Do you remember Dead Island? That open world zombie game that had everyone hyped and then left everyone with the taste of disappointment because of how janky and underdeveloped it felt? Well in comes Dying Light, which is a lot like Dead Island, with the notable difference that it’s actually fun to play.
So what does Dying Light retain from Dead Island and what differentiates it? To start with, the setting is different. Instead of the zombie outbreak taking place on a resort island, the outbreak this time takes place in the fictional city of Harran, a city that has the feel of being vaguely European and Middle Eastern in it’s people and aesthetic. Or Brazilian, I am not quite sure. The first zone, the slums, evokes images of favelas, whilst the second zone, the old town as the name suggests, provides the charm of a European old town. It is quite the aesthetic shift once you reach it, but it is nice.
After the outbreak has been occurring for some time, you are dropped into the midst of it as Kyle Crane, an American operative working for an organization called the GRE in order to obtain some material and persons of interest. Throughout the game, Kyle finds himself heavily invested in the plight of the people stuck in the city. It’s quite a bland plot really and extremely predictable, as pretty much every twist can be spotted a mile away so it has no impact. Additionally, Kyle Crane himself is bland and becomes attached to the people of Harran unbelievably quickly, like someone who falls in love because that person smiled at them one time. This also includes a romance subplot within the main story that in addition to being forced, is also very unfulfilling. Kyle Crane is attached to these people but the game fails to make me care on an emotional level. So the story is clearly not the main attraction here. The main expansion, The Following has a similarly generic plot that is similarly bland even though it had the potential to be a fun b-movie kind of narrative.
In terms of how the game plays, the two fundamental aspects are combat and free running parkour (think Assassins Creed but in first person). The parkour works surprisingly well and is assisted by strong overworld design that facilitates this freedom of movement. It controls wonderfully and intuitively, making it fun to just run around the levels. But it is also very useful and is your most important tool in the early game, since enemies are plentiful, they hit hard and fast and your weapons are, at least at the start, about as effective as butter knives trying to fell a tree. This makes for a very exciting start to the game in terms of the parkour mechanics, but an at times frustrating combat experience. I also found the ability where you can use an enemies head as a jumping platform to be endlessly entertaining and useful.
The combat really shines in the mid to late game when your weapons start dealing serious damage and you’ve got a good amount of ability upgrades under your belt. Enemies still hit pretty hard throughout the game, which makes me suspect there’s some level scaling at play in both loot and enemy damage output and they can dodge you, even the zombies. And since you have a stamina bar to worry about, you can’t just mash the left mouse button and hope to be effective, so there is at least some thought required in the combat. Early on, I found an effective tactic to cheese enemies by using the slide tackle to down enemies and then wail on their face with my equipped weapon. Drop kicking is also fun, but less effective than the slide tackle. But when you’ve got those higher levels of weapons, the combat becomes extra fun when your machete cuts heads off in one hit and the head flies off and blood gushes out of their neck stump. Or when they have a hammer smashed face or are bisected by a scythe or sword, it’s great stuff.
Around the half way point, guns become more common, but they are a mixed bag. On one hand, they’re extremely effective as you can now have some range and easily pull of head shots that are one hit kills against normal zombies and smaller specials, such as a spitter that looks like the jockey from Left 4 Dead 2, or regular human enemies. One drawback, however, is that the noise of attracts more zombies to your position, so while it is effective crowd control, it still brings all the boys to the yard. Plus guns don’t have degradation. You’re going to want to keep guns as a staple of your equipped weapons. But on the other hand, the shooting just feels awkward and clunky at times, especially in the more linear main mission levels that involve shootouts against human enemies. Plus there are no abilities in the upgrade tree for guns, which is a missed opportunity.
Another main feature of the game is how night shift runs are quite dangerous,with creatures such as Volatiles (which look like discount bloodsuckers) which will fuck you up if they catch you so it is best not to take them head on in most instances. I usually avoided nights despite the award rate of double exp simply because being caught by volatiles was annoying. But they can still be fun. It’s up to you except for the occasional mission that requires you to go out at night.
In regards to this upgrade tree, the game uses a simple leveling system where you level up combat or parkour through simply engaging in them and thankfully, they are separate exp pools in addition to the general ‘Survivor’ skill tree that levels up through completing quests. It is a good an easily understandable system. The skill trees themselves avoid the common pitfalls many other games like these have of being dominated by passive abilities and instead offer a good balance between passive and active skills. The general progression is very well done and the player going from scrub to death on legs is satisfying and feels earned.
The Following expansion also adds driving, which has it’s own upgrade tree and the feeling of driving, depending on how much you’ve upgraded it and it’s overall condition, range from unwieldy to cathartic as you ram zombies in the countryside and create roadkill. I wouldn’t recommend driving at night until you’ve got a good amount of upgrades because being jumped by volatiles, especially off road, is incredibly irritating. But overall the driving is a fun way to compensate for the parkour being less relevant in a rural setting.
Crafting is also very simple in that all you need is a blueprint and the requisite materials and base weapon if applicable and you can craft a new item. Weapons have two types of upgrades, the first being ones that add durability or higher damage and the other being elemental effects. You don’t need to do this with every weapon as there are many that are effective in their default states. The designs of the weapons can are usually pretty grounded and can look like they would be practical or semi practical in any other kind of zombie media.
In regards to the visuals and performance, the art direction is quite strong as I have mentioned before with the different zones and they are good on a technical level too. Zombies are detailed and have excellent animation where sometimes even their vestigial humanity will show in combat and look like they are briefly yielding. There is also a good amount of variation in what each zombie looks like and while not all are unique, feelings of excessive repetition are minimal. Gore effects are satisfyingly implemented which is crucial for this kind of game and the lighting is phenomenal and the deep, expressive orange hues of twilight are the most impressive along with the immediate coldness and blackness of night. It also performs well at 1440p at high preset using at least a GTX 970.
There is perhaps more minutae of the game I can discuss, but I better wrap this up. I bought Dying Light on sale for about $24 USD and played about 30 hours, the vast majority of it being highly enjoyable in spite of my critiques discussed in this review. It’s not the perfect zombie game, but most of it’s mechanics work well together, the world design is fantastic and the soundtrack even has some good tracks, especially those with more synths. At around that price, this enhanced edition of Dying Light comes highly recommended to anyone looking for a fun zombie game that can be played solo or with friends.