As I sat down to play Dying Light, few words were uttered to warm me amidst the undead: “this is going to be mean.” And they were right; this demo, taken from late in the game, left me far more awake than I’d been all day. But what they forgot to say was that it was also going to be manic, fun, and full of zombies, though I think the last one goes without saying.
Dying Light is the latest from Techland, the Polish studio that was also behind the Call of Juarez and Dead Island franchises. In a nutshell, it’s a first-person survival horror game filled with the undead where your greatest asset is your ability to parkour in an open world. You could think of it as Dead Island mashed together with Mirror’s Edge, but that really diminishes the choice facets that they’ve decided to shine.
One particular addition to the game that stands out is the day-night cycle. As you play, the internal clock of the game world will tick on, progressing from bright morning to hazy evening to a dark night. While the sun is out, you are much more capable since 1) you can see better and 2) there are less zombies wandering around everywhere. Once night hits, you are still able to go out and run your errands, but it becomes a much more harrowing experience.
This actually reminded me of Dishonored. As a very able-bodied freerunner, your mobility is only limited by what you try. You won’t be using any supernatural powers to teleport from ledge to ledge, but I was able to quite easily scale walls and climb around rooftops as I avoided the hordes below. You had to progress slowly but move quickly as each individual ambulation had to be deliberate and deft. It definitely felt more nuanced than I thought it would.
That could perhaps be attributed to the parkour system. It definitely has a Mirror’s Edge-like scheme where the right bumper makes you jump and clamber up to ledges while the left bumper has you drop and slide under things. It has the potential to be fairly technical, but all I really encountered was sprinting (down on the left stick) up to walls, jumping and climbing up to the roof, and sliding under a few fall structures. No extended wall running or back-and-forth wall ascensions for me, but that’s not to say it won’t be in there. It was a little disappointing that everything was simplified to running and climbing up buildings one ledge at a time, but it definitely worked.
My mission, given to me by a bald fellow in a hut, was to go around and set up the traps littered about the nearby area. I had to go out on this rather dusty afternoon and find fuse boxes and cars that would set up things like electric fences and explosions in case trouble came our way (spoiler: it does). One after another, I jumped from building to building, activated traps, and even found time to beat some zombies into submission so as to help a fellow survivor.
This was an optional thing that kind of just came up, but a man was trapped in a house with three zombies beating at the door. I could have just left and continued to set up traps, but I was told there would be money in it for me, so I went for it. I initially engaged them with a few quick hits of my axe, but pulling back allowed me to lure them into a puddle of gasoline, which I promptly ignited with a distraction bomb. They flared up and petered out and I collected my three-dollar reward.
Jumping across to a nearby rooftop, I began to take damage. I surveyed the area and found that there was a spitting zombie, firing poisonous mortar blobs at me from afar. I trucked up there, held down the right trigger to charge my attack, and split him in half with my two-handed axe. It used up a good amount of stamina hacking into this big fella, but at least I wasn’t taking any more damage.
The combat actually felt rather simplistic. I don’t know what other techniques or abilities I’ll learn or unlock, but all I really had at this point was the ability to hit things with other things. I could dismember zombies, but there wasn’t anything like the manual control of the Dead Island games. All it really took was gauging how long it took to wind up and swing certain weapons to be proficient at handling a couple dudes at a time. Dying Light was never about the combat, I was told, though eventually you will be able to beef up your character to be slightly better at handling large groups of zombies.
As I activated the last trap, the sun blinked out beyond the horizon and it was night. I turned on my flashlight and somewhat carefully made my way back to the base (and by that I mean I fell over a wall into a rather sizable horde and parkour’d my way back with almost a dozen undead nipping at my heels). I finagled my way up some rocks and head to the entrance only to find that the base was under attack. Quick, to the other base!
Now all I had to do was run. I had to get clear across town as darkness and zombies began to surround me. I ducked around corners and activated traps as my shambling pursuers crowded me. I didn’t have much time to enjoy my handiwork, though holding down the Y button did enable me to glance backwards with a brief stretch in time. All I could see were flames and more zombies.
I slid under a fallen tower and run up and jumped over a ledge, landing at the door of a building. I sprinted through it, dodging zombies—first left, then right, then I don’t know because I just wanted to get the hell out of there. A wooden ramp lay ahead with an open door and pleading comrades to hurry the hell up, so I leaped off the edge and crashed into the door of the other base, where the demo faded out.
At this point, I realized that I was leaning forward roughly 12 inches closer to the screen that I was before. That was quite the sequence, but it was obviously a heavily scripted one. It was an odd amalgamation of being in an absolutely open world and being surreptitiously funneled into a corridor of predetermined events. Not that it wasn’t exciting, but it seemed to conflict with the rest of the demo I’d played.
But really, a lot of the game could go either way towards scripted or open. Placed late in the game, who knows what is or isn’t available to you early or later on. I asked about the balance of being empowered and being vulnerable as you progress, but not much in the way of answers was given (nor anything about the story). Getting more technical freerunning placed next to more opportunities for mixing parkour and combat is what I’d like to see, despite the fact that the second half of the demo where I escaped through one darkened hallway after another was the most exciting thing I’d played.
As I took off my headphones, a single question greeted me: “pretty fun, huh?” I don’t know about fun, but it was pretty interesting. In the moment, though, adrenaline rocking my eyes wide open and my hands into a steady pattern of taps and shakes, all I could manage was a “fuck yeah.”
Look for Dying Light on PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One sometime in 2014.