A few years back, a video game trailer was released that made the target audience go absolutely batty. It was a very well-done piece of theater, showcasing a family suffering through the beginnings of a zombie plague. The score and the action were cut together in a way to truly play off of the emotions of the viewer, as we witnessed the transition of a young girl from scared prey to reanimated predator. I’m speaking, of course, about the original trailer for Dead Island, which portrayed this family dynamic uncomfortably well, and danced around the well-understood notion that children are generally off-limits when it comes to displayed death, especially in video games. Whether it was done for shock value, or to highlight the brutality of a world where zombies are real, there is no doubt that the trailer helped boost early sales of Dead Island.
As well done as the trailer was, the actual game was a bit hit or miss. Yes, you were transported to a tropical paradise, after a night of debauchery turns into a nightmare, with zombies at every turn. Yes, you had the ability to find weapons in the most mundane of things, and upgrade them to an extent. Dead Island had an element of being at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse, and the game made sure that no area was ever completely cleared of the living dead for long, so that players could never feel truly safe. On the flip side, the game definitely experienced some pretty large difficulty spikes, and the fact that the zombies continuously leveled up with the player, making real progress feel like a fleeting dream, soured some players on the world that had been created.
Because of this, there was both an eagerness and a dread surrounding Techland’s return to the world of zombies with their newest outing, Dying Light. This time around, the developer would be combining an open-world zombie infestation with parkour mechanics. Is the end result akin to putting peanut butter in chocolate, or is it a mix that should have been left by the wayside. The game’s tagline is “Good night, and good luck”, which just seems fitting as you approach the end of the day with its…
Zombies have been really basking in popularity as of late, and no place does that seem more perfect than in the world of video gaming. After all, throughout gaming’s history, there have been plenty of games that have revolved around the idea of mowing down tons of enemies, generally devoid of personality, and with very few real strategic needs to defeating them. Zombies fit that bill perfectly, and they also allow the player to fulfill a survivor fantasy, all from the safety of their own homes. Dying Light isn’t setting out to really change the core of zombie games; it’s simply looking to add a few more pieces of flavor to choose from.
In some ways, Dying Light could almost be viewed as something of a spiritual successor to Dead Island. Yes, there’s a sequel to Dead Island coming out soon, but Techland isn’t involved with it, and Dying Light has a lot of the familiar trappings while clearly existing in its own world. Instead of the fictional Banoi of Dead Island, this time the game is set in the city of Harran, loosely based on the city from ancient Turkey. Both games feature a first-person view, weapons crafted from random household implements, and hordes of zombies created by a strange infection. Throughout both games, the world is so densely packed with zombies that there’s never really a safe route through, and you will need to use brains and brawn to survive. And yet, for all of their similarities, the two games are also very different, and those differences help make Dying Light shine. Let’s look at some of the specifics to Dying Light.
In Dying Light, there’s a heavy emphasis on using parkour in your overall movement through the city. Later in the game, you receive a grappling hook to help you traverse the world as well, but there are very few areas where the grappling hook is necessary. Running, climbing, jumping, and vaulting all play major parts, and the set-up to the final boss of the game contains some very precise parkour elements, to make sure you’ve been paying attention along the way. So how does it work? Extremely well. Over the course of the game, climbing a fence in order to reach a nearby rooftop, leaping down into a pile of garbage, and vaulting over the hordes of undead directly in front of you in order to get to a safe house started to feel natural. The early tutorial on the parkour elements had me fearing that everything that was climbable would be distinctly marked, and that wasn’t the case. Instead, as you make your way through the environments, your eyes start to naturally look both for where the next zombie is coming from, and where your parkour skills could help propel you to a different space. The dynamic never really felt forced, and it was integrated into the game incredibly well. Even better, because Dying Light features a first-person view, you aren’t as likely to run into Assassin’s Creed syndrome, where you’re trying to climb a wall, but accidentally bump your controller to send your character leaping off to their demise from a great height.
