Just one Cornetto
Zombies have permeated games for as long as I can remember and been done to death in recent years. We went through a World War 2 phase a few years back and if developers aren't careful we could end up with zombie fatigue. It's at this point that gamemakers should either decide to give it a rest or innovate; and innovate is exactly what developer Techland have done.
They are not the first to do this though: The Last of Us was by all accounts a masterpiece which used a variation on the zombie theme to great effect. Even Hollywood seems to have noticed this trend with a slew of average to downright naff films hitting the mainstream, but with shows like the excellent Walking Dead doing so well zombies are here to stay. Of course the best zombie film ever made is Shaun of the Dead (non-negotiable!) and you can see subtle beats of zombie humour running through Dying Light - the developers have clearly had some fun making this game and sought to embrace the latest zombie craze. You can see this homage to other games with the many easter eggs scattered through the gameworld, from the wildly popular tower defence game Plants vs Zombies, to Left for Dead and so on.
The game is played out in the fictional City of Harran, where a rogue pathogen has turned many of the occupants into flesh eating monsters and the city is facing obliteration in order to stop the infection spreading. You play Kyle Crane, a government agent who has been tasked with infiltrating the city's quarantine borders and gaining important documents. Now cut off from the outside world gangs and dangerous individuals take control of the streets and the supply of Antizen, the only drug that can suppress the transformation once bitten. As plots go Dying Light is average and while it does the job, every turn is predictable and well trodden by previous games. The contact in the GRE (your organisation) you speak to at various points for updates is an all out bitch often asking Crane to do the most idiotic things. I would have far preferred it if the 'voice from above' was at least sympathetic to the people in the city and tried to aid them as well as fulfilling her own agenda. I do feel like Techland have intentionally gone for cliched plot devices and characters to allow the player to get stuck into what makes Dying Light great; an amazing plot full of twists and turns is not why this game is one of the best zombie games ever made.
All you can eat.
If you were to picture a zombie in your mind's eye you would probably think of the shambling, rotting, biting, clawing humanoids we've seen a thousand times before and, when you start the game, that's kinda what you get. However, as the game opens up, you may be caught off guard by how fast some of these buggers move. Even your garden variety zombies will lunge at you once in range, which isn't a huge problem to avoid...until you back right into the neck nibbler who you didn't see behind you. No matter how well armed you are or how many nifty skills you pick up, you will learn very fast in Dying Light (DL) that you should never underestimate your enemy.
Very soon you will come across new varieties of undead such as the runners, which still possess some human vestiges and will sometimes recoil and beg for mercy when you wallop them. They also still possess enough humanity to be able to run/climb at full tilt and so can present a real threat that can't be avoided just by sitting on a van or rooftop throwing rocks (or vinyl) at them.
The thing that really makes the zombies in DL stand out are they way they interact with the environment, they will flop over low objects or even just pitch themselves off roofs/bridges to get to you (often to hilarious effect). There's a wonderful sense of physics in play as well and this for me absolutely makes the combat. When you clobber a zombie in the head it is sent reeling in that direction, zombies knock into other zombies and so on. I've seen a flaming zombie torso go flying away from an explosion, hit another zombie 30 feet away and knock it off a ledge, also sending that zombie to a sticky end. There are also many satisfying ways to take out shufflers using the environment: impaling them on spikes, setting them on fire, electric junction boxes and a whole myriad of traps. There are guns to be found but they are initially rare and ammo is rarer, but this really isn't a shooter and if we're being honest Crane isn't that well geared up for fighting the undead hordes but can hold his own when he needs to.
There is a whole catalogue of melee weapons to either find or buy, including hammers, scythes, axes and of course cricket bats (my weapon of choice). As you will be doing most of your killing with melee weapons it's good that Techland have made them work so well; each type feels like and acts as it should - swords will outright lop limbs and heads off whereas blunt weapons tend to explode heads if you get a good swing in. Weapons can also be ungraded in a variety of ways using blueprints hidden within the city; these add increased damage, handling and elemental effects. The first time I took an electrically charged cricket bat to the head of a zombie it happened to be in the rain, the electricity arced across two other zombies and they were all dancing like monkeys on speed.
Run Forest, Run!
The best tools Crane has for survival are his little trotters and for me the running, climbing and Parkour are where this game hits the turbo. I remember being so impressed with the world traversal in Bethesda's Dishonoured and here too the way you move through the city is fantastic. You can climb most ledges you can reach and the way this is handled from a first person perspective is great. I will say that when you first set out with no skill improvements Crane does feel a little sluggish but rest assured this does change pretty fast. Very soon you unlock increased climbing speed, the ability to leap off zombies, run up walls, roll when you land (to avoid damage from long drops) and so on. This gives you a very satisfying toolset to play with and some moves you pull off leave you feeling epic. I especially love how you can get down from a height fast by using soft (ish) structures and objects such as rubbish bags and car roofs. This feels far more natural than the 'land here' straw bales in Assassins Creed.
