Dying Light Review
Parkour mechanics shine in this otherwise predictable zombie survival title
It might be safe to say the zombie genre is stuck in a rut. Over the last five years, we have seen a myriad of games starring the undead, focused on survival and resource management. While Dying Light, the latest zombie game from Techland, attempts to inject life into the proceedings with its parkour gameplay, it can’t quite shake the chains of the modern formula. The title is fun throughout its 30 or so hour campaign, with sharp mechanics and a fun vertical playground on which to use them, but it still needlessly rehashes many of the same ideas already thoroughly explored in better zombie games.
It might seem a little unfair to reduce Dying Light to being “just another zombie game”. There is a lot going on and a lot to do in Techland’s fictional city of Harran. Described as a place where “East meets West”, Harran seems like it would be closely related to Istanbul (in fact, Harran was an ancient city in Upper Mesopotamia), but it bears resemblance to other Middle East cities as well. Harran is a melting pot of accents, cultures, and political ideals - oh yeah, and there’s an outbreak of a virus that turns people bitten by those infected into walking, undead corpses.
Players assume the role of Kyle Crane, an operative (with a seemingly military background) who has been recruited by a humanitarian outfit, called the GRE (Global Relief Effort). During the outbreak, a local political figure named Kadir Suleiman stole a file from the GRE and Crane is sent in to recover it. It doesn’t take long for the operation to go sideways and soon the file is forgotten about as Crane falls in with a group of survivors based out of an apartment complex called The Tower. He quickly makes friends and attempts to help their cause for survival and finding a cure for the virus. Part of it may be Crane’s good nature, but he also has a stake in this cure. No sooner have you landed in Harran than you are bitten and must dose yourself with a drug called Antizin in order to stop yourself from becoming a zombie.
The narrative of Dying Light rehashes many ideas already explored in zombie fiction, like factions of survivors fighting against one another, a rogue leader who yammers on about survival, and governments hoping to cover up the horrid affair. It’s not all that interesting and the secondary characters that populate the world are even less so. There’s the standard psychos who always seem to show up when the world had gone to hell, or the faceless families trying to save their loved ones; it would be interesting if we hadn’t seen it all before. And I assure you, you have seen all of this before.
Techland tries to separate Dying Light from other zombie games by injecting a parkour-style, Mirror’s Edge vibe to the game’s mechanics. And the mechanics of the open-world traversal are very strong. Running, jumping, grappling, and climbing the city of Harran is a good time. The controls are intuitive and allow for players to do a lot while pressing only a few buttons. Players can sprint using the L3 button, while all your jumping, grabbing, and climbing is handled by the right bumper. You might think this would lead to accidental jumps or unintentional interactions with objects, but Techland has really refined these controls to make sure you don’t struggle with climbing walls or leaping the gaps of buildings. While games like Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored allowed for vertical traversal around their worlds, no game has done so with a world this vast and open. The game’s first section, The Slums, feels a little flat at times, made up of mostly two or three story buildings, but the second section, Old Town, really creates a feeling of verticality that will stir the dare-devil soul of any player.
Techland not only gives you strong parkour mechanics, but also plenty of excuses to use them. When the zombie horde - or something as equally bad - is after you, the game becomes an exhilarating thrill ride as you run over, under, and around the many natural obstacles of the city. Whether it’s balancing over construction cranes or leaping through a maze of sewer pipes, Dying Light continually uses its world to keep the players moving in interesting ways. The city is also littered with traps which can be triggered to distract zombies - whether they are the fast kind that give chase, the hulks who usually guard your way forward, or the typical mindless drones. These traps are just another way that Dying Light adds to the unique flavor of its parkour fun.
Once the novelty of Dying Light’s parkour mechanics wears off, the rest of the experience is standard fare. Melee combat plays like many other first-person games, but feels purposefully clunky. Many of your attacks feel ineffective, in order to keep players focused on running from trouble rather than confronting it. This would be a good idea, except that there are many times when Dying Light forces you into combat. As you progress through the game you can unlock abilities to make you far stronger, but the early combat sequences are baffling and annoying. Also, by the time a lot of your cool melee combat abilities are unlocked, the game has started giving you guns, which become your best friend when fighting human enemies. The game’s focus on combat goes from bizarre to rote, and never becomes as interesting as one would hope.
Like many survival games, Dying Light attempts to keep the players conscious of the resources they have. You can scavenge the city looking for metal parts, electronics, alcohol, gauze, plastic, duct tape, and chemicals. These materials can be used to repair and upgrade weapons, make medkits, and more. Unfortunately, the crafting system is a little unbalanced. While materials can be found throughout the city, they can also be purchased in stores. Buying pre-made medkits - with the constant abundance of cash - means players are rarely forced to craft them. Other items, like firecrackers and lockpicks, are so common or easy to purchase it’s a wonder why anyone would bother to craft them. Generally, you’ll want to keep parts on hand for weapon repair and to make certain throwable items, but overall the crafting system is easily bypassed and thus it fails to really tax the player in any way.
After the game pushes you out the door, you’re going to want to establish safe houses throughout the city, by clearing them of the undead and securing them from intrusion. Once you have some safe houses secure, you’ll be ready to run missions. Players can either get missions from one of the many NPCs which can be found throughout the pockets of survivors in Harran or they can follow the main questline, pushing the story forward. While in The Slums, players will have a bevy of missions to complete of varying difficulty. If you want, you can fill your map with markers and wander throughout Harran, helping the less fortunate. Later in the game, side missions become more scarce but new challenges and outpost takeovers become available to the player.