This is first and foremost, a zombie game. Clearly, your enemies are going to be the recently reanimated, along with some bad survivors who just want to gum up the works. That said, one thing that Dying Light does well is to vary the types of enemies. The zombies come in a few different forms (personally, Bombers were the most irritating, because of their penchant for hiding behind doors), all with their own different tweaks to how they engage the main character. The humans present yet another challenge in their method of attack. This variety keeps the game fresh and engaging, even if you spend the majority of the time honing one specific type of weapon and repeatedly spamming the attack button. If that’s not enough, Dying Light also plays with the differences in ambient light. In many ways, the game comes most alive once the sun has set on Harran, as now all of the zombies are stronger, and another couple of new types have been introduced to the mix. Especially in the early goings, it isn’t uncommon to run somewhat blindly through the streets, while being pursued by angry undead, just hoping you can make it to a safe house in time. In fact, the chases are the places where the game really hits home the terror of being caught in a zombie apocalypse. Yes, you might be able to clear a path at least somewhat, but numbers are going to be against you in the long run.
Admittedly, the story isn’t really breaking new ground. You play as Kyle Crane, who has been sent in to Harran to retrieve a sensitive file. You make friends, you make enemies. There are some clever points over the course of the main story, such as the message you try to send to the world outside of Harran, but, overall, it isn’t really doing anything new. It doesn’t need to. Crane is seemingly set up as one of the only practical people left in the city, and, because of his skills, he’s one of the few who can survive the challenges of completing the tasks needed to help those trapped within, which really just paints a glossy layer over the whole “run around the city doing cool parkour moves and killing zombies” thing. Honestly, while a story is clearly needed to give the game a framework, in these types of games it’s very rarely the thing that people remember. People don’t talk about their time playing Dead Rising and how they loved the convoluted story; they talk about how much fun it was to drive over hordes of zombies with a lawnmower, or to create a weapon out of a kayak paddle and a couple of chainsaws. The fact that the story doesn’t terribly get in the way is a good thing, and it does provide a nice framework to create the world around.
These are completely optional aspects of the game, and, because they ARE optional, they don’t really take away from it. Most of them are actually pretty straight-forward, and help you get better at the mechanics of the game itself. Some are seemingly designed for luck to play a major role. It’s nice to have the opportunity to step away once in a while from the frenetic pace of the main story and the side quests, but a few of the challenges were more frustrating than seemed worth it. Overall, they serve as a diversion, to give the player new ways to focus on destroying the dead or navigating the city. Regularly popping into these challenges not only makes Crane stronger, but improves the player’s skill. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for me to play a challenge, and then use those exact techniques shortly thereafter in the main game.
It wouldn’t be a video game review, or a review of any kind by me, if there weren’t some gripes. These didn’t take away from the fact that, overall, Dying Light was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed my time in Harran, but, if they hadn’t been there, it would have improved my perceptions. First off is the handling of Jade, who is set up throughout the early part of the game to be just as capable, if not more so, than Crane, but ends up being heavily devolved into little more than a damsel in distress. The way her story ended left a sour taste in my mouth, especially since it seemed like it was merely done to make sure that Crane knew the bad guy was a REALLY bad guy (something that had already been well established in my eyes). Secondly, while the game doesn’t step into it often, there is some usage of Quick Time Events that’s just a little off-putting. Most of the time QTEs jump up, it isn’t a big deal, but there are a few moments where giving the player a little more autonomy would have helped. Finally, the game boasts a huge array of weaponry, and a lot of different ways to upgrade. Now, clearly different players will choose different weapons, but it seemed like, by the end game, only a few options were actually viable. Thankfully, those options weren’t limited to firearms, because the game does a good job of highlighting exactly why guns would potentially be a bad idea when dealing with a zombie infestation, but it didn’t seem like there were as many worthwhile choices by the end of it.
All of that said, Dying Light is a game that was definitely fun to play around with. The story served as a nice way to link the passage from one zombie slaughter to the next, with a few pit stops for dealing with humans gone bad, and the characters were just engaging enough to keep it going. There are scares, as pointed out above, with the most notable coming during night-time chases, where one wrong move can lead to Crane being surrounded by a huge horde of zombies with no chance to escape. Smooth movement and a decent combat mechanic helped make the game flow naturally from combat to escape and back again, and I know I’m already thinking about the next time I’ll visit Harran.