We recently had the opportunity to play the latest build of Dying Light at Lisbon Games Week. This was not the first time we'd played Techland's zombie title. During E3 we had the chance to play through a few minutes of the game, and during that brief introduction it made a good impression on us. That positive impression has since been reinforced by our time with what was a more polished version of the game.
Dead Island was a decent title, with a promising structure - a game with zombies set in a open-world tropical island (and beyond). It was a first person game, although the gameplay was more focused on melee and close-range attacks, not so much on guns. Unfortunately, the overall quality of the game fell short in a few key areas, and the direct sequel - Dead Island: Riptide - was even worse.
This does not seem to be the case with Dying Light, which seems to be a lot closer of realising Dead Island's initial potential - a post-apocalyptic game with zombies (or "Virals") in a open-world setting. As in Dead Island, the action in Dying Light is played out in the first-person, and the focus is again on crazy close-range weapons (although firearms work better than expected), but there is an element here that completely changes the whole experience - mobility.
In this new demo, the character was already well-developed (you can evolve various character abilities in a RPG-style fashion), and the ability to parkour or free run was already well advanced and impressive. It is this facet of the game that has been Techland's biggest focus while promoting the title, and we can see why.
Dying Light does not use a system like Assassin's Creed, where free-running is almost automatic. With R1/RB you'll jump, and if you press again and maintain the button press, the character clings to platforms such as rooftops or balconies. The timing determines the effectiveness of the climbing animation, ranging from instant elevation to a slow clamber (the character's evolution will also determine their effectiveness when climbing). We should also note that while you are hanging, you are exposed to attacks, especially when you're near the ground.
This mobility comes with great fluidity and surprisingly effective controls, and it brings a whole new dynamic and verticality that Dead Island simply didn't have. It was also surprising to realise how many houses and apartments can be explored when looking for items to make weapons, searching for survivors (in the many side-missions), and hunting for other useful accessories as you aim to survive the horde.
At one point during the demo we found two soldiers who where being attacked by a group of Virals. We have no idea whether they were friendly or not, but we decided to try and help them out. While we dealt with one Viral, one of the soldiers - probably in desperation - began firing his weapon, alerting all nearby infected. Within seconds we were surrounded on all sides, and we had no choice but to climb the nearest balcony and watch the inevitable fate of the two soldiers below.
The Virals are attracted to loud noise, such as gunshots, explosions or collapsing structures (many roofs are made of metal plates or wood, and will break them if you jump down hard enough). You can also use this to your advantage. During the demo we had access to something akin to firecrackers, which we could throw like grenades, sending the Virals in that direction. This is a fantastic way to clear a more problematic area, or to gather a great many enemies together so that they can then be dealt with via a single explosive attack.
A major element of Dying Light is the transition between day and night, as the Virals are considerably faster and more aggressive when the sun goes down. This particular demo only allowed us to play during the day, preventing us from trying out that part of the game, but it promises to be more tense and frightening than the daytime sections. However, we did get to see the beginning of a massive storm. There was no time to tell if that had any major influence of gameplay, as the demo ended shortly thereafter, but it was visually impressive nonetheless. In addition to heavy rain, the wind was realistically shaking everything, creating a fantastic atmospheric effect. The game looks great and it's easy to see why Techland has recently given up on the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions - it would be tricky to translate the experience to those consoles without some serious compromises.
As we said before, the E3 demo had already left a positive impression on us, and our interest has only been further piqued by our time with this latest build. In terms of environment and mechanics, Dying Light seems to be definitely on the right track. It looks great, plays great, and there is a fluidity and verticality that looks set to thoroughly embarrass the clumsy movement from Dead Island and Riptide. We still have some doubts regarding the plot and, perhaps more importantly in this particular genre, the mission structure, but there is solid ground here on which Techland can build something special. If you like the concept, you should definitely keep an eye on Dying Light when it releases at the end of January next year.