Dead or dying?
You may recognise the name Techland. It’s the studio behind Ubisoft’s Call of Juarez series, and more recently it’s generally associated with Deep Silver’s divisive hit Dead Island, and therefore known by many for – perhaps – not delivering the finest products to market. So, it was with a rather heavy dose of skepticism that I sat down to play through a preview section of their newest release Dying Light at this year’s Gamescom.
While on paper it doesn’t sound all that different – it’s a first-person zombie survival game where you can hack the zombies to pieces in open-world level design – there’s something about Dying Light that just completely outshines its spiritual predecessor. Perhaps it’s the dark tone that underpins the world and mission structure; it could be the brand new Chrome Engine 6 creating dazzling visuals; but it’s probably that Techland has actually taken time to craft environments and gameplay that are genuinely as enjoyable as they are terrifying.
While the sun does shine over the South American-styled urban slum city that this Dying Light mission takes place in, this is no tropical paradiso. No, instead this is a warm, humid hell. And, when the sun goes down and the sky darkens, that’s really when the horror element of Techland’s achievement really comes into its own beast.
My time with Dying Light started with us needing to activate a bomb system so to create a signal for others in the area. Luckily, most of this had been done for us already and my co-op partner and I just needed to activate one last cooker before heading off to pick up the detonator from our fellow survivor Michael. Unfortunately, once we found Michael after battling through zombie-infested corridors, he was dead. But shit happens in this world, so it was time to get the hell out of there and blow those cookers sky high.
While the story may have been rather simple, just point-to-point play, the experience of getting there was a riot. Just like in Dead Island combat is mostly melee based – although guns do exist and pack a punch. You’ll also be able to craft items with items picked up as you explore the world, dealing out more damage than normal weapons. One such example of this is a flame hatchet that set zombies on fire when you hacked away at them.
And, while combat is all well and good, the actual fun of co-op play really came in the optional competitive objectives. One of these objectives saw us fighting to clear a room by seeing how many zombies we could each kill. Later in the demo it was a competition to see who could escape the building through the sewers the fastest, making use of leaping over objects, sliding under them and swimming through water – all while avoiding the zombies who littered the way. It’s a great way to ensure that even when the story is lulling, co-op play can keep things interesting with these side distractions.
Once out of the sewers, and thus the tower block, it’s clear to see just how vast Dying Light‘s world really is. It’s huge, and you can traverse the environment in absolutely any way you please. While that definitely sounds like a gimmick that isn’t quite what you hope it is, it’s the actual truth here. Multiple times I just cut a route straight through to the next objective by wall jumping and grabbing ledges, climbing over fences, using cars as a springboard to a higher ledge. It’s not quite Assassin’s Creed in first-person, but it’s a system that feels as fluid as Brink‘s did, but with more nuance and grace.
It was also during this section that we encountered the scariest part of the demonstration, genuine fear came over me, and it was all because of a PvP encounter that can occur in the world at night. Joining us in our demonstration was one Techland employee who took on the role of a screeching undead monster hell-bent on taking my survival partner and me out for good. Our only defence against this grotesque beast was to shine UV light from our torches onto it, weakening it enough for a clip of bullets to take it down for a short while. In these lulls of about 30 seconds it’s key that we found and destroyed zombie hives randomly deployed around the map. It was only then that the PvP section would be over.
It may not sound all that frantic and frightening, but throw in the dark skies, the absolutely pitch-black map (requiring much use of your torch for navigation), and some absolutely terryfying audio, and you’ve got one unforgettable experience. If there’s one thing that Techland has done here, it’s prove that they really know how to create a zombie horror game that packs a punch.