In theory alone, Techland’s Dying Light looks a lot like someone trying to cram as many industry buzzwords onto the back of a box as possible. Zombies? They’re here in droves. Parkour style rooftop running? It’s a major factor. Hell, the things even got a dynamic day and night cycle, stamina based combat from the Dark Souls series and a multiplayer mode that lets other players invade your game. Yet, somehow despite all of this, Dying Light mostly works — and it seems to do so despite all of it’s own efforts to do the opposite. It’s a zombie experience that borrows heavily from a lot of other titles but somehow manages to create a unique and engrossing experience, even if you’ve seen a lot of it before.
In Dying Light players assume the role of undercover agent Kyle Crane, who is sent into infiltrate the quarantined city of Harran, retrieve a few documents and get out, but as you’d expect it’s not that easy. Crane quickly becomes involved with a group of survivors…and quickly becomes, well he quickly becomes their errand bitch. Yes, there’s potential in the story Dying Light provides but it’s squandered away rather quickly save for a few story beats here and there. See, after proving that he can handle his own, Crane is quickly sent on missions after mission of of simple fetch quests; go get this, go arm that type stuff. The actual content of Dying Light is (mostly) a lot of fun, but it can get repetitive quickly when you’re constantly running from one end of the map to the other to get supplies or arm traps.
The true star of Dying Light is the dynamic free-running system that acts as the motor that powers the whole game. While it’s a popular addition to modern games, this is a movement system like you’ve never seen before. In games like Assassins Creed for instance, all you have to do is hold down the sprint button and you’re likely to carve out a natural path for yourself, rarely running into obstacles and diving freely into safe zones — don’t expect that with here. With Dying Light, there’s a realistic weight to your climbing and freestyle movement and it takes some real work to become any good at it. It’s a simple system really, you see a ledge or a railing, odds are you can jump to it; but you’ll have to take things like momentum, speed and height into account to be successful. Of course, when you start off you’ll need a whole lot of luck too.
As much as I’ve played Dying Light since it’s release, I finally feel like I’ve gotten comfortable with the free-running and climbing mechanics, but I’d be lying if I said it came naturally. Playing with an Xbox One controller (this review is based on both the PC and Xbox One versions of the game), the jump action is mapped to the right bumper button, which feels all sorts of strange when you first start using it, but you’ll quickly warm up to it in a big way. Dying Light requires you to look at the ledge you’re trying to leap to and that combined with the jumping mechanic adds a certain realism and weight to the whole thing. It’s extremely rewarding to get out of a tricky situation by leaping out of danger, just don’t expect to make a lot of the jumps at first. For all of the great things that Dying Light does, it has a tendency to fail at all the wrong times. I learned quickly to overshoot slightly when I’m looking at what ledge I want to leap on, and there system has a habit of being too sticky when you don’t need it to be and too loose when you do. Your free-running and climbing abilities will eventually get better through the game’s upgrade system and you won’t even think about some of the more awkward mechanics.
Being from Techland, the developers of the original Dead Island games, I had serious concerns about the combat in Dying Light. Thankfully though, Dead Island’s unresponsive and sluggish mechanics don’t make an encore performance here (well, mostly). Combat is satisfying and visceral, especially at the alter stages in the game where you unlock more effective weapons and level up to be capable of more powerful moves. Your combat is dictated by a Dark Souls style stamina meter that requires you to think about when it’s best to attack and when it’s best to fall back and rethink your strategy. Much of the zombie behavior in Dying Light is what you’d expect, but this is one of the few times in games that I actually felt threatened enough to fall back in the face of a whole group of zombies.
Dying Light also features a dynamic day and night cycle and the game changes greatly depending on what time it is in the game you’re playing. Zombies act like you’d expect, shambling, moaning and all that, but when the sun goes down things get a bit more dangerous. Zombies become more bloodthirsty and certain special types of zombies, some controlled by other players will only make appearances at night. It’s a great idea in theory but the game essentially becomes a stealth title until the sun comes up. Thankfully, due to a series of delays Techland has opted to change the “Be the Zombie” mode from a pre-order incentive only to be available for all players, so there’s life to Dying Light even when you finish the main campaign.
Even when falling to your death as the result of poorly timed jumps, Dying Light can still be satisfying thanks to the game’s great sense of height. Falling matters in Dying Light and you’ll rarely survive the bigger falls, which thanks to how great the game looks, you’ll feel each and every time. You’ll see the world around you rush to meet you and you’ll meet the ground with a large and satisfying splat. On top of that Dying Light has some of the best draw distances and skylines I’ve seen on current-gem consoles. A few of the textures get a bit muddied when they get up close but that takes little away from just how great Dying Light works.
Dying Light may borrow a lot from other games, but it somehow does it in a way that also creates it’s own unique and (mostly) fun experience. It’s tense, fun and strategic even when the systems don’t seem to work as well as they should. You’ve played a ton of zombie games, everyone has but Dying Light feels different and succeeds in ways no one thought it would.
- Free running mechanics (when they work)
- Fantastic visuals
- Satisfying combat
- Free running mechanics (when they don't work)
- Repetitive Gameplay
- Lackluster story