Dying Light review: Running for your life
IF only Assassin’s Creed had zombies … said no one, ever. But such is the gravitational pull of open-world world games now, it was only a matter of when, not if.
Dying Light (PS4/XOne/PC); rating: 8/10; age 18+
In fairness, developer Techland had tentatively explored the possibilities with 2011’s Dead Island, a free-roaming zombie apocalypse RPG set in a tropical landscape. Technically shambolic, it had a certain charm in its blend of quests, crafting and co-op play.
Dying Light relocates the zombie outbreak to Harran, a vaguely Middle Eastern city reduced to a hellish jumble of decaying shacks. To this familiar mix (hello Dead Rising), Techland stirs in a health dollop of AC-style parkour and a day-night cycle (hi there Minecraft) that turns the zombies from shuffling to savage.
Inevitably, the main storyline – find the source of the infection, etc – gets padded with dozens of side-quests and tropes reminiscent of Ubisoft’s staples (climb radio towers, liberate safe houses, etc). That in itself is no bad thing if used sparingly. Techland makes like a magpie in stealing from lots of other games but at least it’s imitating quality ideas.
The myriad components hang together rather well, creating a tense game of cat and mouse in which all-out combat is rarely sensible. Like Sunset Overdrive, it’s best to stay as high off the ground as possible, free-running from rooftop to rooftop. In the daytime, zombies pose little threat in ones or twos but combat has an awkwardness that imposes a feeling of vulnerability.
You’ll have to make do with the abundant melee weapons for several of the opening hours. But a lack of recoil ensures your wild swings at close quarters feel disconnected from the skull-crushing you’re hoping for as the undead lunge in your direction.
When you finally do acquire a gun, you’ll realise it’s more trouble than it’s worth. The boom of each shot attracts more zoms and often fails to take down the target anyway.
Cleverly, come the darkness, the balance shifts. Your relatively effortless outwitting of the infected becomes a desperate survival battle as aggressive new super-fast zombies emerge to take you down. The cautious can always rely on stealth but the rewards of pushing your luck are worth it. Never mind fight, flight is always the superior option, earning you copious upgrade points if you’re willing to risk a chase.
If you so choose, you can permit online players to enter your world, hooking up for co-op and competitive missions within the main campaign. They can be lucrative, useful for levelling up or just a way to enjoy the fairly sketchy story arc with a buddy.
This is extended even further with the Be a Zombie free DLC, which enables another player to invade your game at night, relentlessly hunting you down. It’s a mode that’s much more enjoyable for the invader than the invadee, and one that many players will simply turn off due to its lopsided balance.
For all its appeal, though, Dying Light can be its own worst enemy. The decision to give all melee weapons a finite life is baffling at best, ensuring that despite upgrades and repairs you’re always restlessly seeking something new. Likewise, Techland’s familiar lack of technical polish generates regular pockets of frustration. Maybe you’ll get stuck on some scenery, maybe you’ll watch zombies wink in and out of existence. At best, you’ll be bemused by the inconsistent texture and object pop-in.
But it’s still a world you can get lost in, bewitched by its appalling vistas or seduced by another chance to skim its grimy surfaces on another silly but fun free-running fetch quest.