This week saw the release of the first of this year’s two open-world zombie survival games that feature weapon crafting, light RPG elements and co-op. The other is the Yager-developed Dead Island 2, which comes later this year. But this review isn’t about that game, it’s about Dying Light.
Before we really get into my thoughts on this game, I’d like to quickly mention why this review is so tardy. Usually, I like to get my reviews out as soon as the embargo lifts, usually just before or on the day of a game’s release. For some reason, me and most other critics didn’t get our copies until about 12 hours before it would arrive.
That’s why this review is a bit late. It was out of my hands, but I do apologize. What’s strange about all this is Dying Light is a damn fun game. It’s also easily the best game to come out of Techland.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on with it!
You’re likely to see a number of Dead Island references scattered about this review, starting with something I believe to be true: if you enjoyed Dead Island, you’re going to love Dying Light.
This game has the best parts of Techland’s other zombie franchise — hordes of zombies, an assortment of monsters, tons of loot, a gorgeous tropical environment, satisfying melee combat, as well as the aforementioned weapon crafting, character progression system and co-op — and significantly less of its weaknesses.
Dying Light has an impressive level of polish. It still has a bit of that Techland jank, but no more than most other open-world games of similar size and scope. They made the combat more satisfying, enemies react a lot more realistically while you’re bludgeoning them to death,
Even the grapples — where a zombie latches onto your character in an effort to tear their face off with their busted ass teeth — feel like a creature is trying to eat you, as opposed to in Dead Island, where it felt like your character was a magnet that attracted any nearby Zeds.
My only complaint about the combat, and more specifically, the weapons, is that they still rank pretty low on my personal list of tools I like using to mow down unsuspecting ghouls. The guns just feel awkward. I have a feeling this may have been purposeful, so as to encourage players to mostly use the vastly more satisfying melee weapons, but I can’t be sure.
Freerunning plays a pivotal role in Dying Light, and it is, for the most part, fantastic. The world is your playground, albeit an immensely dangerous one. There are no cars, but you won’t miss them, with all these soft zombie heads to vault over, walls to conquer, roofs to leap across, etc.
There’s a small amount of clumsiness to the controls that makes grabbing ledges while hanging precariously at heights that would most definitely turn you into a crimson splat on the pavement/rocks/spike walls/etc. below, but my few issues with it never graduated from an uncommon annoyance to a controller-breaking frustration.
The fun really begins when you procure a grappling hook. Once you have one of those in your possession, getting from point A to point B is exponentially more enjoyable.
During the day, you’ll spend your time brutalizing zombies, honing your parkour skills, scavenging for loot, tackling side quests — there are a lot of them, and while there are more than a few that weren’t all that exciting, the selection of filler in Dying Light is a lot less generic (find this, kill that, etc.) than what Dead Island had to offer.
While the sun is up, you’re the God-King of Harran. When the sun sets, you’re a piece of meat surrounded by creatures that’d like to make a belt out of your spine.
When it’s dark out, you have two options. The first is to book it to a nearby safe house. There are number of fortified areas that have been scattered about Harran, you only need to clear them out and make sure they’re well-lit before they can become safe havens. The second is to find and embrace your inner warrior, ignore that primal fear of darkness, as well as the agile, parkour-capable baddies that call it home.
The enemies of Dying Light consist of the very-familiar flesh-hungry Infected, their crazier cousins called Biters, the agile Volatiles who prefer the dark, poison-spewing Toads, and kamikaze-happy Bombers, among several others. It’s an impressive collection of baddies, even if most of them will be familiar to fans of the kinds of games.
In order for you to survive against all these things who want nothing more than to see you dead, you’ll need to get familiar with the massive arsenal of weapons that can be found all over the place, or purchased from one of the myriad vendors that roam the city. Once you’ve found something you like, it can be made even more deadly by mods that improve the weapon’s base stats.
They can be improved even further by using blueprints. Many have been hidden around all over the world, some can be purchased by merchants at certain times, and others are offered as rewards for completing side quests. They act much as the mods did in Dead Island, adding elemental effects like electricity, fire, poison and impact — for more forceful hits.
Character progression is handled very well in Dying Light, where a majority of the skills that can be unlocked are actually useful. The only ones I shied away from during my playthrough revolved around two-handed weapons, and I only did that because I’ve never been fond of the two-fistin’ approach to zombie smackdownery.
The categories are divided into three categories: Survival, Agility and Power. Each has its own XP meter that can only filled when you do certain things. Running, jumping, sliding and various other cardio stuff improves your Agility, killing stuff improves Power, and everything else, such as completing quests, improves Survival.
You start off with an ability called Night Sense, which sends out a pulse that highlights items in the environment. It can also be used at night to locate nearby Hunters. These guys are especially tough, so you’ll want to keep some distance between you and them until you’ve accrued some decent gear.
The skills that need to be unlocked make your character more capable in combat and in freerunning, as they unlock curb stomps, increased health regeneration, more health/stamina, dropkicks, stun kicks, and a couple dozen others.
The improvements aren’t restricted to a specific type of weapon like they were in Dead Island, and that’s a change I appreciate a lot, as I’m sure many of you will, too.
My biggest problem with the game also happened to be a complaint that bothered me about Dead Island. This studio seems incapable of creating interesting NPCs. They’re a step above cardboard cutouts, but they’re still firmly in mannequin territory. The writing, too, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not a very interesting story, and I could count the number of characters who weren’t entirely forgettable on one hand.
Whenever I found myself getting annoyed by the underdeveloped characters and uninspired dialogue, I’d turn my attention to the zombie hordes, who are always in desperate need of a little maiming. Cutting off limps sends sprays of crimson all over the place, and the gushing continues long after the corpse has hit the ground. You can literally paint Harran red, and doing so has proven to be an effective distraction when I need it.
Dying Light has some fantastic music. Some of it has an almost 80s era techno vibe to it that I couldn’t get enough of. Composer Pawel Blaszczak did an incredible job in making this game stand out from the plethora of other zombie games out there that tend to rely on spooky, ambient tracks. I’ll definitely need to get my hands on its OST.
This game isn’t just aurally pleasing, it’s also easy on the eyes. Techland has done an amazing job in making Harran feel real. The studio’s admirable attention to detail makes the city look lived in, a place I’d like to explore. It’s a gorgeous game with some incredibly nifty lighting effects that can only be truly appreciated if you’re willing to go out at night.
Should you find yourself needing a quick reprieve from the addictive 5-player co-op, I suggest you try the “Be the Zombie” mode that Techland recently made free for everyone. This is an asymmetrical mode — think Evolve, Damned, Last Year, etc. — that pits a team of survivors against a ridiculously overpowered player-controlled Hunter.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with it yet, but what I have tried has been incredibly fun.
When you’re first dropped into the quarantined city of Harran, you’re fully capable of defending yourself, albeit without the style, grace and confidence of a veteran of your future self, who will be able to vanquish anything and everything that’s dumb enough to stand in your way. Just remember to look good when you do it, because that’s what’s really important.
The Final Word: Dying Light isn’t flawless, but it is gorgeous, alarmingly addictive, sporadically terrifying and one of the few games that keeps getting better the longer you play it.
Note: I’ve only played this game on the Xbox One, and both it and PS4 don’t seem to be having many technical issues. The PC version is another story, so I recommend holding off on grabbing it for that platform until after Techland has had some time to address and patch those issues.