It’s hard to talk about Dying Light without alluding to Techland’s 2011 game, Dead Island. They’re both made by the same Polish studio, they both feature first-person combat with an emphasis on melee combat, and they both have tons and tons of zombies to kill. But where Dead Island felt clunky, cumbersome and, at times, downright unfair, Dying Light feels fluid and responsive, and running away from a fight is finally a valid (and often-used) option when the hope of surviving another scuffle with the undead is nonexistent.
Dying Light isn’t a true sequel to Dead Island, but it may as well be. It almost feels like a rebranding of the series after the launch of the subpar Dead Island: Riptide. At its heart, Dying Light is a spiritual successor, though it’s hard to glean the differences between the two franchises at a glance. After spending some time in Dying Light‘s world, basically everything I disliked about the original Dead Island has been improved, which is about the highest praise I can give a game trying to do the same thing that was done in 2011.
The first improvement I noticed was evident almost immediately. In Dying Light, you don’t choose a class or character. From the get-go, there’s a tangible story in which the player controls the protagonist/antagonist, Kyle Crane, a government agent sent into Harran, Turkey, to quell the zombie epidemic there. Throughout the story, Crane is torn between helping the government agency he secretly works for, which he believes to be part of the greater good, and assisting the survivors affected by the outbreak, which Crane’s employer sees as a waste of time and resources. The moral dilemma Crane faces adds drama to what would otherwise be another lackluster zombie tale.
The exclusion of classes this time around is a blessing. No longer do you have to worry about finding weapons of a certain type because your character can’t wield anything but butcher knives. In Dying Light, almost everything you find is a potential weapon, and each one Crane can utilize equally well. Sure, it still takes an asinine number of hits to a zombie’s head to kill it, making it dangerous to take on even two undead minions at once, but at least I don’t have to worry if my character is skilled enough to handle using a nailboard or a monkey wrench.
Acting as an excellent alternative to classes or single character level, there are three independent skill trees in Dying Light, two of which correspond to your fight or flight response. Anytime you attack anything, you get experience towards your Power Level. Skills in this tree allow you to kill things faster and with more pizazz, awarding even more experience, which becomes an awesome cycle of death to those that oppose you. Whenever you jump, run or climb your way to safety, you get points toward your Agility Level, the tree of which awards skills to make you better at escaping. Finally, completing quests and doing other basic things gives you experience in your Survival Level. As a clever and appropriate mechanic, you lose points in your Survival Level when you die, which gave me more of an incentive to, well, survive. It’s great having independent trees that hone my skills separately so I don’t have to choose between being a runner or an unstoppable powerhouse. Instead, I can be both.
And that’s what makes Dying Light great: You will not survive every encounter. More than once I turned a corner only to come face-to-face with a horde of zombies. The gamer in me said I could take them on, but in mere seconds they’d overwhelmed me, chomping me to death. I’ve quickly learned that Dying Light is far more realistic in this respect. Like a real-life zombie apocalypse, running is often a better alternative to fighting. Fortunately, Dying Light makes parkour fun thanks to its responsiveness, so even when retreating with my tail between my legs I was still having a good time.
Another component that makes Dying Light feel that much more real is the dynamic day and night cycle. When the sun sets, zombie hunters called Volatiles come out, and they’re genuinely terrifying. Skinless with exposed muscles and organs, they roam the streets looking for survivors to eat. They’re so overpowered that they actually show up on the player’s minimap as if to say “Avoid at all costs.” If you’re not indoors when the sun disappears, prepare for a brutal and deadly run to the nearest shelter to sleep until morning — if you can even make it. Whenever I was in this unfortunate situation, my desperate trek to a safehouse often went in vain.
Volatiles aren’t the only special types. There are ones that spit goo at you from a distance, making them a problematic ranged foe. There are also bloated zombies that explode on you and eight-foot-tall monstrosities that wield powerful concrete rebar weapons. Chargers are another type that come out whenever you make noise (be careful when shooting guns or causing explosions). True to their name, they relentlessly chase the player, and they can even climb, making them probably the most dangerous next to the Volatiles. As annoying as facing some of these special infected can be, they add variety to the sea of undead you’re forced to trudge through, and for that, they’re welcome additions.
What I experienced in the single-player campaign proved to me that Dying Light does everything Dead Island did (and then some), but better. Some frustrating combat mechanics return (my stamina runs out after only a few swings of my weapon), and grappling or kicking enemies off of buildings is nowhere as easy as it should be, but a fluid free-running system, lack of classes, separate skill trees and realistic day/night cycle make Dying Light an enjoyable, well-rounded approach to the zombie-slaying genre.
- Parkouring is great
- Three skill trees
- Intriguing story
- No classes
- Zombies are way too tough
- Kicking zombies off buildings doesn’t work well
- Surviving the night is terrifying and challenging
Dying Light was reviewed on the Xbox One with a retail copy provided by the publisher.