Techland's Dying Light combines everyone's two favourite things... zombies and intense physical activity. At the start of the game, you're air-dropped into what is essentially a war zone... an entire city under lockdown for months after the spread of a plague that turns people into the mindless undead. You're there trying to retrieve a stolen file and tracking down a rogue agent, but the survivors who save you from turning into zombie chow don't know that. To them you're just Crane, a guy trying to get by and willing to pull his weight by helping them survive. They've even set you up with some Antizin following an unfortunate bite... the only thing capable of staving off the zombification process. It's safe to say they might not be so friendly and sympathetic if they knew why you were really there... especially since their doctor is working on a cure that your superiors are very interested in. By day you'll spend your time helping the other people living in The Tower, while also trying to accomplish your own objectives, but when night falls, well, something else joins the hordes roaming the city streets, and not even the rooftops will keep you safe. Dying Light combines rooftop, wall-climbing, parkour action in this thriller, along with crafting, skill trees, and sidequests galore, not to mention a "be the zombie" multiplayer mode, for a surprisingly immersive and definitely gorgeous adventure in a sprawling, dangerous city, but clunky combat and (as of this writing) serious performance issues are as ugly as the zombies themselves at times.
While Dying Light does have combat, most of the time you're outnumbered in a big way, or simply underpowered, so most of your time is going to be spent trying to take the high road whenever possible to avoid conflict. After all, zombies are typically not known for their gazelle-like fleetness of foot, or the ability to scale obstacles like flesh-hungry lemurs, and so Crane's bizarre newfound proficiency at scaling walls, leaping across rooftops, and racing across skinny metal beams really high in the air is probably the greatest weapon in your arsenal. Apart from, um, actual weapons that is, which you can find scattered around in various forms or buy from the merchants willing to trade with you. As is apparently legally required for any zombie action adventure these days, Dying Light has crafting. You'll pick up nails, gauze, alcohol, duct tape, and more, and if you have a blueprint, you can craft them deftly together into something you need. As for your basic skills, the more you use them, the better you get... things like fighting, running, and completing missions earns experience points towards each of the three skill trees, and when you level up in one, you'll gain a point you can spend on increasing your abilities or learning a new skill.
Most of your time is spent running errands for the different characters you meet. The Tower is filled with people who are just trying to get by... not just soldiers and hired guns, but families and civilians. People like the blustery and swaggering but well meaning Rahim and his older sister (and world kickboxing champion!) Jade help take care of them, but there's always more work to be done. You might need to recover a supply drop, repair traps, check in on someone, or just crack some heads. Random encounters can pop up on the map as you explore too, such as someone in need of rescue, and completing them earns you extra rewards. Arguably one of the most valuable commodities, however, are Safe Zones. Most of these will need to be cleaned out and secured, but once they are, you have somewhere you can retreat to when night falls, since that's when the really nasty stuff shows up. You think the fast, strong infected that can chase you across rooftops if you make too much noise are bad? Wait until you meet the Toad, or the Volatile...
When night falls, the tone of Dying Light changes drastically. The zombies that seem so ineffectual and easy to evade during the day become much more aggressive, but it's the Volatiles that come out in force that you'll want to do everything you can to avoid. Not only are they freakishly strong and fast, they'll pursue you for as long as you can, so if one (or more) spots you while you're out, you need to run like crazy and do everything you can to throw it off your trail. The game's Survivor Sense, which is otherwise used to indicate items you can pick up, will show any nearby Volatile on your map and their area of sight because... reasons? While you might want to snooze the night away in a Safe Zone, which allows you to instantly skip to morning, the game actually rewards you for playing at the most dangerous times by doubling the Agility and Power points you can earn.
