No matter how hard you try, with all of the hype and media these days, it's difficult not to go into a game without some expectations ahead of time. When Dying Light
was touted as a Dead Island
meets Mirror's Edge
or Assassins Creed
given its parkour mechanics, the initial thought was that this bold premise would either be a fantastic empowerment for the player or a disastrous gimmick. When the review codes turned up only hours before the release, alarm bells began to ring and spider senses tingled; especially considering the recent release debacles surrounding titles like The Crew
and Assassin's Creed Unity
. I was half expecting a car crash or a train wreck of disaster, but what I got was a zombie apocalypse and a glorious end of days.
Welcome to Harran, a city with a viral outbreak so severe that they quarantined it twice. The disease has turned the majority of the population into ravenous, flesh-eating zombies. It's into this hell that the player is literally dropped, taking on the role of undercover government agent, Kyle Crane, charged with recovering a secret file from a rogue agent who was trapped in the city when the quarantine was imposed.
As the story plays out, Crane finds himself becoming an unwitting triple agent trapped between the two factions established in the city, and the government agency that he works for. Crane, having already been rescued by them, sides with the group of altruistic survivors, whilst the other faction is run by a ruthless and brutal warlord, Rais.
While he tries to complete his mission, he also attempts to repay and aid his saviors, which occasionally means striking a deal with Rais, as unpleasant as it occasionally turns out to be. This three-way split of allegiances and missions could have provided the game with some interesting quandaries for the player to face and suffer the various consequences thereof. However, the game does not have any type of decision mechanics and removes choice from the player's hands, literally forcing you into every action, and that's a shame. It feels like the story is nothing more than an artifice to get the player through the game, moving from point A to point B, encouraging them to explore new areas, and introducing new elements in the world.
Much has been made of the parkour element in the game, avoiding the zombie hordes on the ground by climbing walls, scampering across rooftops, and leaping over infested alleyways. At the start, the parkour can be a little confusing, establishing what surfaces can be climbed and how. The fact that there are no convenient markings indicating handholds is not particularly helpful when you are being chased by a horde of undead inhabitants and wondering where exactly your escape route is. Theoretically you point at what what you want to climb and press the right bumper to jump towards it, but initially it feels a little hit and miss. However over the course of the game you become increasingly proficient and the whole mechanism becomes second nature with a blur effect giving the impression of speed. There are dizzying heights to be climbed, death defying jumps and drops, and zip lines crisscrossing the city. It's an amazingly dynamic way of traversing the world that is actually needed to survive and thrive in the game.
What is commendable and sets the game apart from the likes of Assassin's Creed
is that nearly all of the buildings can be entered in some way or another, whether by a rooftop hatch, a balcony door, an unbarred window, or simply walking through the open front door; there is almost always a means of ingress. That makes the total explorable area for the player truly massive, and it's worth exploring, too. There is a wealth of loot, crafting materials, collectibles, and vital blueprints to be found inside all of those walls and you're going to need them all.
In fact, this discovery aspect of the world is so enticing that during those first few hours it's easy to forget about the city's undead inhabitants. Even early in the game you encounter a number of different zombie types, from the slow moving walkers which are easy to outmaneuver, to the more aggressive Virals that will actively climb buildings pursuing you wherever you go. As the game progresses the zombies become more varied, more aggressive, and generally tougher. Techland saved the best zombie for last, too. Although not the toughest, it's certainly the most disturbing, and few will forget their first encounter with a Screamer. For the most part there are only a few dozen walkers and biters in an area at any one time, but occasionally you'll run into areas that have Dead Rising
type numbers milling around. Underestimate their numbers at your peril, it's easy to become quickly overwhelmed and pay the ultimate price for doing so.
The daylight hours are mostly spent running errands either as part of the main story or the numerous side missions. To be honest, as amazing as the environment is, the day time is just a little too easy at times, the tensest moments being when you are trying to pick locks on Police vans and ambulances in a street crowded with zombies, listening to the shuffling of undead feet inching ever closer to you. The soundscape adds to the nervous tension, canvas awnings flutter in the wind, glass bottles are heard to skitter across the ground, and metal pipes clang off in the distance, but what caused it and how close it is keeps the player constantly on edge.
It's during the hours of darkness that the game, ironically, really comes to life. Once night falls, the world is plunged into all enveloping blackness. At times it's barely possible to see your virtual hand in front of your virtual face. Worse still, the night hours bring out a special breed of nocturnal zombies that are stronger, faster, and much more aggressive than their shuffling diurnal counterparts, Volatiles. These super zombies actively prowl around the darkened world seeking out any form of prey - mostly human. On the game's radar, they show up along with a cone representing their field of view similar to other stealth games, and in the game's only real concession to making life easier, the player can use their survivor vision, a sort visual sonar that reveals briefly the location of these Volatiles.
