As I stand on the balcony of a safe house gazing out at the darkening sky and the burning flames of a car wreck, I know I should feel horror. The ground and buildings are bathed in shades of orange and I almost don’t hear the distant shrieks of monsters who were once ordinary people before the virus took them. There’s a bed in the room behind me that will allow me to sleep until morning and a bag full of weapons stashed from my last trip passed this particular area of Harran. Despite the flames and the screams and the smoke billowing into the sky, I stare out into a broken world and feel just a few sweet moments of peace. I made it to safety. I made it before nightfall. Daylight is bad enough. Death lurks everywhere. Nothing is easy. Everything you do takes you to the edge of exhaustion. Every second of your survival balances on a blade’s edge. But when the light fails and darkness takes the throne, you can only pray to your god, and run.
Dying Light is a first person, open-world, zombie survival RPG with a focus on parkour and, well survival. It’s not a “fun” horror game. It’s not an easy game. It’s a long, rock hard, gritty experience that’s more realist than fantasy. At the beginning of the game you are quite literally thrown into the middle of everything. As Kyle Crane, you are airdropped into the quarantined Harran by the G.R.E. and tasked with finding a file that contains information vital to stopping the outbreak. You must infiltrate key survivors within Harran’s warring factions and stop at nothing to gather their intel. The first hour of the game is easy enough. You’ll make some friends, find the traders, get some parkour training and learn a few controls. It takes a while for Dying Light to get going and a little longer to get the hang of the parkour mechanics. In games that require fluid movement, first person can be slow, awkward and disorientating. While I would absolutely prefer Dying Light to be third person, the game does not suffer any parkour problems that are down to the perspective. After some practice, traversing the city is quick and easy. It’s just a matter of experimenting with jumping distances and heights and learning what can scrabbled up in a panic and what can’t.
Harran is a huge city to trample around. You have almost unlimited freedom, but there is one little catch. No fast travel during the main story. Want to get to the opposite end of the city? Sorry, dude, you’ll be using those two long things attached to the bottom of your torso. This could potentially pose a bit of a problem should you get into undue mischief. That’s a long hike all the way back to base. On your map will be potential safe houses. Identify them, clear them of undead, turn the power on and secure the area. Now you have a hidey hole. Secure as many safe houses as you can, because when night falls, you’ll need them. More about that in a moment.
The daytime has its own challenges. First you have several zombie types, some of which only appear as the game progresses. There are the standard zombies you will see staggering about on every corner. They’re slow and won’t chase you beyond a half-hearted conga line. Jumping on top of a van or bus is generally enough to stay out of their reach. Don’t get cocky though, because those slow pokes can give you quite a nip. Next there are the hazmat zombies. Trying not to bash these annoying yellow sods unless you want their oxygen tanks to blow you into a million Kyle Crane-shaped pieces. You will also meet the screamers very early on. These guys are damn fast and they can climb. They run straight at you and dodge when you attempt to bludgeon them. Solitary ones can be dealt with as long as you have quick wits and a decent weapon, but getting cornered by several of these can be deadly. Brace yourself, also, for bloaters and spitters, and adding to your growing list of problems are thugs from the enemy faction. They’ll lob ouchie things at you and if you’re very unlucky, they’ll unload an automatic weapon in your face. Lots of enemies to contend with, most of which, due to strength, weaponry or sheer numbers, are way more powerful than you. You’re going to need some weapons.
Your core issue in Dying Light is how vastly underpowered you are. You’ll begin the game unable to take a great deal of damage. One nasty bite from a standard Walker and you’re in a heap of trouble, and that water pipe you’re wielding is cumbersome and ineffective. There’s no one bash and it’s all over. There’s no starting with a shiny rifle. You’ll get a table leg and you’ll be grateful for it. Every fight is frantic. Your timing is crucial. Your heart will race and you’ll smash that zombie over and over before it’s down. Because Dying Light is fond of making your zombie apocalypse as realistic as possible, you’ll get out of breath. You can only fight for so long before you run out of stamina and have to back up and back up and back up. Watch your half-beaten zombie slowly get to its feet while you wait for your stamina to regenerate. Just hope your weapon holds out. All weapons degrade and will need to be repaired. All weapons have a limited number of repairs before they are completely and permanently useless. Make sure you have some backups. As the game progresses you’ll find and be able to buy better weapons and modifications for them. Electrify your pipe or fit spikes into the end of your baseball bat. Weapons can be bought from vendors, but it’s worth weighing up the incredibly high cost of the better ones with instead buying a good stock of medical kits, grenades, molotovs, throwing stars and suchlike. Projectiles and medical kits are my favourite items in Dying Light. Many of these can be crafted if you’ve been rummaging for supplies. Scavenge wherever you go, because your spikey bat is total crap when five screamers and two exploding bloaters are stampeding towards you like a herd of rabid monkeys. You’ll be needing a molotov. Burn the bastards. Much better. Watch one set light to another and another. Fling grenades at the mean man with the automatic weapon because in real life running towards a rifle with a chair leg always ends in tears.
