Last week, I wrote an article about Dying Light and my justifications for believing that it has set the standard for future zombie based games. Since then, and after completing the main story and the bulk of the side-missions, I haven’t changed my tune. Sure, I’m not an idiot – Dying Light isn’t perfect. In fact, I’ll be sure to highlight one or two of its shortcomings in this review. What it is, though, is fresh. It’s exciting, it’s dynamic and, in what’s quite quickly becoming an oversaturated market for the genre, it’s different.
I must admit that I came in to Dying Light with some hesitation. Over the past few years I had played various builds of the game, and each time I wasn’t blown away. Then, at last year’s EGX, I played both Dying Light and Dead Island 2. At the time, from the incredibly short ten minutes that I had with both games, I made the bold statement that Dead Island 2 was looking like the better title. Since then, I’m quite happy to admit that Dying Light is a far better game than I had assumed. Dead Island 2 has its work cut out for it, I can tell you that much.
Dying Light is set in the fictional city of Harran, where a rabies type pathogen has spread through the population. The virus has turned the majority of the population into shambling, bloodthirsty corpses, with one or two recently infected being of the ‘sprinty’ zombie kind (think 28 Days Later). You play as Crane, a Global Relief Effort (GRE) agent who has been sent in to the city to secure a lost document. Surprisingly enough, things don’t exactly start well for Crane, and they pretty much continue on that downward trajectory for the majority of the story. After being bitten by a zombie, Crane is saved by Jade, a survivor from the Tower survivor sanctuary. Thanks to a helpful (and regular) dose of Antizin; a serum that stalls the symptoms of the virus, Crane is able to continue with his mission to recover the document, and help any survivors that he might cross in the process.
There’s a brief synopsis of the story for you. Though I must admit, the story is probably one of the weaker aspects of the game. So what do I love about Dying Light? The best way to express this game’s brilliance is probably by explaining the aspect of the game that shines brightest, and that’s its differences in a saturated market. Games like Dead Island, State of Decay and Telltale’s The Walking Dead are, in my opinion, the standout titles in the zombie ‘survival’ genre. The thing that makes them stand out so much, however, is their differences. Telltale’s The Walking Dead focuses on the story. Dead Island focused on the gore, the open world and the sheer number of undead, and State of Decay was all about the survival of a group, rather than the individual.
So what does Dying Light do differently, you might ask. Well, Dying Light’s main competitor is Dead Island, and the differences between the two aren’t massive, but they are impressive. The biggest difference that Dying Light brings to the table is in the way that you traverse the map. The game relies heavily on ‘free-running’ for getting around, but on most occasions, you don’t have to free-run if you don’t want to. You could quite comfortably complete most of the game whilst staying on the ground and swinging wildly at groups of zombies – but you’d really be missing out on something quite special if you did. The free-running adds a completely new dimension to the genre, and it adds another level to how you fight and kill the undead. As you level up your character, you will become more adept at free-running, and you’ll be able to incorporate it into how you battle the zombies. You can spring across the world with relative ease and, assuming that you’re good enough, you might only have to kill the undead on rare occasions. For me, it makes the game about forward planning. How could I escape this situation if it goes tits up? – it’s usually my first thought before taking on the un-dead in Dying Light.
Another key difference comes after dark. When night falls on Harran, the game changes quite dramatically. By day, the world is bright, colourful and clear, and avoiding zombies is pretty easy if you’re low on health or don’t fancy the fight. At night, however, the world is dark, creepy, eerie and incredibly dangerous. Your main tool against the dark is your torch, which lights a very small area in front of you. But the torch provides little solace when you’re being chased by a sprinting, screaming horde of infected or, the game’s most terrifying monster, the Volatile. The Volatile is quick, intelligent, powerful and incredibly difficult to kill. By night, the game changes from a free-flowing, free-running extravaganza to a creeping, lurking, hiding, piss your pants creepy scream-fest. The pace of the game changes dramatically, and I love the fact that surviving the night is a real challenge – one that you’re handsomely rewarded for with Survivor experience points.
And that my friends, is what you call a segue, because the final difference that I want to highlight is the way that you level up your character. Conventionally, most games will give you overall experience points for completing quests and missions. You will then use those skill points to upgrade various aspects of your character, as well as unlocking abilities at the same time. With Dying Light, however, Techland have taken a slightly different approach. As Crane, you will earn experience towards three different categories of abilities; Survivor, Agility and Power. To gain Survivor points, for example, you need to escape from zombies or survive the night. Using free-running will build towards Agility points and killing zombies will contribute towards your Power. You will then level up in those three categories. Just to give a little perspective, my Crane is level 15 across all three categories, because I tend to play the game with a good balance. My brother’s Crane, however, is level 13 Power and Agility but only level 10 Survivor – that’s because he likes to take the un-dead on with mêlée weapons, and dies a lot in the process. Each time that you level up in a category, you’re given a point to spend on a special ability. These range from becoming more adept at free-running through Agility, or gaining the ability to use a flying ‘Power Slam’ move, through Power. In all, I love the way that Dying Light tackles gaining experience, because it encourages you to play the game in a variety of different ways – and really rewards you for doing so.
Another great feature of the game, which isn’t exactly different, is the co-operative aspects. Playing the game with a friend makes Dying Light scores better. You can help each other to complete quests, or just fight the un-dead side by side for the laughs. Not only that, but Techland have also incorporated a few interesting competitive features to the multiplayer. These are basically randomly generated competitions, ranging from finding the most loot in an area to killing the most zombies in a given time. The winner is then rewarded with extra experience in one of the three categories (depending on the type of competition). These challenges add an element of competition to the game which would be lacking otherwise, and the mission based competitions (like racing to the top of a tower or building) help to keep the game feeling fresh and exciting in the areas that could otherwise feel a little slow.
However, despite how brilliant I think this game is, I would be a fool to believe that it’s perfect. I’ve already mentioned the relatively poor story, which just feels a little lacking. Although the voice-acting and writing in general is pretty solid, and quite funny at times… its saving grace, I guess. Whilst the free-running is fun, and a brilliant idea, it can be relentlessly frustrating at times. It’s difficult to know whether you’re able to reach certain ledges, or whether Crane will over-jump or under-jump some gaps. Not only that, but the ‘free-run button’, (RB on the XB1), seems to be incredibly temperamental. Sometimes Crane will leap from building to building, other times he’ll fall to his death through a 1 metre gap. Overall, Dying Light lacks a certain level of polish. The game is full of occasional glitches, and mechanics (like the free-running) which pick and choose when they feel like working. None of these are game-breakers, and were it not for the fact that this game has been delayed on a number of occasions, they would be relatively forgivable. However, Techland have had a while to get this right, and it’s a real shame that Dying Light is missing the level of polish that it so deserves.
Still, despite these slight failings, there’s no denying that Dying Light is a wonderful game. I’ve pretty much loved every second of this game, playing it both on my own and with friends. It’s one of those rare games that seems to draw you in, and for me it always encouraged me to explore that little bit further, and play that little bit longer. It’s a shame that the level of polish that it deserves is somewhat lacking, but it doesn’t take away from the fun of the title, or the enjoyment of playing it. Dying Light has really set the bar for future zombie games. Whilst I feel as though Dead Island 2 will have the polish that Dying Light is lacking, I wonder whether it will be different enough to warrant playing it, or do enough to set it out from the rest, like Dying Light. I guess we’ll have to wait and see!