To say that Dying Light is influenced by developer Techland's other main franchise, Dead Island, would be something of an understatement. Entire gameplay features are reemployed in this title, which admittedly, contains a heck of a lot more polish and refinement than any of the Dead Island games. That isn't to say that the developer's new mix of parkour and zombies is a carbon copy, since it brings a new feel to the table, as well as some incredibly atmospheric visuals.
Initially, some will have trouble getting to grips with the main character's preferred (and only) method of traversing the map. The jump command is mapped to the right bumper – somewhat strangely, given that it's the most-used control in the game - and jumps have a greater chance of success if you're looking right at the item that you want to jump to or grab. The reason for initial fumbles is that it's very tough to judge exactly how far your character can jump. You'll look at a ledge above a ground floor window and find that you can only manage a somewhat half-hearted hop that doesn't get you anywhere near it. Then, you'll be hanging onto a pipe three floors up, and miraculously leap two storeys like Superman in order to safely grab the rooftop and clamber up. It's a constant source of frustration, and it knocks a great deal of shine from Dying Light's apple.
If you can get past the somewhat hit-and-miss nature of the parkour though, there's a lot to like about the game. A story that sees you stuck in a zombie-infested city with a ragtag band of survivors is hardly the most original or inspiring stuff, but the game's titular draw – the day and night cycle – has the potential to freshen things up. Once the sun goes down, you're in trouble if you're nowhere near a safe zone. The more advanced "Volatiles" appear at night and – unlike the daytime beasties – can sprint and climb just as quickly as you can. They also pack a punch that you aren't soon going to get up from. What this means is that if you've somehow ignored the radio reminders that night is coming, you're in for a tense period of quietly tip-toeing your way towards safety, desperately trying not to catch the eye of one of your foes. Fail, and it's time to throw caution to the wind and run like hell, leaping over small obstacles, sliding under fences, and generally doing everything you can to create a bit of separation between yourself and almost certain death. It's thrilling and fun, but would be more so if the "look behind" button (which allows you to glance over your shoulder whilst still sprinting) didn't stop you dead in your tracks.
While running through the city of Harran, you'll happen across blueprints, which – when you find the right combination of ingredients or items – allow you to craft weapons, temporary boosts to your skills, and other such things. In conjunction with situations that form a part of Dying Light's structure, these can create some fun setups. A spilled pool of petrol from an abandoned car can be lit up with a set of firecrackers, for example, and if you've thrown a bottle of flammable liquid over the soon-to-be-toasted zombies, the effect is even more spectacular. Conducting fluid allows for electrified weapons to create chains of destruction, too. It can be entertaining to experiment and see exactly what sort of things your limited arsenal can be used for. When it comes to melee weapons though, things are less smile-inducing. These can be upgraded by using a sparsely-littered series of boosts that are either found or awarded as you progress. Taking your favourite baseball bat and deciding to use the only boost that you've found in three hours of play might seem like a good idea, until you realise that every melee weapon in the game is breakable, and that they can only be repaired a certain amount of times before they're useless. We understand that cracking someone over the head with a cricket bat a hundred times might be enough to break it (it's unlikely, but we'll believe it for now) but a thick steel fishing knife? Why would that bizarrely break after a handful of uses? It makes no sense, and essentially means that the weapon boosts that you can collect are nothing but a temporary measure.
An almost-workable solution is available in the form of a durability-increasing power up that you can unlock from one of the three available skill trees. Surviving, dealing damage, and leaping around the game world as fleet-footedly as possible all earn you XP, and levelling up allows you to unlock new abilities. Some are useful, some less so, but it's interesting to bring new functionality into Techland's world. Unlocking a dropkick move allows you to boot enemies over cliff edges or into spikes, for example. The system works as it should and while it takes an awfully long time to get to the really good stuff, it's worth it.
You'll need those boosts, too.When you begin the game, the zombie hordes are entirely nonplussed about the fact that you're there. Whether you choose to take the free running route across the rooftops to get to your destination, or just sprint through the streets knocking the lethargic foes out of the way is entirely up to you. You'll truly start to believe that you can probably complete the entire game by just staying up out of reach. After you've levelled up a few times though, a distinct change occurs and you'll soon notice that zombies are noticing you from further away, grouping up to approach your location with more gusto, and attacking you with more force. A tipping point is met once you've reached the fifth or sixth levels of agility and strength and this is probably where you'll first succumb to their attacks. After this, Dying Light becomes more engaging, more atmospheric, and genuinely more fun to play. You start to realise the need to balance up the risk involved in looting a crate with the chance that you'll be spotted and attacked. The occasional – and seemingly random – sounds of zombie wails and things being knocked over off-camera will suddenly start to fill you with dread and make you jump out of your chair.
What's confusing though, is how – despite the game's title – the after-dark sections of the game are (mostly) entirely skippable. Sure, staying out at night whilst avoiding the Volatiles will gain you double XP and masses of other rewards, but if you're somewhere in the vicinity of a safe house at 7pm, you can just meander over to it and get into bed, sleeping through until the morning when the super-killers are gone. Early on, there's an indication that you'll be forced out at night when you're tasked with activating a night-time trap that isn't accessible during the day. Steeling yourself for the forthcoming attack, you run to a store to gear up before heading out into the twilight. Then you realise that the switch for the trap is actually IN a safe house, and that you can just shut the door behind you, wait for night to fall, flip the switch, and then go to bed. There's no penalty for it at all. You just level up a bit slower. We don't really see the logic in naming the game after a feature that you don't ever really have to see, apart from on rare occasions.
It's this sort of strange occurrence that causes the biggest problems with Dying Light. Another early mission sees you being asked to get into a house through the roof. However, every single ledge or pipe around the property is too high for you to be able to just clamber up. After twenty minutes of just wandering about, looking for a way up to the roof, you realise that there's an overpass sort of above the house. You climb up and once you're stood on the bridge, your field of vision is such that you have absolutely no idea if you're directly above where you want to land or not. You can't lean over the edge to look down far enough to see. So, you take a blind leap and land on a chimney pot, then drop onto the roof and into the house. It works and it sort of makes sense, but it feels – as a lot of things do in Dying Light - unbelievably glitchy. Not as if this was one of many potential solutions that you could have taken advantage of, but that this was the only solution available to progress the story, and it didn't really feel like something that worked smoothly or that you were in control of. A lot of times, you feel like you're gaming the game and the engine is barely letting you get away with it, rather than rewarding you for your innovative approach.
With all of that in mind, there's a lot of gameplay to be had here. The co-op and "Be the Zombie" modes are entertaining and in no means afterthoughts for those who fancy taking multiplayer for a spin. That's on top of the 12-14 hour storyline, even though a large percentage of the tasks included in the mission are simply fetch-and-carry affairs, making for a repetitive experience. The sometimes-wooden voiceovers featuring accents from seemingly every nation in the world also have the potential to prevent the game from endearing itself more. There are stacks of little challenges hidden throughout the game world in order to mix things up if you find yourself tiring of the same old mission types, though. This means that for the players who will undoubtedly fall in love with the game, there's a lot to do. The chances of that happening are a lot smaller than if some of the design decisions had been approached with a little more thought.
It's a little backhanded to say that it's only when something truly illogical or restrictive happens while you're playing that you realise exactly how atmospheric Dying Light can be. Backhanded or not however, it's a fair comment. Every time you start really getting into the game, something happens to pull you out. There's a lot of potential here, both realised and unrealised, even though the two things the game mixes together – parkour and zombies – are only slightly less passé than catapulting winged animals at pigs in army helmets. Some will love it, others will hate it, but Dying Light is an interesting experiment at least.