The survival horror genre has been deteriorating over the past decade as beloved franchises like Resident Evil fail to recreate the eerie, tense setting which made for a compelling and frightening experience. Techland’s Dead Island trailer was an intelligent masterpiece which appeared to adopt a more emotional tone and resonated with people in a profound way. Unfortunately, the final product was a generic, uninspired zombie game which relied on the co-op integration instead of memorable characters. Undeterred by this, Techland’s new IP revolves around a similar formula but adds one significant element, parkour. Dying Light is touted as a concoction of Mirror’s Edge, Assassin’s Creed and Dead Island which combines in a seamless and beautiful way.
In Dying Light, you play as Kyle Crane, an operative employed by a humanitarian organization called the Global Relief Fund. Crane arrives in Harran, a remote and desolate place which has succuumed to a dastardly zombie outbreak. Initially, your task is to retrieve a stolen, classified document and aid in the slaughter of the entire city to protect against a worldwide disaster. As time progresses, you begin to question the GRE’s motives and become more sympathetic towards the plight of the remaining survivors sporadically littered throughout Haran. This internal struggle and your selfless desire to help others in a perilous state adds to the story and makes Crane a complex but immensely likable protagonist.
Zombies are not the only menace in Harran since there are rival factions who go by the name of Runners and Bandits, all vying for superiority and fighting to acquire antizen, a drug which nullifies the virus’ effect for a brief period. This medication is in short supply and there isn’t enough to go round which heightens the tension and creates a great deal of animosity between the two groups. Kadir “Rais” Suleiman is the psychotic leader of the Bandits and takes great pleasure in the misery of others. This unscrupulous figure controls Haran’s supply of antizin and behaves in a despicable way, mocking you at every attempt to help the remaining survivors. Rais is a fantastic character due to his charismatic attitude and he genuinely evokes a sense of hatred by the story’s climax.
Even though the plot can be predictable and overly clichéd, it is still a joyous ride filled with interesting quests, believable character interactions and an emotionally charging story. The game doesn’t bombard you with NPCs who make a brief appearance and this enhances the overall degree of clarity. Most surprisingly, the voice acting is superb and Crane’s dialogue sections are always a pleasure to listen to. This is very unusual for a zombie game as similar titles employ a B-movie style of storytelling which has become rather laborious over recent years. Rais is also beautifully acted which allows his uncontrollable bouts of insanity come to the forefront. Dying Light doesn’t rely on the co-op to make the game fun since its story is a wonderful tale even in single player mode.
The main missions have an excellent level of variety and integrate extremely well with the plot. For example, there are objectives which require you to explore the sewers to reach Rais in a covert manner. In contrast to this, other tasks revolve around ascending huge towers and flicking electrical switches to allow for wider communications. One significant improvement from the Dead Island series is the distinct lack of fetch quests. These are generally relegated to the optional sidequests which give some background information on survivors in Haran. In addition to the standard missions, you can attempt to recover safehouses by eliminating the ravaging zombie horde. Other gameplay aspects include finding relief packages and helping survivors who are outnumbered and about to become bitten. The gameplay stays fairly fresh but I found the sidequests and non-story objectives to be rather mundane.
Dying Light’s most intriguing feature is the parkour movement system allowing you to jump onto beams, rooftops and other climbable objects. This mechanic works beautifully for the most part and feels quite fluid when you build up a level of momentum. However, it’s not perfect as sometimes the detection point is only when you look at an object in a specific position. As a result, it can be frustrating when you spend 2 minutes climbing a section and fall to your death on the final stage due to the uncompromising hit point. Nevertheless, these moments are fairly rare and the system has been executed in a logical and fair way.
Free running is heavily relied on to progress since the ground level has scores of zombies littered around every corner. You must remain in a high position to avoid detection and the mass number of ground enemies means you will die very quickly. Not only that, your health depletes much faster than the zombies meaning the game adopts more a stealthier tone. This is especially in the case early on because your skills and weaponry is very primitive.
There is a wide assortment of zombie types including Biters, Toads, Bombers and more which rely on different tactical approaches to defeat. The Biters are typical zombies and usually annihilated with a few sharp blows to the head. Toads, on the other hand, are a menace and spew toxic acid causing significant damage and obscuring your vision. It is imperative to challenge these foes from behind instead of tackling them head-on. Bombers are possibly the most dangerous of all enemy types and contain a volatile, protruding stomach which explodes and causes mass carnage around the surrounding area. The best course of action when encountering these foes is to either run away and keep a safe distance or lure them into an area with lots of zombies.
The fighting system is quite reminiscent of Dead Island but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every strike you perform will reduce the stamina meter and this tests your abilities in combat instead of rewarding mindless keyboard mashing. There are over 100 usable weapons hidden in crates and other locales from heavy spades to kitchen knives. You have to be patient though as a lot of these items are in locked boxes and require lockpicking skills to open. It’s a fairly simple process which involves finding the correct angle for the lockpick and pressing F to open.
I wasn’t too fond of its implementation since even the most difficult boxes are a breeze to open providing you have a steady hand. The inventory gives a clear indication of a weapon’s damage rating and this helps you to organize through the loot and drop the least desirable items. Scavenging for weapons, medkits and supplies is vital if you want to stay alive and prevent disaster from occurring in Haram. For instance, every weapon degrades very quickly and you must use metal parts, plastic or other objects to perform repairs.
