Techland, the developers of Dying Light, hit videogame legitimacy with their ambitious 2011 action-RPG Dead Island. They've been going strong for a number of years now, mainly sticking to oft-overlooked first-person shooters like the Halo-esque Chrome and the moderately successful Call of Juarez series. They weren't exactly setting the world on fire, but Dead Island changed that. What made it so appealing for me was how it took the player away from the confined corridors of zombie shoot 'em ups like Left 4 Dead and, instead, stuck them in the middle of a sprawling zombie outbreak set in an open-world tropical paradise. Cribbing countless influences from years of horror cinema, most obviously Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 and George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Dead Island felt like one big crazy love letter to the gore flicks of yesteryear and the expansive sandbox epics of today. Some loved it, some hated it. However you feel about it, there's no denying how important it's been to the evolution of the zombie sub-genre.
One of the things that separates Dying Light from other like-minded zombie titles is how pervasively somber it is. Games like Capcom's Dead Rising franchise are more social satire than horror, and Techland's own Dead Island was also heavier on the humor than the scare factor. Dying Light was initially conceived as Dead Island 2 before Deep Silver yanked development duties away from Techland and handed them over to Yager, so expecting more of the same from Techland isn't unreasonable. As far as core gameplay elements go, minus the heavily advertised free-running mechanic, Dying Light plays an awful lot like Dead Island. Loving Dead Island as much as I do, I was pretty OK with this. Don't like Dead Island? Go ahead and see your way out.
Generally speaking, Dying Light takes everything that made Dead Island fun and implements more of it to better effect. You've got the same smattering of deliciously macabre weaponry, upgrades that can turn said macabre weaponry into truly destructive weaponry, a strong emphasis on melee combat, and a huge open-world rife with side-quests, interesting characters to meet, and thousands of zombies to slaughter. What Dying Light doesn't have is Dead Island's tropical setting and dark humor. You play as a GRE agent named Kyle Crane who has been sent in to recover a confidential file from a vicious warlord known as Rais. The game takes you to a city in the Middle East called Harran where you, as Crane, are tasked with befriending the local survivors, finding information on Rais & the file, and ultimately recovering it from him. In typical videogame fashion things are never as easy they're said to be. Crane winds up being attacked & infected by a zombie and subsequently granted asylum by a local faction of survivors. From there are on, Crane is to keep himself alive while also unearthing a very sinister plot Rais is unknowingly a part of.
Surprisingly, Dying Light has a story and a damn intriguing one at that. Dead Island cooked up some half-baked bullcrap about a jungle tribe and a rogue agent being the reasons behind that game's viral outbreak; its "plot" was little more than an excuse to let players jump from one loosely connected location to the other, bash zombies' brains in with tricked out weapons, and loot everything in their path while doing it. Dying Light is virtually humorless in comparison, sports a pretty strong narrative the whole through, and serves up a fantastically evil villain in Rais. The problem most games like this would encounter is deciding who or what the villain is. The man? The virus? The government? Techland found a way to make all three equally dangerous and that's something of an accomplishment. Rais is the kind of character I'd fear most given the circumstances. When there are no more rules and one can do whatever they wish, men like Rais file out of the woodwork to take advantage of it. He's damn frightening because he's so unhinged. Rais doesn't care if the world burns, he's just going to enjoy watching it happen.
You've also got a great lead character in Kyle Crane. Things start off a bit dicey with Crane more or less coming off as a manipulative asshole who'll do anything to accomplish his task. As the game wears on, we get to see different shades of him, namely his remorsefulness and morality. There's a real sense of character development as the story progresses. Crane goes from undercover GRE agent who views the people as a "job" to genuinely understanding & caring for the Harran survivors. Crane makes their problems his problems. The first person Kyle is told to track down is Brecken, an out-of-town parkour instructor who has taken the reigns and chose to lead the group of survivors. You've also got Jade Aldemir, an expert MMA fighter that has joined Brecken's group along with her brother Rahim. The relationship Crane builds with these and other characters throughout the course of the story forms the meat of the game. Without it the character would be worthless as a lead; he'd have no real reason to continue. Crane's progression feels organic and you do genuinely come to care about the people you meet.
Much like Dead Island, you'll find both weapons and consumables scattered throughout Harran. A simple holding of the X button sends out a sonar-like ping that picks up any useful loot in the area and highlights it for your convenience. Since Dying Light carries over the RPG-esque looting & crafting ideas from Dead Island, you'll often come across blueprints on how to build bigger and better weapons as you progress through the game. A plain ol' machete is going to take a serious amount of physical effort to get the job done, but combining it with your immense collection of discarded wires & batteries turns it into a machete that electrocutes your enemies with every swing. Get a bunch of zombies together, start slashing away at them, and watch them fry each other. Or take a piece of Bolter flesh, a Bolter being a highly toxic zombie that runs away from you when spotted, combine it with any cutting weapon and... You get the picture. The crafting system isn't as deep as Dead Island's unfortunately, leaving most of that game's wacky machinations out of the picture.
Dying Light as a whole is going for a far grittier, more grounded presentation, and because of that you're going to be creating weapons that are effective but relatively mundane. Crafting exploding throwing stars, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails is great fun, but most of the weapons you find can't be pimped out any further than adding an electric element, a poison element, or a "bleeding" element (essentially just increasing damage), so the game obviously isn't encouraging all-out anarchy. That's part of Dying Light's overall aim, which is both good and bad. Techland do a great job of making you feel startlingly vulnerable during the early portions of the game. Before you've found even a merely serviceable means of protecting yourself, upgraded any of your attributes, and are likely still getting the hang of the parkour system, you'll be evading zombies a lot more often than fighting them. Dead Island encouraged fighting right from the start whereas Dying Light does not. Get surrounded by a group of undead and you're toast pretty quickly. You're given firecrackers as your first consumable item and you'll be using these little buggers more than anything else for a large stretch of the starting missions. Throw one and watch the zombies shamble over to it. While their distracted, take the opportunity to scrounge up anything you can get your hands on and eventually start crafting things that give you a fighting chance.
