Dying Light – Xbox One
Platform: Xbox One
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
The popularity of zombies in recent years has spawned a glut of movies, TV shows, and video games. Many exist in a slush pile of forgettable mediocrity at best, but occasionally one or two titles stand out as original and irrefutable fun. With the advent of games like Resident Evil, we saw zombie antagonists in numbers of new titles with varying degrees of entertainment value. As a longtime fan of zombie horror films, I sought out video games that could instill the feelings of inevitable death and tenuous survival that my favorite movies used to torture their protagonists. In my favorites, the heroes triumphed just as often through ingenuity as brawn or marksmanship. The odds were too great to slug it out with a growing army of ravenous undead. What traps, plans, and contraptions would they invent to stay off death for one more day? More importantly, why couldn’t I employ these same methods in the zombie games I played? Why couldn’t I just climb over a wall to get away? I’m talking to you, Dead Island.
Dying Light was the answer to my unsatisfying run through subpar zombie games, with the added parkour mechanics for escape, evasion, and agile combat. At least, that’s what it promised. I was still hesitant to try it, after Techland’s Dead Island left me frustrated with its bugs and clumsy gameplay. From the gameplay footage and developer commentary I witnessed, my concerns were soon placated. The parkour operated fluidly and provided an obvious advantage over the shambling multitudes in the streets. Plus, it looked fantastic, with its decayed sprawl, fire-ravaged buildings, and streets left in utter chaos.
You play Kyle Crane, hired by the Global Relief Effort to infiltrate a high-rise survivor compound, deep in the infested city of Harran. The opening cinematic plunges you into a frantic fight for survival against a gang and a horde of zombies, before you receive help escaping to the Tower. Escape cost the life of one of the Tower’s runners, immediately indebting you to your saviors. They see you as another helpless mouth to feed, one who has cost them a valuable member of their providing team of scavengers. Soon you are given a chance to prove them wrong by helping set traps to use against the monsters everyone fears between sundown and sunrise. As more trust is earned, so is the information the GRE needs to track down a file that has been stolen. Crane’s secret loyalty and his growing respect for the survivors are tested against each other as he uncovers more information pertaining to both the GRE and the dreaded warlord, Rais. It is Rais who controls the supply of Antizin, the medicine that prevents the mutated strain of rabies from turning bite victims into zombies. A confrontation between him and Crane is inevitable, but there is more to him than what he seems. How will Crane be able to deal with proving himself to the Tower’s residents, fending off Rais’ thugs, and avoiding death by the countless, roving dead? Very carefully, and with his gradually increasing abilities.
The core of Dying Light is the parkour mechanics. Early in the game, especially at the higher difficulty levels, combat is ineffectual and a quick way to sate the zombies’ appetites. Even running is difficult at the beginning, since the endurance mechanic limits how long sprinting and climbing are possible. It seemed like the GRE picked someone for their important mission without bothering to administer a basic physical. Crane might as well be an asthmatic chain-smoker. Luckily the environment provides a host of options for temporary escape, and Crane can struggle up the exteriors of buildings, rock walls, scaffolding, and even onto the tops of vehicles. Easily 90 percent of the environment is Crane’s playground equipment, and most of the zombies can’t follow him. The other 10 percent will relentlessly dog him until fighting is unavoidable, but he can still use the environment to his advantage. Exposed electrical wires, spiky roadblocks, stairwells, and spilled motor oil allow him to dispose of enemies without becoming too fatigued. It makes free-running the city one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. Aside from some issues descending without falling and some surfaces that only look climbable, the movement mechanics of the game really shine.
It would be a pretty boring game without confronting the zombies head-on. Whether you prefer to avoid direct confrontations or not, Dying Light eventually forces a zombie slugfest. At least there is a huge variety of weapon choices and customizations to even the odds. Weapons are classified as one and two-handed varieties. They all have statistics describing their durability, handling (which affects the endurance required to use them), and damage, as well as how often they can be repaired. As Crane progresses through the game, he gains access to better weaponry. While he begins using pipes, wrenches, and kitchen knives, eventually he finds actual weapons like swords, machetes, and fire axes. And he needs them, as enemies also become tougher. He also gains the ability to craft basic weapons and equipment, like throwing stars, firecrackers, bandages, all from scavenged bits of trash found in containers throughout the city.
Just like in Dead Island, blueprints can be found to modify weapons to inflict special damage effects, primarily electrical, fire, impact, and poison. Many blueprints are rewards for completing quests, but some are hidden around the city. They usually only apply to specific weapon types, and some provide little help against progressively tougher enemies. Adding their effects to the environmental hazards can provide serious advantages against some enemies, so an added element of strategy emerges during changing scenery and weather. Additionally, weapons can be upgraded to do more damage, handle better, be more durable, or even a combination of the three.
New skills are unlocked by gaining experience in several ways. The Survivor skill tree uses experience gained completing missions and side quests. Using parkour to navigate the city and dispatch enemies yields points to spend in the Agility tree. Power tree experience is gained through killing enemies. The Legend tree is only unlocked once one of the other trees is completely unlocked, an added feature of the game to give players a means of continuing character progress once they master a skill tree. Depending upon one’s play style, it’s easy to advance in one skill tree far beyond another, especially because character death subtracts Survivor experience points. Power level will also prevent the use of certain weapons until the required level is met.
And where what would a zombie game be without zombies? Dying Light boasts a vast improvement over Techland’s Dead Island series when it comes to its sheer number and variety of undead menaces. The zombies look appropriately rotten, malformed, and hungry. Some are missing limbs, some crawl from beneath vehicles. Others sprint, screaming bloody murder, and cringe when hit by weapons, as though some humanity remains. Others are monstrous in size, disgusting in their special abilities, or disturbing in their undead purpose. Best not forget that all of them become tougher once night falls, when the true horrors emerge. The vastly powerful, nearly invulnerable Volatiles fear the sunlight, but they prowl around Haran during the dark hours and easily make a meal of Crane if he’s caught. Good thing Crane is equipped with a survivor sense that reflects his ability to hear enemies.
With all the fun to be had just running around the city, crushing skulls and cruising down zip lines, it’s easy to forget Crane has a mission to accomplish. This is where Dying Light stumbles. While the main story has its compelling moments, especially with a few characters that Crane befriends, there are few surprises. Some of the most dramatic moments are achieved through cinematics and leave the player as merely an observer, before the action resumes. There are a few notable side quests, but most are the simple “go there, get this” or “kill this thing” types. Some can be stumbled upon, like survivors in trouble, and can yield some nice rewards. Often they just feel like filler, or a means to obtain a helpful weapon blueprint. Add in the frustrating rate of weapon deterioration, even at the normal difficulty setting, and it will probably be enough to frustrate those who didn’t enjoy Dead Island at least a little.
Overall, Dying Light is full of tense, disgusting fun that a zombie lover should include as a staple to his or her video game collection. It’s a welcome improvement over some of its predecessors, with fluid movement controls, stealth mechanics, and an impressive variety of skills. Certain levels, like the quarantine zones, can be replayed. Co-op and the “Be the Zombie” mode provide variety when it’s needed. New content has also been released since the game’s launch. Though I haven’t played all of the DLC for the game, I recommend The Following even if only for the added thrill of driving through the countryside and over its undead populace. It allows exploration of the countryside outside Harran’s choked streets, which brings new freedom and new challenges.
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