The nighttime demo of Techland’s Dying Light proves that it is still possible to create an entertaining and exhilarating zombie game.
Zombie. Video game. Been there decapitated that. It is a given that zombies are overdone in the entertainment industry. Occasionally games like Telltale’s the Walking Dead or Naughty Dog’s the Last of US break the mold and reinvigorate the genre, but more often than not the industry has a tendency to regurgitate the same general formula.
Zombie’s aside, Techland’s Dying Light had me intrigued when I first saw their reveal trailer. There is nothing generic about a Mirror’s Edge(esque), survival horror, sandbox game—a enticing marriage of genres that begs to be explored. And after playing the game at PAX, that is exactly how I would describe the title.
I was lucky enough to have one of Techland’s brand specialist, Przemyslaw Mróz, walk me through the entirety of my playtime, as this is a game that requires a solid knowledge of the controls to survive and the demo throws us right into the heat of things. Taking place in the city of Harran, I start off in a tutorial playground. It takes me some time to adjust to the controls, which feel a little chunky when moving slowly but immediately blossom into a ballet of natural reactions when running. And running—that’s what this game is all about.
After adjusting to the controls it was time to try my hand at playing in the real world. Nightfall is coming, and our mission is to set traps around the city to keep supply roots clear of zombies. Running on the rooftops, it becomes easy to see that the environment of the city is setup for freerunning. Slow moving zombies line the streets below, but the city blocks are lined with open alleys, large vehicles, fences, and even zip-lines that allow me to traverse the landscape without giving the living dead a second thought.
At one point, I jump on a wooden roof that collapses under my feet. I look to Mróz in concern, wondering if I had just placed myself in some sort of danger. He smiles and points out that this aspect of the game can actually save my life, especially when being chased by masses of zombies, as it cushions your fall and can provide an escape route. He then cautions me to continue with haste… daylight is beginning to fade.
After some more parkour practice I decide to try my hand at some of the game’s combat, an element of the game Mróz was absurdly excited to show me. Using the D-pad I scroll through my equipped weapons, which range from a small but swift hatchet to a slow two-handed axe, satisfyingly capable of slicing a zombie into two perfectly symmetrical pieces. Amidst the narrow alleyways I stumble upon a zombie with a gas tank on its back. When struck, the gas tank ruptures and bursts thunderously into the air, blowing the zombie into small grotesque pieces. Despite the chunky controls the combat is, for the most part, a rewarding experience. There are a plethora of ways to take out the zombies, and though some of them are annoying or overly difficult to achieve, seeing a zombie fly into the air or try to desperately crawl with one leg makes it worth it. During the day the undead are stupid and slow, allotting time for players to muster up creative ideas and use the environment, decoys, or even drop kicks to mutilate their decaying bodies.
On the way to set up some traps I come across a different breed of zombie. This fat beast is what Mróz called a Toad, and he points out that it is one of the many builds of zombie that can be found in the game. The Toad, while having low health, spews a vile green liquid that can kill in three strikes. The best way to take it out is by sprinting at him and using a strong melee attacks.
Once the Toad is dead I make my way to the trap car which is, unsurprisingly, surrounded by a swarm of zombies. To lure them away from the vehicle I throw a decoy, which draws in nearby the zombies using noise. Once everything is ready, I throw another decoy near the car to draw the group back before activating the explosive device, an action that kills a solid group of the undead. Traps like this exist all over the city, and some of them are even already set and ready to use thanks to a few of the NPCs that wander the area.
Of course, once all of the traps are set, the demo couldn’t be over—it wasn’t even twilight yet. Apparently setting all of these handy traps overloaded the power circuit, and it was up to me to go get the power back up and running. Right. All I had to do was get to the top of the power plant, flip the switch, and get back to camp before dark. Piece of cake.
And by piece of cake I mean really bloody piece that you would never want to eat. As the power turns back on, night begins to fall—from below, horrifying groans grow in volume and depth. The environment suddenly becomes tense and rigid. As I jump down from the tower I freeze, not really knowing what to do next.
“Just don’t stop running.” Mróz said in amusement. So I didn’t. In a panicked state my brain could only focus on one thing–staying alive. Using as much forward momentum as possible, I frantically vault over a massive fence, sitting on the top momentarily to get a grasp of my surroundings. The other side of the fence is crawling with the undead, but I have no choice…I have to go through them. I drop to the ground and head towards the mass of death that was charging relentlessly at me. Expletives left my mouth, making me glance over to the Mróz in embarrassment. He was laughing. Obviously this sort of “anxiety attack” reaction is what Techland want player’s to get out of the game.
Before I hit the front of the zombie horde I perform an effective (albeit messy) jump kick, which sends both myself and an ill-fated zombie into the middle of the mass. With a bit speed and good timing I use the climb button to launch myself over the shoulders of zombies in my path and then, with a grace not unlike a drunken bear trying to walk in stilettos, make my way up a building. Occasionally a zombie grabs at my face in attempt to rip out my jugular, but with a quick time event I am able to tear their jaw off or break their neck. Tempted to turn to see the chaos I left behind, I pause, but the Mróz is quick to warn me to continue, a warning that was foreshadowed by the growing noise in each direction. I was surrounded.
At night, there is no such thing as safety. As soon as the sun goes down, all of the zombies evolve into incessant killing machines, gaining speed, intelligence, and the ability to climb. I continue to run past the hordes of zombies, occasionally taking an alleyway or climbing a building and running through its rooms to lose my pursuers. At one point I run under an electric trap which I then activate; though I couldn’t see the rampant zombies frying away in the fire, their ghastly agonizing calls were all I needed to hear to know I was successful. One group of zombies down, an infinite amount to go. If I could give one newbie piece of advice in this situation, it would be to not stop running. Ever.
While the daytime experience is enjoyable, night is by far the most exhilarating part of the game. Without it, Dying Light would simply seem like any other generic zombie game. In some eccentric reaction to fear and the need to survive, at night the controls become extremely fluid, allowing me to do things freerunning that I would be too slow to consider otherwise. From a psychological standpoint, fear makes people focused and quick to react, a primal survival instinct not that different from many animals. The game literally adapts this instinct, the way the human brain addresses fear, into the gameplay itself. Relying on primal instincts in a video game? It can’t get much more intense than that.
Overall, Dying Light is an impressive title that left me with mild heart problems, and I mean that in a good way. Let’s just say that I didn’t need to consume more coffee for the rest of the day, despite it being the fourth day of PAX. The world of Dying Light is dynamic, with a reactive environment that contains traps and collapsing roofs. But perhaps the best addition to the game is the day and night cycle, which vary in length with each mission. During the day the game proves to be a somewhat unoriginal but amusing first-person zombie hacking sandbox, but at night it becomes a completely different beast. The variety of play styles offered within the game will be able to please a wide ranging audience, but what has me the most excited is the ability for four player co-op. After the demo, producer Tymon Smektala went through some of the strategies that can be used in co-op, which includes kiting zombies away from other players or playing around with trap mechanics. He also mentioned a zombie multiplayer, similar to that of Resident Evil 6’s somewhat unrefined Agent Hunt mode. Hopefully it will progress where RE 6’s mode fell short, as Smektala pointed out that the zombie mode will actually house aspects of evolution and a performance based-leveling system that will stick with each player. Regardless, this is a game that I cannot wait to enjoy both solo and with friends.
Dying Light will be making its way onto shelves sometime in 2014 for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC. Brace yourselves. Good night, and good luck.
(Article can also be found on Gameranx.)