The apocalypse caused by the rise of the living dead has been told over and over again, and the genre is showing some serious signs of fatigue. However, Techland, the studio that created the first Dead Island, still has faith in the appeal of viral outbreaks. Dying Light mixes the first-person action game with open-world exploration and RPG elements. There's also a definite flavour of parkour and a lead character that has to juggle his loyalty between multiple factions. It's still early days, but this should be seen as a strong "Zombie Game of the Year" candidate.
Harran is a fictional city set in the Middle-East, and it's in the grip of a zombie outbreak (interestingly Harran was an ancient city in Upper Mesopotamia). Kyle Crane is an agent working for a major corporation called GRE, and he is paradropped into the city. Of course everything goes wrong the minute he gets there. It's nice to note that the lead character is not just a pair of floating hands, even if the entire game is seen through his eyes. He's an actual person, whose thoughts and ideas change during the game. The player has no say in how the story actually develops, so roleplaying is limited to the growth and diversification of the character's abilities. The storytelling tries its best to grab a hold of you by offering up emotional set pieces, but this doesn't always have the intended effect. The NPC's personalities haven't been given enough attention and so you won't care much for their fates, and this causes a disconnect between the player and Kyle's emotions.
The world of Dying Light is divided into two large sandboxes and several smaller sections. The slums are a desolate place, and from their you go through the labyrinth of sewer pipes into Old Town. Here the elevation differences are greater than in the slums, which creates some challenges as far as movement and traversal goes. The story missions can take over an hour to complete. The game offers about 20 hours of play time all told, but you can easily spend much more time exploring the world and completing all the side-missions.
The open world is not the only thing to distinguish Techland's zombie game from its competitors. The other major difference can be found in the movement, which in this case is basically parkour. It takes some time to get a hang of it, but once mastered zipping through the urban environment becomes a real joy. Kyle also gets a grappling hook at one point during the game, and then you can move around even faster.
Encounters with the undead consist mainly of melee combat, but there are some firearms as well. However, guns never dominate the action at any point; the ammo is very limited and gunshots attract more zombies. Kyle gets experience points from kills and actions, and these can be used to enhance his skills from a set of skill trees.
There's a day and night cycle in the game, and that really alters the nature of the game. During night there are more kinds of zombies roaming around, and some of these are hunting the player. At first you tend to avoid going out at night, and just spend your evenings in one of the city's many safe houses, but after you get some experience under your belt, you start to see the darkness as a challenge rather than a threat. You also get double XP during nights, so that acts as motivation to venture out under the stars.
Multiplayer is handled strictly via online, and there is no split-screen support. There can be a maximum of four players in one session, and the missions progress according to the campaign progress of the host. Visitors can of course enjoy all the benefits of gaining experience and finding some nice loot. Playing together is great, but it demands constant communication. Therefore playing with a familiar group is recommended, as the level of co-operation required might not gel with strangers.
There is a competitive multiplayer element to the game, and that is called Zombie Invasion, where you can also play as one of the living dead by selecting the Be a Zombie option. Here a maximum of four humans try to destroy the nests of the zombies, while one of the creatures tries to defend its territory. Dying Light's main charm lies in the exploration aspect of the open world, and completing the missions alone or with friends, but the Invasion mode is a nice addition.
From a graphical standpoint the game looks great, most of the time. The draw distance stretches off into the horizon, and the little details strewn across the city are really nice. This is especially true when the sun casts its setting rays over the buildings. That said, it's a bit of a shame when at times you come face-to-face with downright ugly, pixelated textures. Thankfully there aren't many of them in the game. The soundscape mainly consists of different audio effects and character dialogue, which creates a strong sense of immersion. Music sticks to the background, but gains more volume when it gets dark.
We were positively surprised at how much fun Techland has managed to get out of such a worn and overused motif. The story won't immerse you as much as it should, but that's perfectly acceptable in this sort of game. The storytelling is a step forward for the studio, even if it's not of the highest calibre; but it's certainly better than Dead Island and Riptide before it. If you've still got a thing for zombies, you should definitely give Dying Light a shot (preferably in the head).