The main story is a long and challenging one and the side quests are just as tough. My advice, allow plenty of time. The side quests are extremely beneficial and good opportunities for extra scavenging, but they can take you away from the main story for quite some time. Go into this game knowing this is a long haul experience. Very much like Alien Isolation, this game is immersive to the extreme. You will feel the burn. You will feel the fear. More than once I completed a mission with shaking hands and a feeling that I’d truly achieved. This is a world where everything is against you. Survival is unlikely, so when you come out the other side of a mission with your life and a spare molotov, you’ll want to shout your achievement to the sky.
Now let’s talk about night. In the day you can scavenge for materials, carry out main and side missions and generally trot around carefully minding your own business. Night-time, however, is a total game changer. In addition to the regular zombies, you’ve got zombies from Hell. And when I say zombies from Hell, I mean the ones Lucifer himself deemed too naughty for his river of fire. These things are fast, powerful and if they catch you, you’re dead. Like many stealth games, if you get too close, you have a limited time before they fully detect you, and your radar map will help you discern where their gaze is currently falling. You’ll need to be nimble and sneaky to get around and past them. Some missions can only be completed at night, but generally, it’s a good idea to find a safe house and sleep through. Of course if your balls are made of platinum, go for it. The game is entirely playable at night and indeed rewards you with double XP for your stupidity. You’ll be given plenty of warning when sunset is beginning and another warning when darkness is immanent. If you value your sorry life, you’ll leg it to a safe spot quick as you can, and if you’re a long way from one, prepare yourself for a nervous breakdown.
This is where those potential safe houses come in handy, but securing them is no walk in the park. More like a run in a tiger paddock. There are usually tough enemies to get rid of and often a tall tower to climb in order to restore power. As wonderful as the climbing mechanics are, it’s still a tough and precarious climb, and your death if you fall will result in you starting the whole activity again. You’ll be back at the last check point minus the medkits and extra weapons you’ve used, and when you arrive back at the safe house … yeah, the zombies are back. Lather rinse repeat. Round 2. Securing safe houses is hard work but damn it’s satisfying and you’ll be weeping for joy when night catches you off-guard, all your traps fail and you just manage to hop a safe house fence with a crazy vicious zombie mere inches behind you.
Night time is not for chickens. Night time is for all you adrenaline junkies who’ll do anything for extra XP. Me? I’m a mother-clucking egg layer and you can stuff your extra XP. Night time is fast, furious and fun; and how wonderful that, generally, you can choose whether or not you want to subject yourself to it. You can’t avoid night completely, as such. It’s always looming, threatening to fall, but the fear that intimidation generates is a device that drives you and the game continually forward. Get a wriggle on, or you’ll find yourself on the bitey end of something dead.
Being profoundly underpowered is a huge part of the game, but as things progress, the XP you earn will allow you to somewhat improve matters. Passing certain XP thresholds earns you differing spendable skill points. These points allow you to choose a brand new skill or improve a current one. This is where the RPG elements really come in. You have a certain amount of freedom to choose how your character develops. Do you want to concentrate on fighting or running away? Do you want to craft more efficiently or be able to take more damage? Hard but awesome choices. Have fun with that and choose wisely. If you’re not into up-close combat situations and bearing in mind you can play for a week or more (real time) without finding a gun, then opt for upgrades that can help you escape or fight from a distance.
Although Dying Light is a tough game, a sometimes frustrating game and a game that will test the strength of your DualShock, it’s hugely exhilarating. You’re going to break a sweat and love it. This is no Resident Evil or Evil Within. There’s no linear pick up ammo, shoot zombie, move forward pattern. Everything is open, everything is a desperate struggle for survival. Personally, I think this is great training for a real zombie apocalypse. I know I’ll last longer than my co-worker with the Candy Crush addiction.
Dying Light is one of the PS4’s first surprises of the year. What a great way to kick off 2015. Stunning graphics, almost flawless mechanics and gameplay that’s tougher than your grandmother’s overcooked liver. Allow lots of time to play, because this game is all about total immersion into a grim and brutal world. Dying Light is going to kick your arse first and then take a bite out of it.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10