‘Dying Light’ review: errands, Harran and the Zombie Apocalypse

Dying Light, from developers Techland (Dead Island games) is the first major title to be released in 2015 and is a game that will appeal to a variety of gaming tastes. From fast-paced free-running sessions with added parkour to zombie massacres to vast exploration, it offers a well-rounded and adrenaline pumping style of game play. But when it comes down to narrative, Dying Light severely lacks both the element of immersion and a sense of realism.

Story Time: Conspiracies, clichés and budget acting

Welcome to the Turkish City of Harran. What once might have been a booming holiday destination has now been reduced to a zombie infested urban survival test. This is thanks to an unknown virus that turned its victims into the walking dead (didn’t see that one coming) and lead to it being quarantined from the rest of the world.

You play as Kyle Crane, an undercover agent of the GRE (Global Relief Effort). You have been sent to infiltrate Harran to find a mysterious document that your employers are very insistent on recovering. You are oblivious to the content this document contains, but as you will notice throughout the game, you don’t ask many questions and pretty much just do as you are told.

There are still many survivors left in Harran. Some of them are friendly and only wish to live another day. Others are more malevolent and have taken advantage of Harran’s demise to create their own lawless state.

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Unfortunately, you find yourself in the former group. They put emphasis on free-running (parkour) as a means of survival and are armed with nothing more than baseball bats and steel pipes. The other is run by a sadistic mad man named Rias, the main antagonist and the leader of the group you will be in constant friction with. Oh, and they’ve got guns.

Unaware of your hidden agenda, your new-found band of free-run brothers take you in show you how to survive in the zombie ridden wilderness of Harran. Impressed with your seemingly natural ability to traverse the urban landscape, you quickly earn their respect and become their go-to errand boy.

That’s pretty much what you’ll be for the rest of the game, an errand boy. No matter under whose orders or what the consequences, you rarely make your own choice and you will be often reminded of it.

This is where I feel Dying Light was a big let-down. Narrative has always been an important aspect of any game for me as it gives motivation and unites the game play elements (exterminating zombies is fun up to a certain point).

For most of the game, Dying Light’s main story seemed a bit cheesy and false. It was mostly devoid of authenticity and relied heavily on emotional archetypes split among characters. I never felt too attached or worried about any other character as they were always playing the same part. At some points I felt like I was starring into a low-budget action movie and Crane just seemed a bit too nonchalant and aloof. He felt like more of a passive participant than an instigator and I found it hard to relate to him.

This took a lot of poignancy out of the game for me and often left me feeling rather unsatisfied and encouraged to move on. Admittedly, some of the side quests were extremely captivating, more so than the main narrative, but you would have to have a lot of time on your hands to fully indulge in them.

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Fortunately Dying Light does redeem itself in another way, namely game play.

Play Time: Scaling walls and drop-kicking zombies

If you were ever a fan of the parkour antics in Mirror’s Edge or the Dead Island games’ zombie swarming open-world, then Dying Light will be right up your alley. It combines these two highly entertaining elements in a single addictive package that results in a deeply immersive gaming experience that is both familiar and fresh.

Free-running is probably this game’s most distinguishing feature as it is something that hasn’t been seen in a first-person game since the parkour game pioneer, Mirror’s Edge.

Harran makes for an excellent playground to carry cat-like acrobatics. The endless sea of closely laid roofs, broken down cars and various other structures creates a world safely raised from the zombie brimming streets below.

Safety is not the only reason why free-running is important, though. There is no fast travel available in Dying Light and if you take into account the large-scale map and 40+ hours of game play then free-running isn’t only an enjoyable element but a rather necessary one to retain a fluid game play experience.

But you can’t spend all your time jumping around on the rooftops, there is much work to be done on the streets and this is where the other engaging aspects of this game comes to light.

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If you played the Dead Island games then you will feel at home with Dying Light’s combat system. Zombies were a bit more challenging to deal with and the Dead Island flying kick has been replaced with a brutally entertaining drop-kick. Other than that the game it’s pretty much the same.

Although guns are available, you will only have them in your possession well into the game. Damage will almost exclusively be dealt in a melee fashion. Luckily, Dying Light provides you with a plethora of weapons.

In the beginning you will mostly obtain next to useless weapons such as planks of woods and the slightly more reliable range of steel pipes. They are affective when it comes to attacking but their condition fades quickly, making them ineffective, so you will have to have a few back-ups.

As the game progresses your inventory will slowly start to consist of a more exciting arsenal such as knives and baseball bats. These can also be upgraded via blueprints either found throughout Harran or bought from stores. A handy feature to use is your “Survivor Sense”, which will highlight all items of interest in a certain radius around you. Some of these items will be used for upgrades and others to craft Medi-kits, Molotov cocktail, Throwing Stars, etc.

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If there is one feature that sets Dying Light apart, it is the day and night cycle. In day time you will mostly be facing undead hordes which can be easily avoided by climbing the nearest building. You will occasionally be facing other infected such as “Virals”. They still retain some human agility and are also able to sprint and climb. But they only appear once you make a loud noise, which is something that seldom happens.

Once you spend your first night in Harran though, you will quickly realise how forgiving the daytime can be. When the sun sets, zombies grow more aggressive and the true nightmares come out to play. Even though the city will be overrun with Virals, they will be the least of your problems.

The ones you need to be worried about are the “Volatiles”. These relentless bastards are just as agile and quick as you are, if not more, and are nearly impossible to shake off. I’ve tried facing them on numerous occasions and failed every time. They are extremely inconsiderate when it comes to taking damage and will kill you with just a few blows.

Running to the nearest safe house like a little girl might not seem like the most attractive option but in this case it is certainly the best one. But if you do fancy a terrifying ten minutes of constant fear than surviving a night does provide you with considerably more experience points than day.

Beyond the jumping, running and bashing the occasional zombie head, what I appreciated the most about Dying Light was its tremendously absorbing atmosphere. Even though it is mostly felt nearer to the end of the game, it was these times that made me nod me head in respect (after I wet my pants and cuddled my teddy bear).

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It was the immersive combination of sound design, small cinematic moments, action packed missions and an expertly crafted environment that really brought this game alive and made me want to see it through till the end.

Verdict: Dying Light provides a very gratifying and entertaining experience in terms of game play and atmosphere. But as it borrows many apparent elements from other titles it struggles to find its own identity. The narrative could have been an excellent way of adding a unique edge, but unfortunately, in this regard it’s found wanting.

The game also has a slow, and sometimes dreary start that might make some question its merit. But once you do push through the lengthy and uneventful opening sequence and look past the budget acting, a remarkable game experience starts to surface.

Score: 7/10

Wiehahn Diederichs


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