Dead Island. Now that we’ve gotten the inevitable comparison out of the way, we can talk about Techland’s latest open-world zombie game, Dying Light. The comparisons are inevitable, but this is really its own game. It feels more polished than its spiritual predecessors in a lot of ways, but the focus appears to have shifted as well. Techland’s earlier zombie games play and feel like melee-driven, loot-focused RPGs. Dying Light has its own sense of character progression, but play is built much more around evasion and traversal. A few zombies in this world – particularly their nighttime variants – can be a serious threat and should not be taken for granted.
Run like hell. Techland isn’t saying much yet about the bigger story driving the events of Dying Light, but you’ll play as a post-apocalypse courier. For fans of The Walking Dead comics, there’s an easy comparison: you’re Glenn. While everyone keeps things steady and safe at protected encampments, you’re off exploring the ruins of human civilization as you search for supplies and other survivors. You’re handy enough with various melee weapons and firearms, but your continued survival is really more a product of your nimble grace and cleverness. Zombies are slow and stupid (usually), and you are not.
Search and rescue and go boom. Techland’s E3 2013 demo features a slice of story in which your runner is tasked with locating a lost and presumed dead team that was sent out on a mission to blow up a ruined building that serves as a zombie haven. Your task is twofold: find the missing team and recover the explosives, then use said explosives to complete the unfinished mission. Completing this task involves exploration in the demo’s open, multi-path space while avoiding and, when necessary, snuffing out the undead.
Finding your own story. As you might expect from an open world, the primary mission path isn’t something you’re required to stick to. Time is always a factor in Dying Light, with nighttime bringing the danger of evolved, and considerably more dangerous (ie running/climbing) zombies, but there are rewards for exploring. Scavenging is always an option of course, as is rescuing survivors from the occasional horde, but optional missions such as Supply Drops bring added twists. A checkpoint marker occasionally appears after a plane flies overhead, signalling that a supply drop recently landed nearby. It’s then up to you to get there as quickly as you can; the longer it takes, the less gear you’ll find and the more likely you are to encounter unfriendly humans that got there first and intend to keep the good stuff.
Parkour play. Your zombie world courier has a knack for navigating environments quickly and easily. The RB button (on an Xbox 360 controller) is your all-purpose jump/slide/ledge grab/get around stuff command in the game. You can climb and clamber onto pretty much anything that is a head taller than you or less, or scale poles, or transition from flying leap to death-defying ledge grab. The animations play out smoothly and quickly even with the game in its currently unfinished state. It was clear enough even after our brief demo that the world of Dying Light will be a fun place to explore, especially with multiple paths to any given objective.
Zombie beatdown. Combat is standard-issue first-person fare, for the most part. You can use an assortment of melee weapons, each of which brings along different properties based on its size and weight. You’re able to charge up attacks for higher damage output, at the expense of a significant chunk of your stamina bar, which regenerates quickly once you stop attacking. Certain weapons also offer unlockable special attacks. The sledgehammer, for instance, allows for a jumping ground pound attack that deals out more shockwave damage based on the height that you drop down from. You’ve also got a shove attack that doubles as a throw – useful for launching deadheads off the sides of buildings – when you time your button press right.
The zombies themselves are mostly slow (during the day, that is) and they can’t climb, but they tend to appear out of nowhere and converge on you from all sides. It’s important to always keep moving in Dying Light, even when you’re in the thick of combat. Your courier is capable of absorbing a decent amount of damage, but it piles up very quickly if you allow yourself to be surrounded. Firearms help with crowd control, but they carry their own dangers. Gunshots and other loud noises come with the risk of drawing the attention of runners; these zombies not only move quickly, they can climb as well. There are other special zombies as well – such as one hulking, car hurling brute that we spotted briefly – along with unfriendly human survivors. This world is not a safe one.
Nighttime nightmares. The clock always ticks forward in Dying Light, and nighttime is a bad time to be caught outside. If it’s always important to keep moving during the day, it’s always important to keep running at night. The undead evolve into their more deadly forms at night, and special zombies – particularly runners – appear in greater abundance. For the purposes of our E3 demo, time skipped forward to sunset immediately after we found the explosives. The mission was completed at this later point in the game, and the only goal now was to get back to the safe house. Easy enough, if not for the fading light of day.
Dying Light doesn’t functionally change at night. You can still technically explore and wander through the open world as you wish. The problem is, there’s significantly more out there that can do you grave harm. This portion of the demo focused on highlighting rapid traversal as we leapt and climbed through a bombed out trainyard littered with zombies. You can always hear them chasing you, and there’s even a button for peering over your shoulder (during which time slows down briefly). This sequence highlights just how smooth Dying Light‘s parkour mechanics are. The zombies give good chase, but our courier’s rapid pace and exceptional ability to clamber ultimately won out. After scaling a final fence, we dropped into a spotlit courtyard and the demo ended.
Pretty post-apocalypse. Our Xbox 360 demo showed off a sharp-looking world, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Techland has a knack for building complex, highly detailed environments, and the lessons of Dead Island carry over for the better into Dying Light. The lush tropical environment of the earlier games is replaced now by a series of familiar urban spaces. The aforementioned trainyard lies directly beneath an elevated highway, with towering skyscrapers cutting through the sky in the distance. Dying Light is also headed to both next-gen consoles as well as PC, so expect an even crisper presentation on those platforms. As it stands on Xbox 360, the game offers some solid visuals that feel very much like Techland’s earlier open world games. No surprises.
Derivative doesn’t automatically equate to boring or uninteresting. Techland may be on familiar ground with Dying Light, but there seem to be some fresh ideas here that, coupled with the seemingly tight execution of a potentially tricky control scheme, should ultimately work in the game’s favor. Our hands-on slice at E3 2013 amounted to a very guided look at a game that is meant to excel most at offering a range of choices, but it was a promising first look all the same. We look forward to seeing more.