Dying Light is familiar in many ways, and not just because it was once a Dead Island sequel. There’s an apocalyptic setting, an open world, weapon crafting, and the usual zombie archetypes. However, in the days of triple-A iteration rather than revolution, the introduction of Mirror's Edge parkour to the arthritic zombie survival genre is enough to get our interest.
The slice I play takes place during the day in a South American favela overlooking a harbour – think slum shacks with tin roofs, concrete stairs, and plenty of steel bars. As the new guy joining a group in a safe house, the player character has drawn the short straw, and has been sent out to secure another safe house lost overnight. The kicker is that I must do it within seven minutes, because that’s how long game demos run for at expos.
At my disposal are a baseball bat infused with screws, an electrified axe, a flaming knife, a pistol with 60 rounds, 20 throwing knives, three explosives, and my fists, but other weapons are scattered about, including a flamethrower that comes complete with a bayonet.
Using these implements I swing lustily at the shuffling hordes. Limbs and chunks of flesh fly, but most ‘Virals’ aren’t stopped by anything short of three solid blows or a neat decapitation. Some bloated ones puke gas grenades in my direction, others explode when killed, and the occasional motivated mutant chases us hard until I lose him by crouching behind a crumbling waist-high wall. That guy and a couple of his crossfit cadaver mates eventually spot me and resume the chase, but I dispatch them using traps sprinkled liberally about, triggered by pressing a button when in proximity. The mini-map shows the location of these improvised death machines, which range from the staple ‘car alarm followed by car explosion’ trap to electrified and spiked gates.
Melee is edifying here in a way it usually isn’t from a first-person perspective. Distance is easy to judge, and there is even a cool slo-mo effect when you time a charging zombie particularly well, a Mortal Kombat-style x-ray shows his or her bones fracturing in gruesome fashion.
Despite the zombies being weaker in the light and the player possessing the ability to kick the back, death comes fairly easily to anyone cornered by the mob, and that makes every second spent on the ground anxious.
That’s the idea of course, because there are many climbable objects in the game, and skilled players will find they can fluidly leap from rooftop to balcony to wall, dodging or hacking up the undead without pausing to admire the entrails and blood splatter.
The parkour works better than expected, and paired with realistic falling damage is high stakes enough on its own, let alone when pursued by packs of angry meatbags. A drop of one storey is generally okay, but for anything higher you need something crumply like a car to break your fall, or it’s broken legs and into a zombie’s visible intestines you go. Med packs can only do so much. Of course, sprinting about the place and swinging things at zombies are tiring activities, and this is reflected in Dying Light’s stamina meter. The lower this is, the less damage you deal and the slower you run. Bottom out and not even the prospect of becoming food for rotting corpses will motivate you to run.
There are other RPG-style systems in play too: experience points and Agility Points are gained when zombies are killed and parkour actions are completed. There’s also a power gauge that rises the more zombies you kill, and the dead can be looted for scrap metal and money. What all these things feed into is unknown, but it’s likely the customary passive abilities and upgrades will feature.
I never managed to secure the safehouse thanks to a final hammer-wielding brute, who casually absorbed dozens of rounds and bat power shots before knocking me down, lumbering over, and finishing the job.
I did rescue a couple of military guys though, and there are several side missions available and easily locatable on the mini-map at any one time.
Despite the fun I had in seven-minute increments with Dying Light, I do have one reservation. While the game looks great thanks to some great artists and the power of Chrome Engine 6, there were large frame rate drops when I turned quickly – an issue that also plagued Dead Island. That makes me wonder if Techland has packed too many visual effects in for a game as ambitious as this, especially given that it will also feature a four-player co-op mode.
Even so, Dying Light is already a more polished and enjoyable experience than Dead Island ever was, and there’s time for these things to be tightened up at least. Between this and three Dead Island titles coming in the next few months, zombie killers are going to be spoilt for choice.
Dying Light is coming to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC on January 28.