Parkour is a hard thing to make into a gameplay mechanic and have it feel natural, dynamic, and exciting... inFamous and its beloved sequel pulled it off by making it feel effortless, negating the need to think and plan because there was always something to grab onto or pull yourself up on, most of which happened automatically. Dying Light, by contrast, makes it more of a process, one with a whole lot of grunting. Because you have to point your cursor at where you want to go, your orientation and your momentum has a lot to do with whether you sail gracefully over the hordes of the undead or miss that awning you were shooting for and belly flop into the street. The gym tutorial makes it seem a lot harder than it actually is because the gym area is so strictly limited in where you need to go. The outdoor environments allow for a lot more freedom, and a lot more creativity, when it comes to getting around. Figuring out how to get to a seemingly inaccessible place, such as a side-mission that requires you to break into the roof of a house that appears to have no clear way up, is one of the most rewarding parts of the game. Surprisingly the first-person perspective rarely gets in the way of platforming, though keeping an eye on everything around you, or barreling face-first into a zombie lurking in the room you just leapt into, is another matter entirely.
Combat, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. When it comes to melee, it just feels kludgey and inelegant at best, flailing at enemies like there's a spider on the end of your wrist you're desperately trying to knock off. Sure, for the most part the game wants you to avoid combat, but you still need to do a fair chunk of it for missions. It's doubly insulting because you get winded so quickly doing it and frequently need to fall back to recover your stamina, yet Crane can sprint down streets and scale buildings like Spider-Man for much, much longer without needing to grab a breath. At least you find yourself learning new moves as you progress through the skill tree, like grappling, vaulting, sliding and more, and you'll learn to make use of firecrackers and UV traps rather than charging in head-on. Dying just boots you back to the nearest safe-house, however, at the cost of some of your survivor points, so it's not much of a setback.
While at the time of this writing I was unable to find or connect to any multiplayer games, Dying Light's "Be the Zombie" mode, which puts you in the heavy breathing hide of a grotesque Night Hunter, has a lot of potential. You can get a good feel for things in the tutorial, which is single player, and playing as the Night Hunter is a lot of fun even if largely it feels like you're playing Venom's more necrotic cousin. The Night Hunter uses tentacle whips to travel long distances and can instantly kill unwary humans (located by a cry like Crane's Survivor Sense) by pouncing on them, but is balanced by being not as much of a powerhouse in direct confrontation, so stealth is key. The Night Hunter's movement and sounds are ghoulishly delightful, giving it a much more animalistic feel than typical zombie characters, and might be one of the few versus multiplayer modes I could see myself coming back to.
The real bummer? An apocalyptic amount of unpredictable lag and stuttering on a PC that exceeds the recommended system specifications. It took a lot of tinkering and experimentation with the settings, not merely setting them to low, to get the game up and running reliably for me, and as of this writing, even players with more formidable rigs than my own are reporting similar issues. Techland is taking a serious active and aggressive stance at getting this fixed, but it does mean if you plan on picking it up early you might find the game locking up on you like it's taking hostages at the worst possible times.
And yet despite that, the more I played Dying Light, the more I got into it. The game most people are likely to compare it to is Dead Island... which is, well, not that surprising when you consider Techland was involved in that game too. Compared to that tropical apocalypse, however, Dying Light's world feels a bit more dynamic and engaging. The world feels less linear and restrictive simply by allowing the player the ability to clamber all over the architecture. Dying Light makes all the decisions for you, which is frustrating when Crane starts moaning about whether he's doing the right thing. If we don't get to have a hand in deciding whether he does something, or why he does it, hearing his moral crisis rings a little sour. At the same time, the cast is surprisingly likable, from Rahim's poorly hidden desire to impress his no-nonsense sister, to Brecken's noble earnestness when it comes to protecting everyone but himself. Dying Light would have been a lot stronger as a character drama instead of the whole sekrit dokumehnt plot, but as it stands, the story is still more than enough to carry the action.
Dying Light is at its best not when it's having you go toe-to-toe with thugs, but when it's got you on the run and making you think on your feet. It's still got some rough edges, but it unfolds at a solid pace, gradually adding in more and more elements, asking more of you, until it winds up much more robust than its beginnings. It's not really what you'd call scary most of the time, but it makes up for it with some genuinely thrilling chases and death-defying stunts. If you've been waiting for a compelling story-driven zombie game, this still isn't it, but Dying Light still brings a lot to the table as a fun, dexterity-oriented open world adventure with putrid bodily fluids and rooftop daredevilry, and one well worth keeping your eye on for a sale if you're on the fence.