Occasionally I look out on the vast sea of developers and strain to think just how socially aware they all actually are. For the better half of a dozen years we’ve seen an absolute inundation of games attempting different takes on the same set of rotting flesh. Zombies (the veritable zeitgeist of our generation, it seems) have been the monster du jour now for longer than I care to keep track, and the communal sigh of resentment accompanying yet another zombie game can be heard for miles. So yes, sometimes I wonder if developers keep an ear to the ground to see what the people want, but when studios like Techland come out with a masterpiece like Dying Light, I quickly shut my mouth and thank god they didn’t listen.
Dying Light, or as I’ve come to call it, “Oh shit, run faster!” catapults itself straight from the same studio that brought us Dead Island and Call of Juarez, with a good amount of overlap from the latter. The story’s main protagonist, Kyle Crane, is sent into the quarantine zone of an Eastern European city as an undercover agent in order to recover stolen files regarding a possible cure for the generic zombie infection. While there, he befriends the local survivors and must fight to maintain his ever-unstable allegiances among the opposing factions.
Dying Light‘s main feature, as evidenced early on in the trailers, is the ability to leap lithely from rooftop to rooftop, all in a first-person perspective. In fact, the main map, while large and varied in size, was designed solely for the purpose of this sometimes nauseating parkour, though the story itself can’t seem to justify the necessity other than a timid “it’s just how we get around, okay?” Don’t get me wrong, running roof to roof while being chased by the undead is a win in my book, but why the hell are we ignoring all of the parked cars? (It sure isn’t because of the noise, since stamping around on sheet metal roofing is about as quiet as a drum solo.) It’s a smooth gameplay mechanic for sure, but like how they teach you in Stranger Danger class, if an experience is forced on you, it isn’t going to be fun.
Like every open world game on the market today, scavenging is absolutely necessary to survive. From bits of metal to a rare garden scythe, the amount different weapons, tools, and supplies already available in the game is astonishing, if not somewhat overwhelming. More often than once I’d finally clear out a shack and start comparing my current weapons to the baseball bat I just found, only to be chewed on suddenly by a straggler, wasting both health and the strength of my weapon to recover. Techland did a great job in this sense because from then on, every raid for supplies became an assessment: should I waste this much ammo or weapon integrity to get unknown, possibly useless loot, or should I move on to greener pastures?
While many other games strongly favor looting over engineering, the crafting system in Dying Light was also surprisingly important. Whipping together medkits, grenades, and Molotov cocktails on the fly saved my unchewed behind on almost every mission, which unfortunately is more than I can say for the weapon crafting. While none of the slapdash machinations were as wild and whacky as Dead Rising, quite a few of them were just too useless for how much it took to actually build them. Batteries are surprisingly hard to find, Dying Light, so wasting them on an electrified pocketknife just isn’t very high on my list of priorities when I already have a perfectly good cricket bat.
One of the last big stanchions holding this game up above its predecessors is the well-timed day and night cycle. While foraging and exploration can be done with relative ease during the day, the second the sun sets and you aren’t snuggled up in a safehouse, you should very well expect to have yourself served as some zombie’s entree. Though the streets are thickly populated by the slow-moving dunces of the zombie world by day, nighttime brings about a faster, meaner Resident Evil knockoff that will surely ruin your evening with its invasive french kissing. The game, however, isn’t totally unreasonable and understands your poor time management skills, because it doubles your stamina and experience and provides an ample amount of safehouses strewn across the map during the night. How accommodating of them!
Though far from anything revolutionary, Dying Light’s skill leveling system actually does a lot for the gameplay. Various activities will earn you experience in the Survivor, Agility, or Power skill trees, and the perks unlocked through each section really mold well to individual style, depending on whether players prefer head on attacks or skirting around danger. The division of experience points keeps the pace of the game going with near constant leveling, keeping well in line with the game’s fast-moving theme.
But while the list of novel features certainly work well in its favor, there are still quite a few objections to raise regarding the game’s stagnant repetition. The main missions are all extremely structured and predictable, and the onslaught of side missions the game dumps on you are all tropish variations of fetch quests. At times it even feels like the game would benefit more from having no direct objectives or tired plot devices other than to simply stay alive. Along the same lines, the various types of zombies all seem to have been lifted straight from the Left 4 Dead franchise, leaving you with heavies, spitters, runners, and exploders, all thinly spread out amongst a dense population of standardized zombie fodder. Dying Light also features a co-op and Be The Zombie mode, but again these are simply expounded versions of Valve’s staling ingenuity from years back.
For being yet just another zombie game (cue exasperated sigh and eye roll), Dying Light certainly does an excellent job of breathing new life into an otherwise decaying theme. The fast-paced parkour and day/night effects, while ridiculously inefficient at times, provided a strong enough sense of safety that when I did indeed fall onto the street in the dark, immediate and genuine panic instantly set in. The game’s got a great sense of atmosphere and balance, and survival actually feels important. Recycled themes and gameplay aside, this zombie sandbox has a stubborn spark of life that will undoubtedly keep the undead in our cultural spotlight for at least another six months.