the benefits either, so it’s possible to overlook something that will make your time in Harran easier. Take throwing weapons for example. You have a secondary attack in the form of throwing items, whether that’s knives, axes, firecrackers, etc., but can also buy the ability to throw your main weapon. “Why would I want to throw that away?” was my first thought so I skipped it… not realising that throwing your main weapon deals massive damage and is perfect for boss fights. I learnt that one the hard way. The only thing I’m not keen on is the death system. You will die, no doubt about that, but each time you do you lose survivor points. It’s an incentive for you to be careful, but when the game cheapens your death with its random enemy placement or failure to grab the ledge you’re leaping at, you can’t help but feel a little aggrieved.
Combat items themselves are familiar from the Dead Island games, you’re using pretty much anything you can find in the environment to beat the undead to… err… death. Blunt instruments are plentiful to start with, then knives and bats come into play, before things get better with machetes, fireaxes and swords. There’s always satisfaction in separating limbs from torsos with one swing. Firearms are available from the start if you look carefully enough, though the noise that comes from them means you’ll eat through the ammo and still have to fight off the Virals you’ve attracted. Guns are best saved for encounters with humans – there’s a nice balance between fighting intelligent opposition and thinning zombie herds. Scavenging and looting makes a return, and serves a purpose as most items are used to craft stronger weapons, useful secondary items, or trade for money to buy better kit. You’re not left short of anything, and the only inventory restriction is on your offensive items where surplus can be stored in holdalls that defy time and space (and you can access from any safe house).
Blueprints found in the environment can be used to upgrade the abilities of a weapon, adding fire, electricity, impact or cutting bonuses, and there are mods to give stat boosts that are earned from helping the citizens or looting from crates. You can gauge the rarity, and therefore effectiveness, of a new weapon through its colour scheme: from white being common to orange being awesome. There’s nothing new here, and that’s not a detrimental comment. It all works well and is easy to get your head around – as you’d want from something that’s RPG lite. The way the upgrades are structured are well thought out, as is the integration of the companion app which allows you to transfer scavenged items and weapons to your main game. There’s also a dockets system from the Dying Light website that lets you trade them for beefed up melee weapons, handy for any stage of the game. If you don’t do the extraneous things then you don’t miss out, so for me that’s a good implementation.
In terms of how the game looks and plays, it’s very smooth, stable and for the most part, responsive. The parkour can be slightly fiddly when you’re learning how to traverse, and I fell a lot in the early stages. Once your confidence and understanding grows though you’ll be climbing radio masts with ease. It looks very nice, not outstanding, but detailed enough to make the city believeable. Harran was hosting the International Games at the time of the outbreak so that lends credence to the multi-cultural people you meet and help out. It also explains the abundance of runners and athletic types around, and the numerous pieces of backstory you can pick up whilst out questing. Audio is good with particular emphasis on building the tension of incoming Virals and Volatiles, and it does a decent job whilst you’re at heights to instill the fear of being blown off your perch by the wind.
There have been comments about the content of Dying Light, and it could be argued that it’s just a giant open world fetch quest, but isn’t that what most open world games are anyway? Head to point A to get item B and return it to point C, usually via point D. The story is a good length, I couldn’t tell you how long because I got sidetracked quite a lot by the tonne of side quests to get lost in, as well as random encounters and events out in the city. I’ve clocked in about 24 hours so far, and still have more to keep me returning past the rather disappointing conclusion – it’s not a spoiler as such, but the game lets itself down at the 11th hour with an unnecessary QTE boss battle. If you don’t want to tackle it on your own, the whole story can be done in co-op, and on top of that there’s the Be The Zombie mode where you get to play as the Night Hunter and invade other players games, or take part in 4 vs 1 asymmetrical multiplayer. That’s quite good fun, and you feel invincible as the overpowered hunter, until your opponents figure out how to work as a team and turn the tables. It’s probably one of the best multiplayer modes I’ve had a go on in a while.
So, Dying Light… should you have buy it digitally, or wait for the retail release? I say get it either way you want. If you don’t mind paying the extra for the online version then do it, there’s plenty of bang for your buck. If you want a disc then get it when it hits the EU. Either way it’s a great game with a lot to offer, and the dubious choice or reason for not releasing retail and digital at the same time shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid it. Techland have developed a well crafted and engaging adventure at a time when some critics are saying zombies are becoming overused and boring, that’s just not the case.
Dying Light is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC digitally, on disc in the US, and on disc in the UK from the 27th February.