Upon starting Dying Light the player is bombarded with nothing short of a myriad of best-seller elements. A realistic war like situation with a pinch of topical middle east conflicts bring to mind Call of Duty, while the free-roam aspect and taking back the city reminds me all too much of inFamous. Then there’s the first person parkour that is reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge. Finally, throw in the ever popular zombie story that has pretty much seeped into every aspect of our society, and you’ve got Dying Light, more or less.
The elements borrowed and used are all too obvious from the start, and while by no means a crime it could have helped to have a more concrete identity of its own instead of just borrowing from others. Yet, this hodgepodge of ideas, while a bit uneven, is still able to deliver something unique.
What holds Dying Light together and makes it more than the sum of its parts is the sandbox nature of the game. Allowing the player complete freedom to explore a gigantic city that can’t be traversed in a single day creates a sense of freedom, and a pace that is completely different from any previous horror game I’ve ever really played before. At first, I was worried that this aspect would just suffocate any horror Dying Light would have to offer, since free roam exploration seems far more suited to action than frights, but it actually turns out to be the opposite. Usually, horror games are known for small spaces, tight corridors, dark paths, and low visibility, but Dying Light actually throws that all away, and creates something completely new, be it intentional or not on the developers part.
The game mostly does away with limiting movement, and gives the player complete spatial freedom, but at the same time finds ways to trap you—to prevent you from becoming too empowered. This is done through the excellent use of the game’s enemies. The zombies of Dying Light act a bit differently than your typical horror game enemy, and instead of trying to outright attack you, most zombies will take a more passive stance. This helps out initially in the game since there has to be hundreds of thousands of zombies inhabiting the city—all of which flood the streets and any open space.
The stakes start out simple enough upon starting the game—just avoid detection from the zombies who are mostly harmless as long as you keep your relative distance and remain silent enough since these zombies are attracted to loud noises. The sound aspect of the game also helps to keep the player in check and makes you think twice about just busting any ol’ zombie’s head in, since when attacked, the zombies let out screams. The wailing of the zombie you’re fighting will bring in hordes of other nearby zombies, so it is wise to think before you act, because any one-on-one fight can soon become a one-on-ten fight before you know it.
The stakes get raised when the aggressive zombies make their appearance. Every so often, hidden in the crowds of the passive zombies are aggressive ones. These aggressors are a whole different breed of enemy that will chase you down and attack. Unlike the majority of the zombies in the game the aggressors can climb all the obstacles and parkour just like you, and are quite fast to boot. There is nowhere to really run when approached by one, and it becomes a situation where you actually do have to fight to survive. The shock of encountering your first aggressive zombie is something rare in games lately, since you mostly do feel safe even with the hordes of zombies roaming the streets. You can play smart, and avoid detection, and just when you think you’re golden and going to make it back to the base without any problem, suddenly you’ll find a charging enemy coming out the crowd right for you.
The most dangerous the game gets, though, is at night when the zombies start to show their true nature. The zombies, no longer inhibited by the bright light of the sun all become more violent and aggressive. This is similar to the rare few mentioned above, but in this case, in much higher numbers, with greater strength, speed, and climbing abilities. Fighting these stronger zombies at night is not easy, and to get thorough the night you just may need to employ your best hiding and dodging skills. Since Dying Light uses an in-game day-and-night cycle balancing out your encounters with the different kinds of zombies becomes important, so it makes players mapping out their explorations really think. “Do I want to keep going if it means being out at night, or do I want to stay at the base camp until morning?” These are the decisions that can keep you alive or kill you. You can really feel the pressure at night trying to stay alive, and can get quite a rush as you try your darnedest in lieu of the overwhelmingly strong enemies.
While the clever use of enemies helps keep Dying Light unique compared to most other horror games there is still one aspect that I feel I really need to make a stern warning about. Horror fans will feel either right at home with or wince about this as it can make or break the game for you depending on what “kind” of horror you like. That is to say, Dying Light, for as clever as it is, also equally scrapes the bottom of the barrel with horror tropes, and comes off as dirty, gritty, and downright grotesque. This is not a game for the faint of heart, and especially not for the weak of stomach. The violence is very over-the-top, but not in a fun way; instead, it walks this very fine line of staying realistic enough, ultimately just resulting in a whole lot of gross horror.
The city is far from sanitary either, and everything is dull and gray. The beautiful natural environments that can be seen in the game are constantly at war with the putrid blood-stained, pee-ridden mattress you have to sleep on, and all the other gross aspects of the houses you find yourself in. The game just feels uncomfortable, and disgusting. Even the zombies can be a bit much at times. As I mentioned above, they scream when hurt, which is a great element for gameplay, but is also incredibly disturbing. The screams are full of pain and anguish, and they end up sounding like animals being strangled to death as they desperately beg for life and gasp for air. Beyond even that, the zombies are even shown to be semi-intelligent. Some of them can even speak. This isn’t just a story element either—the everyday enemies that you fight and kill will occasionally start talking as if they were still human beings. It’s unsettling to say the least.
Dying Light largely follows most of the beats of the big blockbuster modern action games, and yet the horror elements are not made any worse for it; instead, they are arguably improved because of it. While it most likely won’t be remembered as a genre changer in the future, and uses employs all that is grotesque excessively, it should still be applauded for how well it blends horror and action together. With a bit more of polish and its own unique identity, Dying Light could have been something truly memorable. That said, even as it stands now, it is still greater than the sum of its parts, and offers players a different take on the horror experience, while still maintaining a highly thrilling and unsettling atmosphere.
Food for thought:
1. There is a multiplayer mode call BE THE ZOMBIE that— well, do I really need to explain? It’s nothing new, but for what it’s worth, it’s still fun to be able to play as the Zombies and try to kill people, especially with the Spider-Man like swinging you can do.
2. The whole noise aspect of the zombies reminds me a lot of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Actually, the whole game surprisingly meshes really well with the universe, right down to how a single zombie is pretty much no problem for the cast, but trying to avoid a horde is where the terror really comes from.