I'm being chased by men with guns, which seems particularly unfair given that all I have is a loose piece of plumbing equipment being gently warmed by a battery duct-taped to one end. But Dying Light isn't really a game that wants you to fight very often; it would much prefer that you run.
So off I tear, racing down side streets and narrow alleyways, gently nudging the right bumper to kick off towards nearby ledges, scrambling over fences and rooftops, and dodging legions of the walking dead, occasionally sliding between the festering legs of these shambling zombies to deliver the odd crunchy powerslide attack... because it feels good. I race to the top of a high building and realise that I've inadvertently solved my earlier problem. The men with guns are now being ripped to shreds by the undead masses.
The sun is going down, and the vision below me is captivating. Gory, disgusting, and peppered with sickening squelchy sounds, but undeniably beautiful to me with my slim sliver of health.
I'm really enjoying this game, and that's not something I really thought much during my first few hours with Dying Light.
The game itself basically amounts to dashing about a derelict sandbox, free running your way past legions of mindless zombies, gathering supplies, crafting bits and bobs, upgrading your crude weapons, and attempting to last the night, which is when seriously aggressive and powerful beasties come out to play. There's a story that would make B-movie scribes put their faces in their hands, and crude mission design that boils down to point-to-point fetch and carry quests and menial tasks for characters whose names I've already forgotten. There's a pervasive pessimism that seeps through into all of these missions too. So much of what you do ends in failure or misery or death, and although that rather fits the grim surroundings, it makes your role in the story seem half-baked, possibly even superfluous. More than once I found myself plodding through the story missions and asking myself why I was bothering.
There are practical reasons, of course. Dying Light features advancement systems best described as "progress by doing". The more you run and jump and climb, the more you'll boost your agility rating until you rank up and are rewarded with a skill point to sink into an upgrade tree. The same can be said of combat: square off with a zombie or two every once in a while, and you'll be able to develop new offensive skills and moves. But boosting your survival rank requires greater effort, and it's the big XP drops that come from finishing missions that'll really help you there.
It takes a while to really become anything approaching some sort of action hero, though going out at night helps. The game's story will generally try and send you to bed so you can skip the horrors of the darkness, but braving the city at night is really where Dying Light starts to come alive. You earn double XP during these twilight hours, but there are terrifying, tentacular things that only emerge after hours, and if they spot you, you'll want to run and hide as quickly as possible. The game teaches you that you're faster than most undead enemies is the daylight, but that's simply not true at night. You need to be cleverer than that, and be able to think on the fly if you're going to evade the powerful, agile Volatiles.
Combat is a nightmare in Dying Light. Your weapons deteriorate at a rapid rate that seems to make a mockery of actually having any fun, and the early skill of stunning zombies with a blow to the head is made hilariously useless by a melee aiming system that has a will of its own. The zombies themselves are far more resilient to basic bludgeoning than in other games featuring the undead, and it's easy to feel a little helpless at times. This doesn't improve much at all for a good few hours, and even then, I wouldn't say I ever really felt completely like a tooled-up powerhouse, though there's a lot of fun to be had with the battering, frazzling, and exploding devices and weapons that you can craft and modify. But the point that the game makes early on is that running is your best option. It forces you to scrutinise your surroundings, to make the most of the ramps and the ledges, to play about with the scattered debris and forge escape routes on the fly. It's imperfectly executed, and the parkour aspects feel a little clunky at times to the point where I'm still never completely certain if I'm going to make certain jumps, but I've found it to be thrilling, heady stuff.
There are so many games that explore the empowering nature of the "fight" aspect of "fight or flight". This is different, and for once "flight" gets some serious time in the sun. Here, the satisfaction comes from a clean getaway, returning to one of the safe zones scattered around the map without having lost a bunch of your health or snuffed it completely. You'll analyse the layout of the area around or ahead of you, and use it to put distance between you and the things that want your blood and brains. At first, it'll simply be speed and verticality, but then night comes, and you have to think quicker and yet more quietly too.
This will be no doubt be frustrating for fans of Dead Island and Dead Rising, or anyone hoping for a zombie sandbox in which they might muck around to their heart's content. Dying Light is a game that never really lets you off of the leash, there's always a caveat and a downside to more extravagant tactics. The excesses of most other zombie titles are either impossible or deeply impractical in this game, although there are some emergent possibilities that can make for delightfully explosive results. An early mini boss with a devastatingly effective two-handed hammer swiftly met his end after I chucked a propane canister at him and he decided to smack it as hard as he could.
But that's why Dying Light stands out. In many ways, it's perhaps a little reminiscent of Dark Souls in that it doesn't pander to your expectations of what it should be, rather it tasks you with mastering what it holds to be important. In this game, flight is more important than fight.
Of course, that gets blown up when you add friends into the mix, and Dying Light offers up four-way co-op that genuinely adds to the experience. A little more tailored than Dead Island's multiplayer efforts, Dying Light serves up a selection of mini challenges. Little objectives will pop up that have you working together, with smaller competitive bonuses thrown in to make things interesting. You might be tasked with liberating a survivor currently beset by zombie foes, but with a little competitive element to see who can put down the most members of the shambling horde along the way.
And then there's Be The Zombie mode, which WB made free on release after they managed to botch the physical launch. You can jump into other people's games as a super-powerful undead beast, taking on the tentacular mantle of one of the horrors that chases you around the city at night. Only this time, you get to do the chasing. It's a great little change of pace, and an interesting little bonus mode, and if you don't fancy having your world invaded, you can toggle the mode on and off in your own game.
I was all too ready to write off Dying Light in its early stages, and I'm glad that I stuck with it, dipping in and out in regular, but relatively short intervals. I can understand why it might prove offputting to some, and although it looks much better than Dead Island ever did, it's still got some visible rough edges, but I'm delighted to say that I've enjoyed myself with this game far more than I had perhaps anticipated. Go into it with an open mindset, something that'll no doubt be easier when it drops under £30, and Dying Light might surprise you, not least in terms of how it manages to make running away feel more satisfying than smacking a zombie in the head with a table leg.
- Brilliantly designed city to explore
- Parkour features are immensely satisfying
- The sandbox experience is frequently thrilling and tense, especially at night
- Co-op is a blast
- Crafting systems are simple but effective
- Engineering emergent deaths is enormously pleasing
- Melee combat is woefully inaccurate and clunky
- Weapon deterioration and limited repairs make sense but can scupper enjoyment
- Dubious storytelling
- Repetitive missions
The Short Version: Dying Light is a game best experienced on your own terms and at your own pace. It eschews the excesses of its sibling franchise, Dead Island, but is no worse for it and if you can get past the clunky storytelling and the repetitive missions, you might a diamond in the rough that really empowers you to revel in the design aspects of its zombie-infested sandbox.
Platforms: PC (reviewed) | PS4 (tested) | Xbox One
Publishers: Warner Bros. Interactive
NB. A note on the recent patch controversy: Techland have said that denying modding possibilities was never their intention and that they're assembling a patch to prevent Be The Zombie exploits while still allowiong for game tweaks.