Dying Light is an honorific. It is a tribute to zombie fiction, whether in the form of film or short story, and expertly captures the atmosphere maintained by all great zombie narratives. It is also a flawed game and an odd step back from developer Techland’s previous title, Dead Island, in some ways. Yet despite those flaws, Dying Light remains a fun light RPG, with a sprawling open world, gorgeous visuals, and the innovation of free climb in a genre that has been starved for new ideas. It also makes me grind my teeth when the sun sets. It’s that tense.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Dying Light is in fact an RPG. Please hold back your shock. It’s non-traditional and skews far more toward Borderlands than the dialogue-heavy likes of Dragon Age: Inquisition, but Dying Light’s most central mechanics are rooted in the roleplaying genre and literally shape the way you play. It’s hard to say that Techland or publisher Warner Brothers did anything more than a disservice to the game by all-but ignoring this fact, but there it is. If you liked Dead Island’s take on RP progression, Dying Light improves it wholesale.
You begin the game by leaping out of a plane into the Middle-Eastern city of Harran. You take on the role of government agent Kyle Crane, at first a blank slate, but who will soon come into his own by absorbing all of your progression points and crafting blueprints, until he is the definitive free-runner of the apocalypse. Your mission, initially, is to identify the rebel faction leader who stole a top secret virus that, like in Harran, could lead to world-spanning destruction. Zombies, y’all.
As you might imagine for an open world game, the city of Harran is filled with survivors more than willing to send you on a mission or two. Some of these are better than others and too many fall into fetch quests that are unfortunately spread out across the sprawling map. Following the main storyline, it’s easy to fall into complacency and ignore the context of your tasks. It can feel a little repetitive, but you’ll never forget your main story beat, because the game narrates it every time you enter or leave a building. Every. Time.
That said, there are two things to keep in mind here. First, having loved the original Dead Island, and even having reviewed Dead Island: Riptide, it’s clear that Techland is shooting for authenticity rather than originality in their stories. They want these games to drip in the dread so classic to great works of zombie fiction, and they achieve that through their atmosphere. Dying Light, like Dead Island before it, feels more like the zombie apocalypse than any other zombie game out there.
Second, it’s the city that’s the star here and your ability to parkour over every nook and cranny over it. Missions are often excuses to get out and run, leap over or drop kick a small horde, and clamber up a building for supplies. Dying Light has a real sense of weight that’s absent in games like Assassin’s Creed. You feel like a free runner.
We can’t forgive cliché, but we can see the gilding on the lily when we pluck it.
When you’re out on missions, there are three kinds of experience earned based upon how you choose to play. Agility comes from running and climbing, Power comes from fighting, and Survivor comes from completing quests. Each of these has its own skill tree and leveling them up earns skill points to spend on a new active or passive abilities. The Survivor tree, for example, allows you to expand your inventory and learn new crafting skills. Survivor might give you a stamina boost to keep you fighting longer. Late in the Agility tree you unlock the grappling hook. This system allows you to level up your character naturally while also giving you choice.
Dying Light only reveals the health and stamina character stats, but your skill tree and weapon stats adjust the power curve. That’s not to say everything is easy, however.
Dying Light features a solid ten zombie types, everything from normal infected, to spitters, to hulking goons, and even zombies who self-destruct when they get near you. Many of these guys come as a surprise and can make your life a nightmare even with solid experience under your belt. And don’t plan on running always being the answer. The Viral type is a freshly infected 28 Days Later type zombie who will run and parkour right after you across the city. You’ll have to put him down.
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