Let's face some hard truths: developer Techland's games have traditionally been a bit awkward to play. I know many people who love Dead Island, and many others who found the combat and locomotion too clumsy to get past. Call of Juarez: The Cartel, Nail’d, Chrome, and several other Techland games were missing that extra degree of refinement that kept them from rising to the top of their respective genres. When I sat down with Dying Light at E3 2014, I expected a game in this vein: an interesting, ambitious, and clunky experience that couldn’t quite make the best of its many ideas.
It's too soon to make a final verdict on Dying Light, of course, but what stood out to me most when playing was that the movement and combat actually felt good. In the first level I played, I wielded a couple of melee weapons, including a baseball bat. Smacking a zombie with a bat felt just as it should have: impactful, with a solid oomph. When I grasped onto a ledge and pulled myself up to the roof above, I could feel the weight of my character's body, but didn't notice any annoying sluggishness. It felt substantial enough to be realistic, but swift enough to be fun.
I should probably step back for a moment, however. Dying Light is an upcoming zombie action game with freerunning mechanics that was originally imagined as a Dead Island sequel. And the Dead Island connection is clear from the moment you lay your hands on a controller and start up the game. You must fight for survival in South American slums, where hordes of the undead are waiting to eat you alive. The first level I played was from early in the game--and my first action was to open a door and take in the world in front of me. It was a gorgeous but intimidating sight. As my eyes became accustomed to the light, I looked upon the downtrodden city. Game producer Tymon Smektala told me to head toward the mission objective, and so I did, though I stopped to bash some zombies along the way.
Though I only had a few rudimentary weapons, the melee action had a nice heft. The first zombie I battered reeled backward and suffered a broken arm, an event that was accompanied by a nifty visual effect that revealed the zombie's broken bones underneath, as if I were looking at them through an X-ray machine. In just a few moments, I had unlocked my first skill point, which I spent on a charged attack that took more time to perform but did massive damage. No matter how massive my damage might be, however, it was best for me to stick to the rooftops and avoid direct confrontation, and so I climbed to higher ground.
The climbing and running in Dying Light feel good. The game isn't Mirror's Edge, so don't expect to feel as acrobatic as you did as Faith in that game. Instead, it felt as though I were a less gifted Assassin's Creed protagonist, or were Garrett as he felt in the recent Thief reboot. It didn't take long for me to get used to rushing, leaping, and climbing from a first-person perspective, and I took the chance to look down on the hordes below. Several zombies had gathered around a vehicle that had been rigged with a trap. Triggering the trap first caused the trap to make a racket that drew more zombies to it; a few seconds later, the car exploded, taking down a number of undead creeps with it.
I like to explore in games, much to the dismay of producer Smektala, who really wanted me to get a move on and get to my destination. Several zombies were waiting for me there at a safe house, and they weren't exactly welcoming. They were defter than expected at evading my attacks, and it was clear that I wasn't ready to deal with them. It was time to find a better hideout. Again, off I clambered in my search for safety, walking down alleyways and shuffling along rooftops. Finally, I reached my destination, where my primary goal was to--take a nap?
Yes indeed--a bit of sleep was needed, if only to advance the clock and reenter the city at nighttime. Nighttime brings with it new challenges and new opportunities, and this section played something like a traditional stealth game. By activating a special vision mode, I would identify nearby enemies and reveal their vision cones on my map. I could also toss a firework to distract the undead if necessary, and truth be told, I did a poor job of keeping out of danger on my first nighttime jaunt. Soon, however, I was able to zigzag between zombies and enter the second safe house. It was time to breathe.
My deep breath was interrupted by the next part of the demo, which gave me some higher-level toys to play with, including a handy firearm. I had a baseball bat again, but this time, well, this time it had spikes. The pressure was on to reach a distant tower, where a comrade was fighting for his life. I got a few shots in here and there, and whaled on a number of zombies with my fancy bat, but by this time, I had become enamored with the slide move, which allowed me to sprint and then slide forward. I enjoyed knocking down zombies in this fashion; in fact, I enjoyed it so much that I had forgotten about my poor friend up in the tower. As you can imagine, I was too late. I arrived just in time to see him slaughtered, though I don’t think it was my lethargic pace that killed him--I think that was supposed to happen, judging by how the game then thanked me for playing it. (You're welcome, Dying Light. I had fun playing you.)
Dying Light was a surprise delight at this year's E3. Perhaps it's time to shed my preconceived notions of Techland's games and realize that the studio is playing with the big boys now. Here's hoping the full game is as slick and satisfying as this limited demo was.