Raise your hand if you didn’t know Dying Light was an RPG. That looks like just about everyone, so you’re forgiven if your response was, “wait, that zombie game?” Even though the marketing did an terrible job of explaining the RPG side of Dying Light, I’ve spent a few hours with the game and have no reservations: Dying Light has the reanimated heart of a roleplaying game. Purists may not be happy, but if can wrap your head around first-person, zombie smashing, breakneck parkour with a dash of survival, and deep character progression, you have a first-of-its-kind RPG. How often can we say that?
I had no plans to buy Dying Light until it released on Tuesday. Not knowing that I would soon be writing a first impressions piece of my own, I looked over the internet for reviews to see if the hype from last year’s E3 had delivered. Despite the ridiculously anti-consumer withholding of review copies (which we’ll talk about another time) and lack of reviews, I was able to come across a few videos that confirmed what I had hoped, Dying Light was as much first-person RPG as it was first-person action game. I was sold and immediately wrote Bill Murphy, head honcho here at MMORPG, asking to write about it.
If you’ve ever played Techland’s Dead Island, the spiritual forebear of Dying Light, then you have a good idea what to expect. You’re a secret agent sent to the Middle-Eastern city of Harran to recover a stolen virus and gather intel on the state of the now defunct, zombie-ridden city. That’s the new. The familiar comes with the open, overrun world and never-ending hunt for crafting resources, completing quests, building and modifying weapons, and in general kicking a whole lot of undead rump. Or head, as the case may be.
So great, you’re thinking, they remade Dead Island. Well, not quite. Many people walked away from Techland’s first zombie outing with a bitter taste in their mouth. With Dying Light, the developer has clearly sought to remedy many of the ills of the previous game. Combat is more straight forward, for one, and there is no option to right-arm, left-arm your melee attacks (it was a good idea but clumsy in practice). Movement is no longer so trudging and so far has been the highlight of the game for me. Zombies no longer level with you either, which means the sense of nothing ever changes! is solved here – or so it would seem with only a few hours under my belt.
The RPG systems are pretty much intact however, and leveling up your character has been refined with the influence of Skyrim. Experience points always go toward one of three specializations and are earned based on how you’re playing the game: Survivor, Agility, and Power. This system means you’re going to level up naturally and at pretty much the same pace as the next guy, but fairly deep skill trees allow you to create the character you want each play through. I do miss having different characters like in Dead Island but maybe they’ll come later in DLC.
Here’s how the skill trees break down. Survivor experience comes from completing quests and staying alive; biting the dust, whether literally from a fall or being bitten in the dust, incurs a penalty. Its skill line allows you to craft new gadgets and tools, like a grappling hook and grenades, and do basic things like upgrade your inventory. Agility XP comes from sprinting and climbing and powers up your parkour. My first investment was in a slide move to keep my pace up when I need to go under and obstacle. Agility is all about fluidity, movement, and health. Power comes from brutalizing the game’s many bald-headed bad guys. All of the skill trees unlock passive and active abilities, and here they’re all about combat: attacks, dodges, stamina boosts to allow you to fight for longer before needing to regen (which is often at this stage of the game).
Half the fun of these games is figuring out new ways to kill zombies, and weapon choice means everything. That’s where crafting comes in. So far, most of what I’ve found in the world has been pretty tame: pipes, wrenches, and small knives. The real honey comes from the blueprints you’ll find scattered about and earn from missions. These are your crafting recipes. My current project is an electrified pipe bludgeon. I have another, also electric, which requires three knives to even make. You can also craft the necessities, like med packs, ninja stars, stims, and firecrackers for when you need a distraction. All of this is color coded MMO style, by the way: grey, green, blue, purple.
One of the criticisms often thrown at Dead Island is that the game’s loot system often felt a bit pointless. I personally recall looting hundreds of suitcases for a few scant dollars and some vendor trash. So far, Dying Light feels like it gets this a bit more right. Looting is logical, so if you look in an ambulance, you’re likely to find a med pack or foodstuffs in a fridge, for example. There is a good amount of filler that’s used to make money from vendors (who remind me a lot of Borderlands 2’s vending machines in how they stock items), but a lot of it is important for crafting, which sent me on more than one trip ravaging abandoned houses for bits of string or scrap metal to repair my weapons.
Fighting, so far, has been a last resort. Zombies are slow but they team up on you quick and do a ton of damage. There’s variety, too. Some are huge and carry weapons, others are charred and on fire, and still others will race at you and hunt you up and over buildings. I’ve enjoyed dropping in and causing a ruckus but it’s even more fun to combine combat with a good dose of parkour. Here, check it out:
And to that, parkour is not what I expected. I never experienced Mirror’s Edge, so my frame of reference comes from Assassin’s Creed which feels almost weightless by comparison. Here, your character is heavy. He pulls himself up more slowly than you would expect and, at least from the first-person, it doesn’t seem like he’s many extraordinary leaps. This is a guy who can and will fall to death or injury. There’s a sickening crunch when that happens, and an incredible combination of motion and screen blur that is disorienting; bad news when you’re surrounded by zombies.
Overall, I’ve been very pleased with my time in the game. I haven’t gotten the chance to try co-op yet, but it’s there, and the night time stuff is still to come. (I made it through one night but it wasn’t bad at all at this stage in the game.) We’ll know soon if I, and many players, were right to be wary at the lack of review copies before release. For now, if you were a fan of what Dead Island was trying to do and wanted it done better, with a dose of freerunning parkour, Dying Light is a good one to keep your eye on.