An E3 without a zombie game is like a reanimated corpse that does not constantly crave human flesh: not unheard of, but rare. 2013 was no exception, but one of the few new IPs concerning the pesky living dead was Techland’s Dying Light. Combining zombies with free running in an open-world environment is an ambitious goal and our first glimpse of the game was a hands-off presentation introducing the gameplay mechanics.
Before we begin, we better tackle the elephant in the room with Dying Light. It looks exactly like Dead Island with plenty of Mirror’s Edge thrown in for good measure. Comparisons with either Techland’s other zombie franchise or DICE’s parkour classic are unavoidable. If imitation can be considered the sincerest form of flattery, then both of the above would be blushing noticeably. Some sceptical commentators have even suggested that Techland have decided to create a new series in order to avoid the negative stigma associated with Dead Island with regards to its lack of polish and bugs. Whatever the case, a new generation and a new franchise is hardly a bad thing and Dying Light is far more ambitious than its spiritual predecessor.
Our E3 presentation was with the PC version of the game, running on a machine with next-generation specifications. Dying Light looked very impressive with incredibly detailed graphics and, appropriately, outstanding lighting effects. For a game not due out for a year there seemed to be a remarkable level of polish to the environments and character animations. Taking place in the fictional city of Harram, the game is more of an urban jungle than the tropics of Dead Island. The setting is packed with run-down buildings, slums and, most importantly for the free running, plenty of vertical space to utilise.
Dying Light opened with a cargo plane dropping off two crates of supplies into the quarantined city, a smoke signal attached to each. The male main character was not named, nor was his female companion who chatted to him via a radio link. However, both were British in a very obvious way, complete with regional accents and some local slang thrown in. Quite why they were in the sun-drenched surroundings of Harram was not explained but if it was part of a package holiday, hopefully they had insurance against zombie outbreaks.
The female voice instructed the man to get to the supply drop as they needed valuable medical resources urgently. Time would be of the essence as there would be others on their way, including references to some form of shadowy, well-equipped organisation. Instantly clear was the speed and mobility displayed by the main character who built momentum quickly, clambering over walls and obstacles with ease. As he sprinted through a series of open spaces, zombies began to emerge seemingly attracted by the sound he was making.
Deftly avoiding them, the protagonist climbed a wall and left them behind, dropping into a courtyard with a single reanimated corpse staring at him. Equipping a metal baseball bat, he brutally battered its skull, scoring a critical hit in the process. When the bone-crunching blow landed there was an x-ray flash to show the impact of the blunt force trauma on the zombie’s head. It was a satisfying touch and helped make the violence much more visceral without being overly elaborate.
As the main character got closer to the smoke billowing into the sky, he suddenly heard some screams and crying from a nearby building. The voice sounded like a small child and he began to search around for a way into the building, the door being barricaded shut. At this point, the female voice on the radio rather aggressively suggested he move on and concentrate on the supplies and not get distracted with lost causes. Choosing to ignore her far from caring advice, he ascended the building, demonstrating more of his parkour repertoire.
The character could shimmy up telephone poles, grab onto ledges and scramble up walls to get to the top of the building. Searching around for a means of entry, he found a hole in the roof and promptly jumped down. Quickly picking up an axe he had to use it immediately as a zombie grappled him from the shadows. Reacting quickly the main character plunged the weapon into its skull, before crushing its head with his feet as it lay on the floor. It was a fast, brutal encounter and helped to maintain the high-speed pacing that the game seemed to be building.
Searching the room for the source of the sobs, the protagonist found a small girl hiding in a cupboard. The female voice on the radio interrupted again, saying that the man had better get moving and that he could not do any more to help her. Despite the man’s protestations, the side mission seemed to end with the girl being left to her fate inside a wardrobe. At this stage, the developer’s mentioned that there would be similar randomly generated side quests across the city. We hope they have more satisfying conclusions than in this particular instance as there was no closure to the diversion or even the sensation that the mission had reached anything near an endpoint. While the quest flirted with ideas of morality, these were left as mere suggestions and not fleshed out further.
