I would love to write a review of developer Techland’s Dying Light for you, but that would be misleading. As you might have heard, precisely zero pre-release copies were provided to review sites. This is usually a good sign of a turkey in the works.
Further to that, even if they had provided review copies, there’s no chance that I would have been one of those reviewers.
So, I didn’t get my hands on a copy – which I paid full price for myself on Xbox One – until release day. What’s more, having made some headway in the game, it seems huge and I doubt I’ve made it far enough to provide a fair review, let alone finished the game.
With all that out of the way, let’s get to the good news.
Dying Light is really good.
Techland have produced zombie games before. The Dead Island series has been divisive, but certainly impressive in aspiration, but their new game, despite superficial similarities, is something a bit different. Like it’s predecessors, it is a large, open world, zombie-horde survival game. This time, however, the tone is significantly more dour, the zombies more numerous and the protagonist rather more nimble.
The big selling point here is traversal; Crane, the protagonist, is a lithe and bouncy gent who likes mantling fences and scaling walls. Pretty much everything that might be construed as a ledge will provide a hand hold, turning the sprawling, neglected city of Harran into a multi-tiered playground. It’s like Mirror’s Edgeing through Call of Juarez.
The parkour feels great. Even without having unlocked much of the skill trees, the player can scale most things with relative ease. The system is simple and forgiving enough that the mechanics of moving never feel punishing, although it is certainly still possible to get it dangerously, excitingly wrong.
Together with the ever present zombies, the parkour is a game unto itself; leaping and dashing between islands of safety in the sea of hugry, munching, shambling dead. Spicing things up in the daylight hours are also occasional “virals”; recently infected victims of the plague: hungry, malevolent, but still fresh enough to run and climb after you. The balance seems good too. Most of the time (in daylight, at least) the dynamic of the slow zombies makes for a pleasing, tactical movement game, interspersed with occasional fight or flight decisions to keep you on your toes.
So far, if you get into real trouble, it seems always to be your own fault. Whether that will remain true through later missions, I can’t say, but for now, I like it.
Night time, however, is a different thing. The dynamic daylight model is beautiful to behold and the lengthening shadows are a superb visual and tonal indication of the approach of the night. In darkness, worse monsters come out; fast, strong, relentless… better than you. If you’re spotted, your only choice is to run. Fast. A lot. As long as your stamina lasts, you can just about keep out of their reach, but once you start to tire, you’ll feel their claws at your back. Luckily, they can be avoided. Take your time and be smart and quiet and you can circumnavigate their attention.
Night is a tense, dangerous time in Dying Light and that is reflected in doubled XP gain and bonuses the longer you survive without going to sleep. This makes for an interesting risk/reward dynamic to going out at night.
Combat is primarily melee. I say “primarily”, so far, melee (and a few thrown goodies) is all that I have experienced, but some NPCs carry firearms and one mission strongly suggests that I will be able to get my hands on guns later on. Despite the serious tone, though, there’s some frivolity in the weapons and crafting system. Home made flaming shuriken are cool and fun, but they’re not particularly realistic. So far, at least, it doesn’t really feel like it lives up to its “survival horror” stylings; feeling more like an action playground. A leaking oil barrel, firecrackers and a molotov are a lot of fun and not that difficult to arrange.
Weapons degrade with use – initially, at least, rather too damn quickly, but replacements are common enough for it not to be too much of a problem if you’re smart about how many zombies you engage. Further to this, the skill tree promises advances in this are to come. Hitting zombies with blunt objects feels good, though; there’s a pleasing sense of weight to the impacts and the monsters reel and stumble convincingly. They’re tough, though; more than once I have found myself standing over a persistent, dead milkman, hitting him in the head every time he tried to get up, just hoping his skull gave up before the pipe I was hitting it with.
Technically, everything seems solid. The city is a rather dour mess, but it’s a well rendered dour mess and certainly has a next-gen sheen of clutter. The way the mood of the city changes with the progress of the sun and weather is impressive. I’m not sure it’s going to wow anyone visually, but there are a great many elements to the presentation that work together very well to evoke a sense of place and time.
So; to wind up…first impressions are excellent. Let’s call Dying Light‘s daytime a huge, enjoyable floor-is-made-of-lava simulator, only you have the option of hitting the lava in the face with a wrench. The Night Time game feels…well, it recalls to me elements of Thief. Dark, quiet, tense…then RUNNING AWAY!
I don’t know what they were thinking with their review-copy policy, or what’s going on with the European physical release, but the game itself is not the turkey its release weirdness suggests.
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