PC, PS4, Xbox One
There’s a zombie on the box, but a magpie might have been a better fit. Dying Light sees Techland build on the Dead Island template by borrowing liberally, often brazenly, from other people’s games. There are nods here to Far Cry 3 and 4, both in the amount of time spent in the early game scaling windswept radio towers (here to claim safe houses, rather than flesh out the map) and the cast of psychos, while creature designs owe the same debt to Left 4 Dead that Techland’s infamously miserable zombie-bashing game did. Even The Elder Scrolls games make their influence felt in the clunky heft of the combat, the loot-strewn mission interiors, the lockpicking, and the way you level up three talent trees by using the abilities within them.
Then there’s Mirror’s Edge, though in fairness to Techland it would be difficult to craft any kind of firstperson parkour system without calling back to the only game to have ever made a decent fist of it. There’s a reason so few others have freerun along the same path, however: videogame parkour simply doesn’t work as well when the camera’s set behind a pair of eyelids. Protagonist Kyle Crane may, in Roger Craig Smith, share a voice actor with Ezio Auditore, but the comparison ends there. Ledges go mysteriously ungrabbed, jumps are needlessly uncleared, falls are graceless, and many a taut escape is thwarted by snagging on unseen scenery. Much of that is a matter of technical execution, of course, and the desperate struggle for survival in a zombie apocalypse is rarely one of grace. But there’s a fundamental problem in the very notion of a parkour game where you can’t see the ground beneath your feet.
Yet one distinct advantage Dying Light holds over its touchstones is the layout of its world. While it feels contrived when you take a cowled Assassin or Templar from floor to box to light fitting to balcony to, finally, rooftop – knowing each hand- and foothold was placed not by a town planner, but a designer – here there is a thematic justification for the way the city of Harran appears to have been constructed by a freerunner. It has. Brecken, leader of the friendliest of the game’s factions and possessor of an accent that marks him – along with most of the white-skinned still-humans in the game – as hailing from the United Kingdom Of South Afristralia, used to be a parkour instructor. When the virus hit, he taught his fellow survivors how best to stay alive, and repurposed the city accordingly. Sheets of corrugated iron are tilted invitingly at awnings, arrows painted on boarded-up windows point the way to safe houses, vehicles are spaced a running jump’s length apart, and tangles of rope dangle invitingly off ledges.
The suggestion, then, is that you stick to the high ground, and it’s advice worth following. While the bogstandard zombies that gormlessly shuffle the streets by day pose little threat in isolation, that can change in a flash if you get pinned down by a group. Any undead lunge that hits its target means you’re faced with a canned animation and a QTE, during which the mob can close in unassailed. At the start of the game evasion feels like your only option, but as you find better weapons, stick elemental effects on them and dig further into the tech trees, that changes. You’ll never feel overpowered – even later on when you’re switching between an assault rifle and a two-handed club that does fire and bleed damage – since you’re rarely more than one scenery snag or ill-planned route from trouble. And in Harran, even the most capable zombie killer is put back in their place by the sight of the setting sun. When Dying Light’s light finally dies, this game transforms from open-world magpie into something tense and terrifying that is entirely its own. Nocturnal enemies arrive on the scene, hunting you down at speed, even if you’re freerunning across the rooftops. You have only two options: stealth (aided by a backpack full of distractions, traps laid on the street by day, and minimap vision cones) or simply running like hell. There’s a rare flash of genius here in the ability to glance over your shoulder while sprinting – and, with one mid-game skill point, to throw things at pursuers – but when you’re running at full pelt from a pack of zombies while barely able to see your hand in front of your face, the finer points of Techland’s design document will be the farthest thing from your mind. Only when Crane scrambles over a safe-house fence and you unclench will you realise. It’s a shame, really, that Techland gives you the option of missing the game at its best by sleeping the night away, though there’s a currency reward for those who do choose to stay the course, and gluttons for punishment can do the reverse.
It’s a shame, too, that the bulk of the campaign missions take place off the open world, where the dynamic threat out on the streets is replaced by linear networks of corridors with sporadically placed pockets of enemies. The story, meanwhile, is piffle, with a midgame non-twist you’ll have sniffed out from the tone of radio conversations barely half an hour in, while the voice acting veers from tolerable to terrible, even when the talent gets the accents right. Checkpointing can be miserly, too, with a death in the open world dropping you back at the nearest safe house, a harsh punishment at night when the objective marker a couple of hundred metres in the distance feels like a lifetime away.
Yet that merely serves to reinforce the strength of one of the few ideas in Dying Light that Techland can call its own. Where it borrows, it does so smartly, magpieing ideas that work well in the context of an open world full of zombies. It’s too rough around the edges, but Dying Light is likeable despite its flaws, and sees Techland move a step closer to banishing memories of Dead Island to the afterlife for good.
It’s a shame that Techland gives you the option of missing the game at its best by sleeping the night away