[REVIEWED] Dying Light: A better Dead Island

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2011’s Dead Island was a game people either loved or hated, because while it had potential to be great, the developer’s somewhat hamfisted design undermined that potential at every turn.

Terrible writing and acting, glitchy graphics and a camp, B-grade horror movie story detracted from the game’s main appeal: that of being able to beat zombies’ heads in with any object you found lying around. But even that wasn’t brilliant unless you had a game controller and were willing to try the analogue controls, which many gamers to this day still overlook.

Even so, Dead Island developed a dedicated following through its support of mods – user-made modifications that change the game in significant ways – as well as its ability to let you play through the whole game with up to three friends. On your own, battling the game’s controls and enduring its janky physics was rather aggravating, but with a group of friends it somehow became hilarious.

In the end, the consensus among gamers was that Dead Island could have been better, something backed by its user score of just 6.8 on mega-ranking site Metacritic.

Dying Light is that better game

I was only too happy to discover that Dying Light is everything I liked about Dead Island – zombies, gore, an emphasis on melee weapons – but with far better graphics and with an amazing 360-degree movement system that has you running up walls, jumping over obstacles and hanging from ledges like a free-runner possessed. It’s a first-person parkour shooter with zombies, in other words.

DL - Open World
A truly open, open world. What a pleasure.

And the story isn’t too shabby, either. Instead of being stuck on an island surrounded by zombies, you’re G-Man Kyle Crane, sent into a zombie outbreak in the middle of a huge new, non-island setting, the fictional and rather Turkish-looking city of Harran. Your task is to help the survivors, while staying on the lookout for something your handlers are interested in.

The writing isn’t Hemingway, and nobody will win a BAFTA for their voice acting, but it’s quite good all the same. There are some fantastic edge-of-your-seat moments towards the middle of the game and a memorable bad guy who you’ll love to hate, and those always go down well with me.

There are even more than a few scares along the way and even a rather significant change of scenery that took me by surprise. As far as stories and settings go, this is the zombie apocalypse game I’ve always wanted to play: everything seems to come together in just the right way to produce a whole that is, for me, greater than the sum of its parts.

Melee magic

Story aside, what will keep you coming back for more is the game’s amazing melee combat system. Where Dying Light does borrow from Dead Island is in its depiction of a zombie apocalypse where guns are scarce, and you must instead beat zombies to death with whatever is lying around. That means pipes, hammers, blades, pieces of wood, bats, crowbars and the occasional sword are your go-to weapons, and taking out the undead means getting really, really close before socking them in the face.

DL - Gore
That’s gonna leave a mark.

As you might imagine, moering zombies is a bloody business indeed, and Techland has spared no gory detail. Heads cave in with a wet smooshing sound, bits of skull go flying everywhere, limbs come off when chopped or bludgeoned, bodies disintegrate when hit by explosions and blood goes everywhere. A good fight will find Crane out of stamina, out of breath with a broken, bloody weapon in his hands and bodies strewn all over the place, with blood painting the scenery red. It’s really delightfully visceral.

Once you get used to the combat system, which took me less than an hour, swinging weapons in Dying Light felt quite natural and I found it to be pretty darn effective. Aim for a head and you’ll whack it, swing wildly and land less-effective body blows, thwack legs and watch zombies limp around, and get things just right and you’ll see a cool X-ray outline of the zombie’s skeletal system, showing the bit you’ve just smashed.

Occasionally, when you pull off a really good hit, the action slows down for a second to give you a detailed glimpse at the damage you’ve wrought. Awesome. Should you be a bit of a gore-hound, then, prepare to find a new happy place.

DL - Good Fight
All in a day’s work.

Level up

And as you level up, you’ll unlock moves and abilities within your three primary skill categories – Power, Survival and Agility – that make dealing with the zombie hordes just that much easier. It also makes the combat pretty spectacular: beating zombies to death with pipes is great and all, but it’s even better elbow-punching, ground-pounding and head-stomping them from a first-person perspective.

The movement and graphics are so realistic, I felt like Techland had strapped a GoPro onto some violent psychopath’s head and told him to go nuts and then just translated the footage into videogame form.