Once spotted by a Volatile, the game really turns into the player's worst nightmare. The zombies are surprisingly fast and agile. The player literally has to run for their life as Volatiles will not give up pursuit easily, and getting caught means an almost certain death. Charging panic-stricken and half-blind through the zombie invested streets with one or more Volatiles on your tail is a genuinely terrifying experience. The only chance of escape is to throw the zombies off your trail using one of the many traps - car traps, light traps, electricity - set up by the survivors or by reaching one of the many safe houses scattered across the map that can be unlocked by the player.
Nighttime becomes an unnerving, tense, and terror stricken ordeal. It's not easy to tear yourself away from the safety of the UV illuminated shelters. There are horror games that rely on jump scares or build up tension over a period, but it's been a long time since there has been something so intensely frightening as the nighttime escapades in Dying Light
. Within just those first few steps away from relative safety, your fear meter jumps through the roof. It's not pleasant and it's not fun - it is simply damned scary. Having mistimed one particular mission, I ended up spending a very tense and nervous night in a deserted school with the ghosts of the past echoing around me; not an experience I would like to repeat.
Such is the intensity of the night hours, that the player finds themselves being unconsciously conditioned and attuned to the passage of time in the game. The transition from dawn through to dusk is brilliantly captured in the game's visuals. The daylight slowly changes color and the shadows move and lengthen. In the background you hear crickets beginning to chirp and the breeze seems to stir slightly more. It's clever and subtle, and even without the warning messages from the tower, you become innately and acutely aware that it is time to head for safety. In the daylight hours you begin to plot your missions with waypoints ensuring that you are within distance of a safe house when night finally arrives.
Fortunately, and perhaps due to the intensity of those nighttime terrors, the player (with the exception of a couple of story missions) can skip the night entirely, opting instead for the comfort of warm sleeping bag or bed in one of the safe house. The game advances time and takes you, with a certain degree of relief, back to the relative safety of dawn. Being out an active at night does have its perks, however, as you will earn bonus XP when out after dark.
For those that don't quite have the disposition necessary to tackle the missions on their own, the game also includes drop-in co-op allowing players to support each other in taking on the terrors of the city. For those feeling a little more devious, the included DLC, "Be the Zombie", allows the players to take on the role of one of the super zombies against a team of survivors in an asymmetrical multiplayer game.
As threatening as the world is, it is also beautifully rendered by Techland's proprietary Chrome 6 engine. Textures are wonderfully detailed, along with particle effects and animations. The views and vistas in some of the locations are gorgeous to see and the first glimpse at the city from a distance is stunning. The lighting effect as day transitions to night, and the change in the nighttime light levels as the full moon rises and sets during those nocturnal hours, providing a pale moonlit nightmare; it's all wonderfully done, and credit to the team for they have achieved.
Throughout the game, the player may have a sense of Deja vú with the title borrowing a number of ideas and elements from other titles including lock-picking, the direct earning of separate XP for combat and mobility, and climbing of radio towers, but in the end it doesn't matter. It all comes together well to contribute to the playability of the title. Weapon crafting also makes a return, although in perhaps another concession to accessibility, weapons can be created from collected blueprints on the fly without the need of a workbench. It might be a little immersion breaking to be able to pause an intensive zombie battle mid-combat in order to create a new batch of weapons, before resuming the fight again, but it's all in the player's benefit.
Achievement hunters will be pleased to know that it should be quite possible to get the full complement although it might take a while. There are achievements for the story progression, leveling up, weapons, and skills. There are also a few multiplayer achievements but none too daunting. Be warned however, I'm now 60 hours into the game and I still have a fair way to go to completing all of the side missions, so it might take some time.
For those looking to fast-track the game, it is possible to complete the fourteen story missions in around fifteen hours or less, however in doing so you would miss a massive amount of the game, skills, and weapons. You'd be selling yourself short by doing so. There is simply so much more to do and see in Harran than the main story alone presents to you. Dying Light
is Techland's best and most ambitious title to date. They have a created a wonderful open-world environment that captures the bleakness, desolation, and desperation of quarantined city in the daytime, and a horror of a nightmare during the hours of darkness. The difference between night and day couldn't be starker, it's almost two different games in one. The sights and sounds make the immersive world at times gorgeous to behold, and at others, tense and terrifying. I'm sixty hours into the game and as brutal and as savage as the world is, I'm not ready to leave it yet. Even after all of those hours, I still have a sense of trepidation, a sense of foreboding and edgy fear, as dusk approaches. Not wanting to face the horror that night brings, I turn and make my way back to the nearest safe house in the rapidly dying light. The Xbox One digital review copy was provided by the game's public relations firm for the purpose of this review. The reviewer spent almost 60 hours in Harran, killing thousands of zombies, running a number of marathons, almost scaled the height of Mount Everest, rescued a large number of survivors, and unlocked 30 of the 50 achievements.