The core fighting experience is brilliant as the combat feels weighty and demonstrates a massive difference between light and strong attacks. Wielding a humungous axe might cause large scale devastation but it is also very clumsy and difficult to pinpoint the precise timing. Light blades are useful to slash the enemies into bits and bombard them before being jumped upon. Combining both styles is important and it takes some time before adjusting to the various characteristics of every weapon. Techland should be commended for the level of brutality and excellent zombie animations.
There are 3 skill trees based on agility, survivor instinct and combat prowess. I was initially concerned as this appeared like a way of improving the impact of each strike and making Crane vastly overpowered. Thankfully, this isn’t the case as the enemy difficulty scales with your upgrade path. This is mainly because the latter stages of the game are based on larger numbers of zombies with a more aggressive stance. The upgrades themselves aren’t anything spectacular and add new tricks like a foot stop finishing move to destroy zombies trailing along the ground. While these upgrades seem adequate, I believe there could have more inventive moves to keep the combat varied.
Dying Light employs a day/night cycle which drastically alters the ambience when scouring across buildings to reach your destination. In the daytime, Dying Light is moderately scary but providing you stay on higher ground, there is never a sense of vulnerability. However, at nighttime, the experience is adrenalin fueled rush as the zombies become ravaged with bloodlust and chase you in a dramatic fashion. When you factor in the darkness and thumping music, this really does get your heart racing. Techland was aware of this because you get double experience points during the night for evading zombies. These escapades during the dark are terrifying and invigorates the senses.
In a similar vein to most zombie games, Dying Light has a fully-fledged 4 player co-op mode and asynchronous multiplayer. Consumers who pre-ordered the game can turn the tables and be a zombie in another player’s game. It’s an intriguing idea and adds some replayability so it’s a shame that this has be locked down to a small proportion of buyers.
While the gameplay and story is impeccable, Dying Light’s PC port makes Dead Island look like an optimized, polished release. I attempted the play the game at 2560×1440 using an i7 4770K, 16GB 2133MHZ RAM and GTX 970 4GB SLI but encountered horrendous framedrops, hitching and microstutter. With my rig, I should be able to utilize maximum settings at 1440p whilst attaining around 60-120fps for most titles. However, the framerate jumped from 140fps to 30fps, then up to 50fps which resulted in a jarring and unpleasant experience. Even when the quoted fps is high, it is spoilt by microstutter and creates the impression you are playing at ⅓ of the framerate.
Recent events have shown that the GTX 970 is having issues in SLI due to actual memory being separated into a fast 3.5GB pool and another slow 0.5GB section. I gave Techland the benefit of the doubt and did further investigations to see if this was a card issue. After testing graphically demanding games like Metro 2033, and Crysis 3, I came to the conclusion that the game is at fault and it has nothing to do with VRAM limitations. I’ve spoken to users with GTX 980 SLI setups and they have encountered the same problems with 4GB VRAM.
The most shocking aspect is the 2-3 second hitching when zombies jump onto you and drastically reduces the framerate from 120fps to 3, yes I said 3! At times, this is frankly unbelievable and I tried to turn down all sorts of option to no avail. On launch, the game only properly utilized 1 CPU core and virtually ignored other threads. It boggles my mind that in 2015, with X86, 8-core consoles, there are still releases without multithreaded support. At 1440P, the game is just unplayable but things do improve when you scale it back to 1080p. While there is microstutter, the framerate is more consistent and usable.
Bizarrely, despite being an Nvidia Gameworks title, Dying Light runs worse using SLI than it does via single card mode. This is simply unacceptable and I have no idea how Nvidia can partner with a game that ignores their higher end market on launch and runs so poorly. Although, I do expect the SLI performance to have significant gains over time with an updated profile. On another note, there are recent reports that Techland’s latest update will disable modding. Perhaps they should work on actually making the game perform correctly instead of anti-consumer DRM.
Dying Light’s options menu is satisfactory and contains variables including Texture Quality, Foliage Quality, Shadow Map Size, Ambient Occlusion and an FOV slider going up to 102 degrees (vertical). There are some glaring issues though like the complete lack of Anisotropic Filtering and AA can only be turned on/off without any details about the type of smoothing used. Another huge problem is the view distance meter which has a catastrophic effect on the framerate. In the 50-100% range, the game can perform 10fps worse despite looking identical. I would strongly recommend lowering the draw distance to increase your overall fps level.
It’s not all bad though, as there are rebindable keys, support for 16:10 resolutions, windowed mode and an uncapped framerate. Furthermore, I didn’t detect any mouse acceleration and the keyboard controls are wonderful. Obviously, you can use a controller but I would recommend a traditional keyboard and mouse setup for better accuracy. Graphically, the game is gorgeous and brimming with detail. This is even more spectacular when you reach the top floor of a building and see the huge scale of Harran.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Dying Light is undoubtedly the best zombie game I’ve played in the past few years due to its satisfying combat, engaging story and atmospheric setting. The parkour movement system adds a whole new dynamic as you feel the impending terror whilst avoiding scores of zombies along rooftops. Despite this, the PC version is a complete mess and for that reason alone, I cannot recommend Dying Light in its current state.
- Time Played – 28 Hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes
- Resolution Played – 2560×1440, 1920×1080
- Windowed Mode – Yes
- 5.1 Audio Support – Yes
- Bugs/Crashes Encountered – Terrible Optimization
- Control Scheme – Keyboard and Mouse, Xbox 360 Controller
- DRM – Steam
- System Specs – I7 4770K, 16GB RAM, Gigabyte G1 Gaming GTX 970 4GB SLI
- Save Game Location – %PROGRAMDATA%\Steam\\239140\
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Steam