Melee combat is, as I said, the main focus of the game. You do come across guns later on, though you'll be inclined to use them as a last resort. They work remarkably well on human opposition, as well as indoors on groups of zombies, but in open areas they draw the attention of extremely dangerous zombies known as Virals. These suckers are recently infected humans that still retain many of their human advantages. They run, climb, and claw at you very quickly and should absolutely be avoided in packs. During confrontations with them I'd often hear them plead for mercy as they continued to run and lunge at me. It's infinitely creepy and does a great job of making you want to steer well clear of them whenever possible. Most of the time you'll be crafting both blunt & edged weapons with their own unique sets of attributes. If you prefer fast fighting you'll want to make use of smaller blades and knives, if you prefer more efficient cutting tools you'll want to focus on cleavers and machetes, and if you favor outright power you'll spend your time improvising various types of baseball bats and sledgehammers. During combat you can also pull off a handy dodge maneuver that I advise you to get acquainted with very quickly.
A majority of your hand-to-hand encounters will involve a combination of timing your attacks with an opponents' openings, dodging their attacks by studying their movement patterns, and learning to vary up your attacks to keep the AI from telegraphing you ahead of time. Zombies are pretty easy to kill off once you start leveling up your stats, but human enemies are an altogether different story. The AI is smart enough to learn your attacks during combat, so simply attacking with the same two moves repeatedly will find you being continuously blocked and countered. The only beef I have with these human encounters is the amount of punishment they can take before finally going down. You're also going to need to pay attention to your stamina gauge and how worn your weapons are becoming. Considering Techland's pedigree with first-person shooters (they did develop the Call of Juarez series, after all), the firefights end up feeling a touch underwhelming. Dead Island had perfectly satisfying gun combat and I was really looking forward to getting my first gun and taking out some of Rais's thugs. It isn't as visceral or satisfying as the melee combat, though I suppose that's the point. You aren't a soldier. You're a man that's learning and improvising as he goes along. In that respect it works, but it still doesn't make it much fun.
Dying Light is still very much an action-RPG title, and to that extent it's executed wonderfully. The main story quests will provide you a good 20 hours of playtime with additional side-quests and other activities padding it out further. As in most RPGs, it's in the player's best interest to split their time between story quests and side-quests in order to evenly level up as they go along. Completing side activities will provide you with quicker upgrades, better weapons, more health, more strength, and so on. Upgrading your skills is also far more crucial here than it was in Dead Island. So many of the abilities you'll be gaining make the game's sometimes brutal difficulty manageable. One ability will actually let you spring off of zombies while running, letting you jump over groups of them if you time it appropriately. Another ability allows you to kill a zombie, smear yourself in its blood, and go unnoticed for a length of time. This is useful when you're having to pick locks while surrounded by infected and need that extra few seconds to get it right. Other upgrades give you more fighting abilities, like being able to stomp on downed zombies heads, killing them instantly, or being able to run full-tilt at an enemy and dropkick the crap out of them WWE style. The first time you charge a zombie and unload on them, sending them flying off the roof to their (second?) death is just brilliant. The upgrades aren't only essential for survival but for having the most fun with the game.
Techland have continued to improve their design prowess game after game. To the extent at which their skills have progressed are downright staggering. Taking into consideration the breadth of its scope and the vast open-world in which it takes place, Dying Light is a relatively bug-free undertaking. What's more surprising is learning of Techland's original plan to release Dying Light as a cross-generation title. I can't fathom how the PS3 and 360's dated tech would have handled the game. Not well, apparently, as Techland went on to cancel both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 ports in order to focus all their efforts on the next-gen & PC versions. Does it benefit from it? Absolutely. Dying Light is a very good-looking game, no question. It betrays its cross-generation roots by way of beautiful lighting, incredible water physics, fantastic texture work, and gorgeous smoke & fire effects. Character models, however, look a bit rough with an obvious lack of motion capture for all but the cut scenes. That being said, the cut scenes are pretty impressive, but the shockingly poor in-game animations are downright jarring. Dying Light also comes equipped with one of the best day/night systems I've seen. The real-time advancement of in-game days looks spectacular; bright afternoons slowly fading to eerie sunsets look positively stunning. The lighting shifts accordingly, casting everything in a dim orange glow as the last few beams of sunlight cut through trees overhead. In any other game this would be mesmerizing, and in a way it still is, but it's not called Dying Light for nothing. The game evolves into one of the most tense, downright spookiest gaming experiences I've ever had during the nighttime sections, so much so that I did my best to have myself hunkered down in a safe house long before the Sun set.
Much like Dead Island before it, Dying Light isn't for everybody. I think Techland managed to capture more of what they wanted Dead Island to be sans the forced humor and nutty weapons. Dying Light is that game's successor in all the ways fans would want it to be, just tons scarier. It's got flaws that ultimately sour some of the fun, namely some poorly designed missions, shoddy facial animations, and frustrating difficulty spikes. Should that keep you from playing it? Absolutely not. Dying Light is everything a zombie game should be. It plays well, looks great, innovates in ways that make it feel fresh in lieu of its derivative tendencies, and offers a competently told narrative to boot. And that soundtrack! Pawel Blaszczak's original score sounds like it could have backed any number of 1980's era Italian zombie horror films. It's just fantastic. Fans of this genre and, more importantly, Techland's ongoing design sensibilities will see and enjoy this for exactly what it is: a damn well-made next-gen zombie title.