The zombie apocalypse isn’t a bright or colourful affair. It's a dank, depressing time where humanity is exposed warts and all. In this respect, the first couple of Dead Island games were just too cheery. Techland’s latest zombie outing on the other hand, Dying Light, paints a bleaker picture with more of a Walking Dead tone, and it's all the better for it. In fact, this is the first time a Techland zombie title has really resonated, feeling like the developers have really taken what they’ve learned from their previous titles, improved their mechanics and taken the next step.
At the start of the game you’ll find yourself parachuting into the fictitious, and quarantined, city of Harran. You're tasked by the Global Relief Effort to make contact with one of their rogue agents who has a dossier that could kill thousands if the contents are realised. Right from the start you are plunged into a life or death struggle, where getting the right supplies and the drug that staves off infection can mean the difference between life and death. As GRE's lackey you quickly integrate yourself into a faction of free runners who live in The Tower, a high rise where they’re surviving from day to day.
On the whole, the story is nothing spectacular and whilst some of the missions are a little far fetched, you can imagine having to do many of the tasks you’re given to survive. The characters are believable and this just makes you all the more invested in their plight. The side missions are somewhat of a pleasant surprise as many of them have their own multi-thread narratives that really make the characters seem a part of the world and create the sense of a community that’s trying its best to survive. However, you can’t get away from the fact that many missions begin to elicit a strong sense of déjà vu.
The narrative though is just an excuse to get you exploring every nook and cranny of Harran, and luckily movement is an absolute joy in Dying Light. The parkour system takes a little getting used to, but before you know it you'll be vaulting walls, scaling roofs or scurrying up telephone poles. For the slow shuffling zombie horde, safety really does come from up on high and initially you'll want to avoid too much open combat as it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That's not to say it isn't satisfying when you do start cracking skulls. Combat feels weighty and whilst it can seem like you're flailing around, this does feel in keeping with the world and what you'd be like if you were trying to fend off five zombies at once with a hammer.
Zombies come in all shapes and sizes and it's refreshing how you can use them as weapons. For example, if you're up against a group of armed thugs but see a zombie nearby wearing a hazmat suit with accompanying oxygen canister, just hit the tank and the resulting explosion will draw in 'virals' who move like cheetahs and are adept at dodging attacks. You can then quietly slink away and let them take down the bandits.
As with the first two Dead Island games under Techland's watch, upgrading weapons, finding blueprints and crafting is a big part of the experience. It's still a little frustrating how weapons break after a period of time but you can mitigate that by careful scavenging and repairing them when they need it. It's not just your weapons that can be upgraded either; by traversing the city, taking down zombies and crafting items you'll upgrade your agility, toughness and survivor attributes which have their own skill trees, meaning you can tailor your character to how you like to play.
However, the real star of the show is the day/night mechanic. Once the sun goes down you don't want to be caught out in the open unprepared. New zombies called Volatiles appear and just one of them can tear you to bits. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse as you either try to live past dawn using clever evasion or making your way to one of the safe houses dotted across the map. If a Volatile does see you, an intense chase begins and the best you can hope for is to be quicker than them as you tear across the city or slow them down with UV light traps.
It's so tense when you've got a group of them almost upon you, but to make things even more interesting there's a DLC mode where other players can enter your game a la Dark Souls as a Volatile and work together to take you down. These player incursions aren't the only multiplayer action on offer as Dying Light features an awesome co-op mode, which encourages both cooperation and a little competitive spirit. One moment you'll be racing each other to the next objective and the next you'll be working together to take down one of the monstrously big zombie foes.
Dying Light manages to keep its errand-style missions fresh because its world is so rich; even when you’re doing something that feels familiar the inclusion of co-op helps rejuvenate the experience. It might not be perfect, but Techland should be proud that they’ve created something that’s ultimately fun to play and really gets your blood pumping. Now where’s that baseball bat, we’ve got heads to crack.