The dead aren’t walking anymore. They’re running.
Under a parachute’s shadow, Techland drops us into familiar territory. A crumbling, sun-bleached ghetto creeps beneath us, our cruelly protracted descent into its moribund streets delaying an inevitable confrontation. As we hit the ground, the hoodlums hit us.
The fracas draws attention, undead rushing in from all corners. It’s only thanks to a band of survivors from a nearby tower block that we manage to escape – but not without being bitten first. With dwindling stocks of Antizin keeping the infection suppressed, the Tower is far from a permanent sanctuary.
Kyle Crane has been inserted into the fictional Middle Eastern city of Harran. He’s on a mission to retrieve a sensitive file, stolen from the GRE (Global Relief Effort) for purposes of blackmail. The thief, Suleiman, could be anywhere. He could even be in the Tower, amongst Crane’s saviours. Trapped between competing allegiances, our protagonist shuffles awkwardly over moral lines, lurching towards his ultimate choice.
In many ways, this is just another zombie apocalypse in the vein of Techland’s Dead Island series. But with a zombie horde that is more than shambling, parkour (also known as free running) brings a unique skill set to equal the threat. Avoidance is the sensible tactic for survival in a city brimming with the undead at every corner. A versatile array of moves (developing with experience as you level up) give you everything you need to stay out of harm’s way.
First rule: don’t touch the floor. Leap across rooftops, vehicles, walls and fences to get where you need to go. If you do fall, get back up as quickly as possible, launching off from a zombie’s shoulders if you have to. Catch your breath where you can, and make use of the various safe zones across the city…as long as you’ve managed to clear the zombies out of them first.
Second rule: choose the right weapons. To begin with, they’re weak, fragile, and almost useless in a crowd, especially when your swinging arm starts to feel heavy. While you might find a gun on rare occasions, don’t think that’s the easy option. One shot will attract a legion of fast, predatory zombies that can run and climb almost as well as you can.
Third rule: be wary of the night. Before you venture out of that safe zone in the dark, just know that it won’t take a gunshot to draw attention to yourself. The undead are stronger and more alert. Utilise stealth, disguise yourself with zombie entrails, or just stay indoors. If you must go out, be ready with that UV light to throw the pack off your tail, or use the various traps set up across the city. It’s a huge experience boost for you if you survive the night.
From the outset this is a serious survival horror experience. The zombies of Dying Light demand your fear and respect – at least initially, they are nothing like the gory playthings of Dead Rising 3. That said, as you level up and attain better weaponry, taking on the undead becomes a risk worth taking. Care is still required to avoid losing experience points upon death, but beyond the steep learning curve lies an accessible adventure.
The game opens up further in four player co-op, allowing for a more combat-focused attitude (and the extra experience that naturally brings). Playing co-operatively is as fun as you might imagine, not only for the brute force advantage but the thrill of scaling the city’s buildings together. A trip to the top of the suspension bridge before jumping into the sea is a high point in more than the literal sense.
In terms of progressing Crane’s story though, co-op play can be a dissonant experience. Only Crane is recognised as a participant in the events that unfold. In practice, this means everyone having to literally stand in his footsteps to interact with other characters or objects of importance. Consequently, the story itself is best played alone if you want to be at all invested in it.
Just don’t expect too much. While the story isn’t terrible, it does maintain a confusing focus on Crane’s moral choices while giving you absolutely no freedom to influence them. Every move towards redemption is a forced hand. Dying Light’s main antagonist says it best:
“All of this, and still you had your choice made for you. Disappointing, Crane.”
The meat of the adventure itself fares better. There are a handful of lazy arena battles as you might expect, and there are far too many fetch quests to be found. Yet for the most part, Techland is respectful of the game’s stand out feature – the parkour. Particularly towards the end of the game, intelligent use of climbing and traversal skills are what it’s about, with zombies used only as an obstacle to leap over.
Such moments recall Mirror’s Edge, which until now has been a woefully untapped idea. More than that, they show that the idea has room to grow. What could have been just another zombie title turns out to be barely about the zombies at all. It stumbles and it falters, but ultimately Dying Light runs with its core idea. When the sun comes up, I think it’s going to be a survivor.
Dying Light was reviewed with a download code of the Xbox One edition, provided by Microsoft Xbox