Techland. That word. From Dead Island to Call of Juarez: The Cartel, Techland hasn’t been a particularly glowing stamp of approval. Like copycat movies that follow the bona fide blockbusters, Techland seems to take the best games around, tinker with them behind the scenes and release mindless yet fun B-list titles. They are immediate, unpretentious but lack the finesse of the top-tier franchises they strive to be. So, it was with a degree of trepidation that Dying Light booted up - another zombie game (that trend already past its sell-by date), another post-apocalyptic town, another letdown?
Set in Harran, a near deserted Middle-Eastern city harbouring pockets of survivors, everything initially appears very Dead Island, albeit without the Island. Zombies crowd the meandering streets, lurching with braindead instinct at your undercover agent, tasked with retrieving a folder that could put an end to the outbreak. You soon meet a band of survivors occupying a tower block and it’s here that the game becomes just that little bit more intriguing than the Dead Island franchise. Perhaps the greatest difference lies in the parkour your character uses to negotiate the rooftops of the city. Running is often the best course of action to escape the clutches of the zombie horde, although there’s no denying the visceral crunch of metal on bone isn’t appealing to some dark part of the human psyche.
The fact that the parkour movement works about as well as it could (at least, better than Mirror’s Edge thanks to greater leniency for error) already stands Dying Light a step above Techland’s sister series. It’s helpful that it works given that most of the main quests task you with little more than finding and retrieving an item. However, one other crucial thing matters too and it’s all in the name. Harran has a full day and night cycle. While zombies are relatively docile during the day (and easily bypassed across rooftops), a breed of faster, stronger and far more dangerous zombie appears at night. If the day sees the city beset by Romero’s mall-lingering shufflers, the night is pure 28 Hours Later.
You’re also substantially underpowered to begin with so any nighttime excursions need more than balls - it takes brains too. Using the minimap and its field-of-vision cones becomes essential, as does a rough idea of where to run when the flesh hits the fan. So perilous is the night that any XP earned is automatically increased - a merciful reward given how pitch black and genuinely terrifying after dark can be. The sheer tonal shift between day and night is as clear as… well… exactly that.
The tone isn’t as successful when it comes to the characters and surrounding plotline. Dying Light has the usual group of cliches, most relegated to a plaintive cry in a thick accent, or a barked order in another. The game itself feels almost like a mix of Fallout and Far Cry, only with some of the bad traits of both thrown in amongst the worthier ideas. Side quests are plentiful and are regularly more entertaining than the main missions, able as they are to break free into moral quandaries and broader characterisations.
It’ll take you ages to get a gun and before then it’s a juggle of melee weapons, each feeling hefty and dangerous (at least until they break). Scavenging is vital - for repair parts, items to craft into something more useful or simply another energy bar to stave off death a moment longer. Every action you make adds to an XP counter, unlocking new abilities with each level passed. It is these that turn the early hours of Dying Light into a more carefree slaughter-spree later on, the threat of imminent death diminished thanks to a greater repository of skills. Visible damage to zombies is a nice touch - each blow has the potential to break the rotten skin. Aim for the legs and zombies will crumple; deliver a whack to the head and there’s more chance they’ll stay down for good. Weapons can also be augmented with elemental effects, giving players that touch of customisation to mix things up once that chunk of breezeblock has lost its charm. Lockpicking, dropkicking, ducking and diving, Dying Light can feel like a melange of ideas that never quite comes together but has entertainment in bite size pieces.
Nevertheless, it’s easily Techland’s best looking game to date - unsurprising given it’s debut on current generation platforms. The importance of the sunset (and the foreboding horror it signals) is made all the more evident when the magic hour hits, basking the city in a beautiful orange glow. Even the draw distance - great as it is - has merit above a technical achievement. Looking across the rooftops is vital to work out routes or simply to get a lay of the land. With Far Cry-esque towers to climb, these opportunities are frequent if unoriginal but they do show Techland are rightfully proud in the city they’ve built.
Co-op is perhaps the icing on the cake, again changing the tone. No longer are you alone - instead up to three friends are able to construct their own stories amidst the wreckage. It’s not to say things don’t get tense, but the gore becomes comedic instead of merely visceral, the ragdoll physics making Harran more of a playground than ever. What can be intimidating in single-player takes on a slapstick ridiculousness, dispelling the po-faced writing that never rises above dour.
Story missions can be attempted too, offering motivation should messing about grow old. But really, it doesn’t, as if this is a Left 4 Dead level writ large, the credits a long way off. As a sandbox to explore, it does the job nicely. Console and PC players alike will have no trouble returning, be it to pass the time or play the story straight through. It also makes things slightly more bearable in the early stages - there’s less of the dying and more co-operation; a rescue net should you be underpowered or overwhelmed.
Yet, despite the achievements Techland have made Dying Light never really moves into the top tier it seeks to occupy. An unengaging story and forgettable characters do not live long in the memory and there’s the distinct feeling that you’ve seen a lot of what’s on offer before. That’s because you have - Dying Light is a Frankenstein’s monster, stitching together parts of other games into something new-ish. And occasionally, the stitches pull apart, revealing it’s not quite as fresh as first hoped. However, Techland used to elicit a groan, an expectation of being underwhelmed. The game more than redeems their reputation and is a great step in the right direction. There are new ideas that emerge from the old and it is this attitude could spell greatness for the studio. Like your character, all they need to do is keep moving forward.