But you won’t always have it all your way: zombies also fight back, and you’ll often have to deal with retaliations that send the camera – your character’s head – reeling, which leaves you rather vulnerable for a second. I found myself often strategically withdrawing to apply med kits and recover stamina, usually from some unreachable perch which my parkour skills helped me reach.

I absolutely adored the fact that I could run away and safely observe zombies from places they couldn’t go; in fact, more games need that ability as I didn’t feel restricted by anything but the geography, and that’s the way I believe every open world should play.

Some strategy required

Despite the ability to quite literally run up walls, getting overwhelmed in Dying Light is a very real threat and approaching every encounter with some sort of strategy is gently encouraged. Zombies are easily dealt with on their own or in small groups, but in clumps they can quite easily take you out if you’re not careful. Fortunately, the game provides you with a ton of weapons and a clever crafting system that lets you build useful things like grenades, molotov cocktails and even exploding ninja stars to help you thin the numbers.

DL - Zombies
If you don’t watch out, even these four losers can overwhelm you.

Weapons don’t last, though. Each one can be fixed up three or four times using spare metal, but after that they become useless and will need to be replaced. Fortunately that’s no problem as you’ll find new ones all the time plus, if you’re in a bind the shops scattered around the place will have a few for sale.

But only if you have enough cash. Money is another resource that must be carefully managed. You’ll scavenge it from corpses and find it in bags, but never in sufficient quantities that you’ll feel like you can afford anything you want after just a few hours. Buying a really good weapon takes quite a bit of saving up, and when you finally get it you’ll feel quite happy, as store-bought weapons generally have better stats than ones you’ll find in the world.

World of Weaponcraft

Unlike in Dead Island, there is no cash cost for crafting in Dying Light; you must merely have the right ingredients. That always bothered me about DI – why, in the zombie frickin’ apocalypse, did I have to pay money at an unmanned table to put X and Y together and secure it with string/masking tape? No such limitation exists here, you just  have to find blueprints before you can build things. Fair enough, I say.

DL - Weapon
This is gonna hurt you more than it is me thanks to some extra fire damage.

Weapon effects like burning and electricity damage can be added this way, giving your weapon a dramatic visual and effectiveness boost that’s just wicked fun to play with. Solving quests and sometimes even just random exploring leads to new blueprints, giving you plenty of reason to get out there.

But Dying Light doesn’t just give you fun weapons to play with: Reach level 12, and you’ll unlock something that’ll make you very, very happy indeed. While I won’t spoil it, let’s just say it makes getting around a lot faster.

Thanks to a solid set of mechanics and an effective and satisfying combat system, Dying Light is a lot of fun. But more than that it’s also the right mix of gory, scary and silly, and that’s what reeled me in and ensured I will be playing the game long after this review is done.

Let’s play a game of nighttime, daytime

The gist of the whole “Dying Light” name and the slogan of “Good night, good luck” is that night and day in the game are like, well night and day in terms of how they play.

Day time means sluggish zombies for the most part that are fun to mess with. If you’re smart and keep an eye out, you can have heaps of fun beating them all to death, one at a time or in small groups. Should it appear you’re about to get overwhelmed, running away or climbing walls to get away is totally an option, because daytime zombies are stupid.

Make enough noise, though, and you’ll attract Virals, recently-turned zombies who’re still human enough to run and climb anywhere you can. And it’s easy to make noise: jump on zombies’ heads, throw a grenade or make one of the hazmat suit-wearing zombies’ air tanks explode, and you’ll be up to your gut-smeared track-suit in Virals in seconds. Dealing with them can be challenging as they’re fast and can dodge your kicks.

DL - Time to Scarper
Time to scarper to the nearest Safe Zone.

Night, on the other hand, brings out a whole new type of zombie, called Volatiles. These bastards are not only freakishly fast and strong and can climb anywhere you can, but they actively seek you out. Getting spotted and chased to a Safe Zone is as panic-inducing as that sounds, because if they catch you – and they will – it’s dirt nap time.

While they can’t really be stopped (at least, not initially), they don’t like Ultraviolet lights and you just so happen to have one on you. Shine it on them and they back away, but as it doesn’t last forever you have to be quite clever about when to use it. Used properly, it can give you just enough time to get into a Safe Zone.

Safe Zones are walled-off areas with permanent UV lights where it’s safe to sleep once you’ve cleared out any lingering undead and turned the power back on. Clearing them is very useful, giving you little islands of peace in the maelstrom of Harran’s zombie problem.