Once you get so far into the skill tree you can also unlock a grappling hook and, while very handy, this in some ways makes climbing a little too easy. There is a short cool-down after its use but it still does remove some of the challenge when working your way up structures and that's a shame when the developers have made climbing such a well designed part of the games world traversal. Don't get me wrong, part of me does love the grappling hook but, like I say, it may jar with some players who want a more pure climbing experience. While I'm moaning I'll also just say one more thing in case the developers ever read this - I would love the ability to run along walls as well as up them, very much like Mirror's Edge.
Night on the town.
Ok, so if you think the city of Harran is intimidating in the daytime, just wait until you step out after dusk, that's when all the really cool kids go for a run and probably why there are no cool kids left. Not only do the normal zombies liven up and become more aggressive but 'volatiles' wake up and stalk the streets looking for the living. The tension builds as you approach dusk with a radio message warning you there's an hour of daylight remaining and when your watch finally beeps and you hear the city roar from its slumber it's genuinely intimidating and really reminds me of that scene in I am Legend when Will Smith is caught out after dark.
As darkness engulfs the city you have two choices: wait out the night in a safe zone or venture out into the blackness - unlike most games, unless there is a light source you really can't see much and will often run right into an early grave. Burning cars and buildings illuminate the city streets, sparking power cables dance on the debris strewn tarmac and the unmistakable UV lamps of safe zones are a welcome sight. This adds so much tension it's unreal, you can use your flashlight but this instantly attracts the zombies in your immediate vicinity so it's better to manage without if you can. There are tonics you can quaff to gain better night vision or other boons such as increased running speed; these are very useful but require you to gather the right herbs to mix. You can scan your environment which temporarily highlights items (which is very welcome) and this also will show you volatiles in range. So why not just wait until morning you might ask?
Well for a start you earn far higher bonuses to your XP if you play at night and a bonus for surviving until morning or evading the volatiles when they do detect you. You also get plenty of missions which coax you out of your sleeping bag and into the blackness. However for me one of the stand out reasons to play after sunset is it's here the best gameplay awaits you. Whilst I've never intentionally riled up a volatile, once you do you must escape, break line of sight and stay hidden until they give up and it's not easy. For a start they can close ground on you in a few seconds or leap twenty feet to reach you when elevated; you will also invariably get the attention of other runners and volatiles in your desperate bid for escape and so before long the chain reaction spreads from one pissed of volatile to ten hot on your heels. What's great is that while you need to be fast on your toes you do have option: volatiles can't stand UV light emitted from a special torch you carry or flares that you can throw to create a very temporary safe zone and a way of breaking their pursuit. One nifty feature is being able to look back as you run and while doing this time is temporally slowed so you can assess how buggered you are.
Is it PC?
As you would expect, DL runs really well on PC and on max settings the game looks awesome. Late afternoon sun flickers through the cluttered skyline, ash blows through the windy streets and the whole city looks like it should. For a game that has such fast paced action and combat the higher frame rate of PC is really welcome; often you will be making spilt second decisions, last minute turns and jumps. You can play using a controller but for those who prefer keyboard and mouse like me then you will not be disappointed. I have played FPS games with a controller in the past when there was no other option and I find it cumbersome and frustrating. In a game like DL being able to spin 180 in a split second or turn 90 degrees to change course while jumping across small objects is something which makes playing on PC that much more enjoyable. There will always be differences of opinion on this one but once you've played games at a higher frame-rate most see it adds so much to the experience
As far as I can tell the console and PC versions look almost identical with some minor improvements on PC such as depth of field, post processing and draw distance. Of course as many gamers have commented you don't need to pay on PC to play online and the PC game is a damn sight cheaper especially if you pick it up in a Steam/GmG sale. The biggest advantage of playing DL on PC is access to MODS and these can range from simple things like looking at your watch whenever you please to improving the look of the game from its base version. As always, if you are new to PC gaming, check out mods and embrace the freedom we enjoy on our platform; there are so many talented modders out there that can add hundreds of hours to a game - for free.
As I have alluded to already, the plot and NPCs are nothing to write home about but neither are they intended to be, they just push the game along and get you to exactly where you need to be in order to survive the undead hordes with some semblance of context and reason. As I type, Techland have announced a substantial expansion to the Dying Light universe which will include a new area the size of all existing game real-estate combined; this will now allow vehicular traversal which can be used to mow down zombies ... ok that sounds awesome. This will also be included in the existing season pass which is excellent value for gamers who have picked it up. My big omission with my review is that while I've researched easter eggs, DLC and the multiplayer side of the game I haven't experienced these myself. So once this review is hot off the press I shall be heading into all these wonderful aspects of the game and updating my review with an extra section on these very things.
So the basic question I always ask myself is this; does Dying Light do what it sets out to do? And the answer here is a resounding yes. Almost every aspect of the game has been delivered with a solid level of polish and precision. Techland have given us realistic zombies that break, burn, drown, explode and do all the good things the undead do when they check out. They have then placed this excellent zombie simulator within a detailed, maze-like city that is as high as it is wide. They have given us a vast set of weapons, tools, skills and given you the player the freedom to decide on how to use them. Finally they have made all of these shenanigans pure unadulterated fun. I'd be very surprised if a sequel of some sort wasn't being worked on but for now I'll just say this; if you love killing zombies go and pick up your cricket bat, get your Cornettos out of the freezer and go for a jog through the streets of Harran