'Dying Light': The Terror and Triumph of Nightfall

The zombies here aren't monsters, they're just another kind of terrorist.

Dying Light

Publisher: Techland
Rated: Mature
Price: $59.99
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Techland
Release Date: 2015-01-27

Dying Light opens with exposition straight out of an 80's action movie. A terrorist, Kadir Sulelman, has stolen a secret file that can be used against the government, in this case a FEMA-like disaster relief organization called the GRE. Kadir has a personal vendetta against the GRE because he blames them for the death of his brother. This file is now in the hands of an associate, located in the hostile city of Harran, who has orders to publicize it should anything happen to Kadir. Your mission, which you’ve already accepted, is to insert yourself into the factional politics of Harran, find this mysterious associate, and steal back the file. With all that explained you then jump out of a plane into Harran and are immediately attacked by thugs and... zombies?

Oh right, Dying Light is a zombie game. That's not quite right, though. It's a game with zombies in it, sure, lots of lots of zombies in fact, but it doesn't feel like a zombie story. The undead are still central to the gameplay and plot, but they aren't treated as a particularly unusual threat. You enter this story after all that shock and awe has passed. Dying Light doesn't care about how the world might react to a zombie outbreak, it’s more concerned with a different kind of plot.

This is a mercenary-with-a-heart-of-gold story. You're dropped into an isolated and hostile territory with a very specific mission, then you fall in with a group of survivors/rebels/natives and become more invested in their plight than in your original mission. The zombies here aren't monsters, they're just another kind of terrorist.

On the one hand, this is all semantics. You still spend a majority of your time decapitating the undead, and of course you meet people that prove man is the real monster, but the story missions remain refreshingly indifferent towards the zombies. For example, even as the story moves towards a search for a cure, it's not because a cure would be nice. It's because you want to use that cure as a political bargaining chip to stop the outside world from bombing Harran. Zombies aren't the issue here. They're just hostile wildlife.

That indifference extends to the gameplay as well, and its central gimmick and hook: parkour. You're a nimble guy in Dying Light, capable of jumping over most zombies and climbing most buildings. The idea of combining zombies and parkour seems so natural it's weird we haven't seen a game do this before. It's such a perfect, obvious combination that it actually does the game a disservice. The mix of climbing and zombies doesn't feel as unique as it probably should because it's so obvious. I kept thinking that I've played a game like this before, but the truth is I haven't.

That's not to say that the parkour is bad, just that the elevator pitch of Dead Island meets Mirror's Edge doesn't feel like an especially unique gameplay twist. Thankfully, it's still a good gameplay twist.

It’s a natural evolution of the zombie genre. Zombie stories and games are highly concerned with space, always moving their characters from one confined location to another. It’s all done in the name of defense and security, but really it’s because confined spaces are more frightening when you’ve got slow moving monsters that can be hiding around corners. Dying Light does the opposite in almost every regard: It mostly takes place in open environments, and even when things get narrow we always have a vertical way out. This is a zombie game that doesn’t want us to worry about its zombies, or at least not to worry about them as much as we would in other games.

The system of character progression speaks to this desire--this indifference. Your character levels up with experience points, but he doesn't have a single all-important "character level." Instead you have three different meters of experience: Survivor points are rewarded for completing missions and unlock shopping/crafting abilities; Agility points are rewarded for any climbing and jumping, and unlock abilities that make you faster or more agile; and Power points are rewarded for killing zombies, and unlock abilities that make you or your weapons stronger.

Splitting the progression like this means you could spend hours upon hours killing zombies, but you'd only be improving your skills in a very limited way. In terms of character development, jumping over zombies is just as viable an action as killing them.

The split progression also serves as an interesting reflection of how you play. Early on, I noticed that my Agility rank was consistently lower than my Power or Survivor rank. That's because I wasn't accustomed to the verticality of the world. I spent most of my time on the ground killing zombies in the street. Later on this switched. Once I learned the layout of the city, I spent more time on rooftops and my higher Agility level reflected that change in gameplay style.

Another reflection of that change: my reaction to night. There's a day/night cycle in Dying Light, and everyone in this world is afraid of the dark for good reason. The strongest and fastest zombies only come out at night, and if you're caught beyond the walls of a safe house when the sun goes down, Dying Light turns into a stealth game. These special zombies appear on your mini map with vision cones, allowing you to run through the world while staying out of their sight. If they see you, they'll give chase, and early on, that chase will almost always end with you dead.

Night is incredibly dangerous. When it gets dark in Dying Light it gets dark, like pitch-freaking-black dark, and for a while, I avoided the darkness altogether. When the sun set, I ran to a safe house and slept until morning. However, earning Agility and Power points are doubled at night, so eventually I was tempted to push my luck, and soon the night became a beloved game of cat and mouse.

When I became familiar with the streets and alleys, I could weave between them, breaking the line of sight of my pursuers, earning bonus Agility points for escaping unscathed. When I became stronger, I could run with my flashlight off, confident that if I ran into a slow zombie I could decapitate it instantly and it wouldn't interrupt my flow. I loved jumping blind over rooftops, taunting gravity and the speedy zombies below me. Night is a true test of everything that you've learned during the day, and it's when this zombie game truly comes alive.

This is all to say that Dying Light is the kind of game that gets better as it goes along. This applies to your progression of skills, your growing familiarity with the map, and even the map itself. You start in the Slums, and for a long time, I was convinced that this was the only map in the game, but eventually the story took me to Old Town, a fantastic parkour paradise that feels like it could have been ripped from an Assassin's Creed game. Whereas the Slums had a lot of flat ground, Old Town is all rooftops. It's here that the parkour feels like parkour. Old Town is simply a better proof of concept of everything that makes Dying Light interesting and fun.

Unfortunately Old Town is locked behind 10-15 hours of game, and that's only if you stick solely to the story missions and ignore the side quests, which you probably won't do. It's not that the early game is a slog, but Dying Light definitely gets better over time, so much so that by the time that you reach Old Town, you'll wish you had gotten there sooner.

That kind of pacing makes the game look worse in retrospect, since it's easy to compare your time spent in the lesser early-game against the better late-game. That ratio will always be lopsided because players tend to wander and explore open worlds, which means spending so much time in the Slums that you might burn out on the game before reaching Old Town.

However, the pacing is only apparent as an issue in retrospect. When you're in the moment -- running, jumping, hacking, and slashing -- Dying Light is highly enjoyable. Just be sure to go out at night, and try to get to Old Town as soon as possible.


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