What Dying Light attempts to be is nothing less than a zombie-inflected version of Far Cry, combining proper, open-world zombie-dispatching with a complex, involving storyline. Miraculously, it succeeds in that aim – perhaps because developer Techland was able to rehearse its zombie-game techniques in 2011’s Dead Island. While Dying Light has echoes of Dead Island, most notably in its crafting system and emphasis on melee weapons rather than guns, it’s a very different beast overall: it never restricts your movement, and has ditched Dead Island’s whimsical vibe in favour of a level of realism and believability never previously seen in a zombie game.
The action takes place in Harran, a fictional North African city sealed up from the world after a zombifying virus swept through its inhabitants. As Kyle Crane, an operative for the Global Relief Effort (GRE), you’re parachuted in with a brief to recover sensitive information about the outbreak stolen by a GRE man gone rogue. You’re instantly bitten and infected – but at least the GRE has been air-dropping supplies of Antizin, which delays the effects of the virus, into the city. You fall in with a bunch of survivors led by Brecken, a former parkour instructor, who teaches you how to run, jump and climb over the city’s rooftops, adding a dash of Assassin’s Creed, although an unusual but clever control system makes you work a bit harder to achieve the full extent of the stunning agility on offer. The ability to hop from rooftop to rooftop is crucial since – as we all know – zombies can’t climb. You soon learn how to craft items like Molotov cocktails and firecrackers, which can be used to trigger environmental traps like oil-spills.
Dying Light’s storyline, pleasingly, offers a number of change-ups: the first of which occurs when you take on your initial night mission. In daytime, the zombies are relatively docile, although you do encounter variants which are built like tanks, spit bile at you, explode in a welter of guts (you can manipulate those zombies as if they were bombs) and temporarily stun you with ear-piercing shrieks. And then there are the mysterious shy ones covered in green boils which, at one point in the storyline, you must investigate. But after dark, the “Volatiles” come out, which are essentially super-zombies. Zombie purists won’t like the way they can zoom around and track you; as they also have a devastating attack, your best plan is to run away from them. Factor in the inability to see anything beyond your torch-beam and Harran at night becomes a hotbed of spine-chilling encounters. That’s before you’ve come face to face with a Night Hunter, which is a mega-boss-zombie that guards Volatile nests.
You can even play as a Night Hunter, courtesy of an “asymmetric” multiplayer mode called Be The Zombie, which pits you against four other people playing co-operatively as humans. That is pretty cool, although in practice, it’s definitely more fun to play as the Night Hunter than a human, unless you’ve got a particularly well-drilled bunch of mates. Dying Light also supports drop-in, drop-out co-operative play for up to four people, so you can draft your friends in when you get stuck.
Another story change-up occurs when you come across Rais, a warlord who has assembled a gang of thugs, who harass the motley and often amusingly eccentric local residents who survived the outbreak. Rais and his gang do have guns, but you soon find out that using them at street level will summon a horde of zombies. As Crane starts performing missions for Rais, and increasingly questions his orders from the GRE, a real sense of moral tension builds up. The main story takes plenty of twists and turns, as Crane tries to keep all factions happy while finding out more about the outbreak, and there are large amounts of commendably memorable side-missions and challenges to keep you occupied.
The levelling-up system is also great, with easily navigable skill trees, entitled Survivor, Agility and Power, bringing new moves and attacks plus improved attributes. On the downside, you occasionally encounter amateurishly animated minor characters, and picking up objects and opening doors can sometimes be annoyingly fiddly. Niggles like that, though, tend to afflict any game with the sort of ambition that Dying Light displays.
Such minor quibbles swiftly evaporate amid Dying Light’s myriad impressive aspects. It looks superb, and the level design – as it should be, given the fluid parkour engine – is exemplary. The way the human factions and the zombies play off against each other keeps the gameplay from ever feeling samey and, above all, the game congeals into a whole which is utterly believable. And that is a rare attribute indeed for a zombie game to possess. If you consider yourself a zombie aficionado, Dying Light is an essential purchase.