Before we had time to dwell too long on this side mission, the protagonist had to get running as the daylight hours were dwindling and he would not want to be out in the dark. Moving back outside, he dashed over some more rooftops before hitting a raised section of freeway. Scouting ahead, the protagonist saw a large horde of zombies and fighting would be impossible against such sizeable numbers. Choosing instead to dodge them and climb away, by no means an easy feat given their speed, he reached the first airdrop.
The crate had landed in the middle of a basketball court but was already surrounded by biohazard suited men armed with rifles. Approaching tentatively, several stepped forward and, rather impolitely, told him to leave as these were their supplies. When he hesitated they all brandished their firearms, forcing him to retreat and reassess the situation. Before long, the female voice told him to stop wasting time and get to the second drop. Setting off at a sprint again, he had time to slide under a garage door and whip up a quick weapon at a nearby bench.
In one of the most Dead Island elements of the presentation he chose to make an electric knife, proving realism is not a primary concern. It was so familiar that it could have been the exact same system. As he left the safety of the building, an ominous pounding could be heard up ahead. After a slight pause, a door burst open and a large, hulking zombie appeared and charged at the protagonist. Throwing the electric knife stunned it temporarily but only for a second or so. Here the developers commented that it was often a better strategy to flee and not every enemy had to be fought. Choosing to run away, the man dodged an attack by diving out of the way before climbing several walls and slaloming down narrow alleyways to give the beast the slip.
This chase section was a definite highlight, showing the momentum-based free running in action and the concept of fleeing rather than fighting was a welcome refreshment from first-person melee bashing. Reaching the top of a series of apartments, the main character spotted the flare in a small open space a short distance away. Pausing only to nudge an unaware zombie off the roof, he grabbed a hammer and jumped down. Clearing a few staggering zombies out of the way, he opened the chest revealing several packages of medicines. Cramming them into a pocket, his watch alarm sounded which could only mean one thing: darkness.
One of the main ideas Dying Light brings is that the zombies will become a much more dangerous threat after dark à la Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Dead Rising. Regular infected enemies gain enhanced senses, react faster and behave more aggressively. Alongside these undead a range of even worse monstrosities will emerge, dubbed predators which are incredibly tough and lethal. It will be far better to hide and run from these rather than try and engage them in combat, which is likely to end in tears (and blood: yours).
Panicking, the main character started to retrace his steps, quickly climbing high to avoid the now-swarming streets. The zombies seemed to be actively hunting now and there were times when he had to crouch and hide to avoid arousing suspicions. Starting to sprint when the moment was clear, he successfully made it to another safe alcove. At this stage the protagonist activated his “Pulse” ability which flicked the screen into black and white. At routine intervals sonic pulses were sent out, a little like sonar, displaying enemies through walls in a manner similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
This skill seemed essential in understanding when enemies were aware of you and in providing notice of any more dangerous threats in the area. Ominously, a darker shape began approaching that began to be highlighted in red. Sensing serious trouble, the character began to run, alerting the predator. A high-octane chase began with the hero desperately trying to outrun the creature. Climbing over a fence, he was suddenly grabbed as the creature smashed through the wood behind. Turning, we were able to see its jaws close around the screen before the demonstration came to an end.
Dying Light had us simultaneously excited and concerned. Much of it seems very familiar and the striking resemblances to Dead Island and Mirror’s Edge make it, at times, seem like an attempt to capture both experiences. Equally, the side quest and weapon degradation mechanics were not explored enough in detail for us to pass judgement, but hopefully will be more robust than what we saw in the presentation.
Conversely, the game also looked fantastic and the sense of pressure the zombies placed on the character was impressive. If there is a far greater emphasis on evasion then it could well provide a new gameplay experience. Similarly, the day-night switch looks to be a great idea and the concept of surviving until dawn is a horror-trope that has been seldom explored in this manner. Despite some of our scepticism, we came away from the presentation enthused and keen to see more of what Techland have to offer in what may well be their zombie-opus. Due for release for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC at some point next year, we are hoping to spend more time with the title soon.