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Fresh horrors meet parkour in zombie thriller 'Dying Light'

Nighttime in "Dying Light" brings fresh horrors that change how you have to approach the game.

By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 6, 2015

Some games end up better than their description on paper would make them appear. “Shadows of Mordor” is a prime example as it was one the best games of 2014, despite it being summed up as “Assassin’s Creed” with a Tolkien-inspired coat of paint.

Techland’s “Dying Light,” is much the same. This open-world, zombie, parkour thriller is an amalgamation of different, well-worn elements that initially look like its developers designed it by throwing darts at a board labeled “AAA game elements.” 

Fortunately, the list of ingredients that went into the “Dying Light” come together more like a hearty stew than a pot of undercooked gruel.

The main ingredient is the basic plot and setting that underpins “Dying Light.” You play as a government operative named Kyle Crane, who has been tasked to find a file hidden somewhere in the zombie-quarantined city of Harran.

As soon as his feet touch the ground, Crane is nearly killed (some special operative, huh?) before being rescued by a group of survivors who make up one of two major factions vying for control of the ravaged city. The faction’s leader is a parkour instructor, who teaches free running as a method for survival, and he passes that on to Crane.

Zombies infest Harran’s ground level, so to survive, Crane has to learn to clamber over rooftops, shimmy across ledges and leap from several stories up without dying.

This is where the game really shines. Ever since “Mirror’s Edge” gaming has had a fascination with parkour. Games like “Assassin’s Creed,” and “inFamous,” have aped the discipline, but have usually boiled a complex activity into “hold A and move the stick to climb.”

“Dying Light,” is much more akin to “Mirror’s Edge,” in that you will feel like your input actually matters to what is happening on screen. If you want to climb a ledge, you have to manually look at the ledge, grab it and vault over it. As you progress, more complex moves become available. Toward the end, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, stringing together slides, rolls and grappling hook maneuvers becomes incredibly satisfying.

As you complete tasks, kill zombies and perform parkour stunts, you’ll gain experience points in one of three areas. Agility points are gained by free running, survivor points are gathered by completing missions and power is tied to your combat prowess.

While “Dying Light,” is basically one big game of “the floor is lava,” combat is inevitable. As guns are rare in Harran, most of the combat is of the hand-to-hand variety.

First-person melee combat can be tricky, but Techland gets it mostly right here. Zombies are only dangerous in swarms, but more advanced “infected” will dodge your attacks. Human enemies will block, kick and attack from a distance and are usually the deadliest monsters around. Not being able to just spam attacks keeps the game feeling fresh long after you’d normally get bored with smashing up zombies.

Melee weapons degrade over time (sometimes too quickly).  To keep your them in working order, you’ll have to open toolboxes, pick locks on chests and dig through trash cans to find crafting items. Most of these are used to keep your weapons in fighting shape, but you’ll also pick up blueprints for unique weapons that you can assemble.

Craftable med kits are the main source of healing and they use some components of one of the game’s most powerful offensive weapons, the Molotov cocktail. Often, players will have to choose between a more offensive or defensive strategy, as crafting items are common but not necessarily found in abundance.

That scarcity ties into a central theme of “Dying Light,” which is to avoid combat whenever possible. This theme is hammered home when night falls.

Daytime Harran is tough enough, with innumerable zombies and scarce supplies, but the city becomes downright frightening when the sun sets. You will need to use your flashlight or flares in order to see anything as the world goes pitch black – and you’re going to want to be able to see.

Special zombies spawn after dark that can move faster than you, can search you out and will even climb after you. If they spot you, they will pursue you relentlessly and can kill you almost instantly.

Death in this game means you lose a substantial amount of your survivor points, but you accumulate more power and agility points during the night time.

This presents a great risk/reward system that forces the player to make a choice every night. Do you risk running a nighttime mission to gain more experience, or do you bunk down in one of the safe zones for the night?  You will feel some real life tension playing “Dying Light,” in the dark, I guarantee it.

It’s too bad the main plot of “Dying Light” doesn’t offer up anything as emotionally satisfying. As thrilling as the rest of the game can be, the main story is like a sad country song stuck in the middle of a dance party playlist.

That’s not to say the inevitable depressing moments found in every post-apocalyptic scenario are too weighty for the game. On the contrary, the major flaw is that there are several points where the main plot tries to cash emotional checks that the writing just wasn’t able to afford.

For instance, a pivotal moment centers on the death of a certain character. This moment is supposed to be tragic, but comes across as bewildering because Crane has barely interacted with him at all. “I know he meant a lot to you,” another character tells Crane, but the player is more likely left asking “Who?” than feeling any sort of emotion.

If the game’s storytelling revolved solely on the main plotline, there would be no real emotional weight to the game. Luckily, through side missions you’ll come across some stories that are, at times, macabre, touching, hilarious and even genuinely gut-wrenching. 

Not only are these vignettes enjoyable, but they give the player real motivation to branch off from the main plot line.

I found that while the main story was almost comically bad, the rest of the game more than made up for its deficiencies. The parkour system, applied to an open-world game is nearly flawless. The sense of terror and unease, especially at night, never really relents. It may be the first open-world game that is legitimately scary.

Zombie games may be a dime a dozen these days, but “Dying Light,” stands out among the crowd due to execution of its individual components that result in a game that comes together perhaps better than it had any right to.

Bottom line: “Dying Light,” takes a bunch of unoriginal ideas, mashes them together and somehow creates an experience quite unlike any other game. It’s not perfect, but it’s the first “must buy” game of 2015.

Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Online: http://dyinglightgame.com

darnell.michael@stripes.com

Combat is often avoidable, but some places force the player to fight their way out of a sticky situation. Battles against these giant bruisers take no small amount of skill, especially on lower levels.

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