For the first twelve levels or so I avoided the night altogether. Since I could sleep through the night at Safe Zones, that’s what I did. The call would come in over my radio saying that night is coming and to seek out shelter, and I’d beat feet to the nearest Safe Zone. Not even the promise of double XP at night was enough to tempt me out.

They're even scarier than they look.
They’re even scarier than they look.

When you finally DO go out, sneaking is highly recommended as you carefully keep an eye out for Volatiles on your mini-map. A cone of vision highlights where they’re looking and allows you to pick a safe route. And boy did that make my heart pound; there really isn’t anything quite like sneaking around, being detected despite your best efforts and then chased by something deadly to get the blood pumping.

Fortunately, Dying Light really nailed the whole “running away” thing, because sprinting around the map and leaping over, under and around obstacles is a real pleasure thanks to the game’s free-running system and some damn fine controls.

See somewhere you want to jump? Aim the camera at it, press forward and jump and voila, a second later you’ll be pulling yourself up. And as the game progresses, you’ll unlock skills that make parkouring around the place even smoother. It really is genius, but it does take a bit of practice to get used to. Like anything worthwhile, then.

Better with a friend

No game is complete without co-op these days, and Dying Light is no exception: play with up to three friends, and Harran becomes even more fun.

Combat is slightly easier with two of you wailing on the poor undead together, and pulling off cool moves like smashing zombies into spikes or kicking them off buildings is just that much more satisfying with someone alongside you to either help, or just watch. Plus, the game throws various challenges at you like kill contests, races and other fun distractions.

The game’s Be the Zombie mode that lets you invade other games during their night-time cycle as a Volatile is just brilliant. It’s both fun and hilarious hunting other players, and romping around the map like a mutant Spider-Man feels pretty good.

Connection problems are present, though – my own games occasionally juddered from lag and then dropped, but that’s like more a South African internet thing than it is Techland’s fault. Surprisingly there’s also a LAN option that entirely eliminates lag, but your mates will need to bring their PCs to your place to use it.

Dying Light’s multiplayer is a hell of a lot of fun when it works, and a great way to spend a weekend.

Conclusion

I have wanted a zombie game like this for as long as I can remember. The gorgeous – and gory – visuals make it feel like a zombie apocalypse that doesn’t pull any punches; the melee combat and crafting systems both have a lot of weight; the story doesn’t venture too far into “ridiculous” territory and the main character is interesting in his own right. I also really enjoyed the sense of tangible progression from n00b to free-running, death-dealing athlete-warrior as the game advanced. All good things in my book.

But it’s the day-night cycle and the ability to free-run virtually anywhere that really sets Dying Light apart. Volatiles are properly intimidating, forcing players to think about how to approach (or avoid) night-time, and being able to run and jump just about anywhere opens the world up to creative ways to play. It did for me, anyway, and I loved it. That’s something I believe every open-world game should embrace.

Techland’s technical execution is still a bit patchy in places, though – weapon-duplication exploits that existed in Dead Island were viable until the 1.2.1 patch, and even after the patch dropped players found ways to duplicate items, so there’s still a way to go before it’s a technically whole game. Character models for the NPCs are also inexplicably re-used

Not the last time you'll see this guy.
Not the last time you’ll see this guy.

Even with a few niggles, Dying Light is a hell of a fun ride, and one I’ll be enjoying long after its popularity has passed. If you enjoy zombie games, even just a bit, it’s a highly recommended purchase.

Techland will also continue to support the game with free content updates for months to come, and should you find the Volatiles too easy (hah!) and night-time not challenging enough, you’ll soon face an even stiffer challenge as the first of these updates go live in March. Plus, they’re actively working to support modders now, meaning the community will soon be able to fiddle with the game and make it their own.

Will it win BAFTAs? Probably not. But is it fun enough for that not to matter? You better believe it.

Dying Light was reviewed on PC; it is available through Steam for a recommended retail price of $59.99 (R699.23). It is also out on console (PS4, XB1) via their digital stores for the same price.

Update: We’ve received local pricing info. Dying Light will be R599 on PC and R799 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 when its physical copies finally arrive on or around the 27th of February.

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.

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