I was almost ten hours into Dying Light before I got my hands on a gun. It was an assault rifle, and I had to kill a man for it. Doing so wasn't pretty, nor was it easy.
You begin Dying Light in a nearly identical position to the one you're in at the beginning of Dead Island and its sequel Riptide, the last two open-world zombie games from the same developer, Techland. In all three games, you're dropped into the middle of a large city on the losing side of the zombie apocalypse. You have to pick up the closest blunt object you can find and start using it as a weapon against the seemingly endless hordes of undead monsters who want nothing more than to feast on your corpse. This means that you rely on veritable scraps to give yourself a fighting chance of survival—hammers, metal pipes, baseball bats, even wooden planks if you're particularly desperate. Having an actual gun seems like a tantalizing proposition as a result.
But Dying Light doesn't just hand you a gun. It makes you work for it, and work very hard at that. I hadn't levelled up my survivor skills enough to buy a gun from one of the vendors scattered around the city of Harran that early in the game, so I only saw two options for acquiring one. I could either try to steal one from an abandoned police van, or take one from a raider in one of the militarised factions that sprung up in the city after the zombie apocalypse started to set in.
Both were formidable tasks. Abandoned vehicles like police cars and EMT vans promised valuable supplies, but they were always stuck on once-bustling streets that were now flooded with zombies. Clearing out an area to give myself enough time to pick the lock on a trunk of a police car meant that I'd have to kill a lot of zombies. Getting a gun from a human opponent, meanwhile, meant that I either had to stumble across some poor guy who'd already been killed, or do the job myself.
Killing zombies or humans both carry serious risk of death. And dying in Dying Light has frustrating consequences. Every time protagonist Kyle Crane kicks the bucket, he loses a chunk of his "survivor points," the experience points that are specifically used toward one of his three skill trees (Survival, Power, and Agility). But if a gun was a really powerful asset to add to my arsenal, maybe it was worth any trade-off? I wasn't sure, so I waited.
Eventually, an opportunity presented itself during a side-mission. I was supposed to go into a warehouse to gather some supplies for one faction of Harran's survivors I was helping out. Once I got there, I saw that a group of raiders had been sent by an opposing faction who had the same goal. Dying Light doesn't give you any way to negotiate with its bad guys, so I immediately knew how this situation was going to play out. Only one of us was going to make it out of the warehouse alive.
I died a lot over the next few minutes. Human enemies are tricky to deal with in Dying Light because they're much smarter and more agile than the standard crop of zombies who thoughtlessly lunge at you. Two raiders with pick-axes flanked me and beat me to the ground over and over again while a third shot at me from a distance with an assault rifle. I tried finding sneakier entrances to the warehouse to take them all by stealth, but the only way in was through a hole in the roof. Every time I'd fall onto the metal walkway below with a loud clang I'd alert the raiders and start the whole process all over again.
I was haemorrhaging experience points, but I didn't want to stop. I needed this gun. There must be another way to get it, I thought. Finally, I found one in the form of molotov cocktails. I crafted a few with supplies that I'd gathered around Harran and circled around the hole at the top of the warehouse, chucking them down and setting a few of the raiders ablaze. The men screamed in pain for a few moments, and I watched them running around crazily in the dark below. Then, silence. Were they dead? I hoped so.
I dropped down once again and turned on my torch to see in the dark. It was almost night-time at this point and I knew that, once the sun had completely set, getting back to a safehouse would be a much bigger challenge.
I heard a shout from behind me, and turned around quickly to see one of the raiders was still alive. I sprinted towards him, flailing a hammer wildly and hoping that maybe, just maybe, I could hit him in the head and put this whole ordeal behind me. The muzzle of his rifle flashed, and I hit the ground.
By the time I respawned once again, it was officially night. I had to sneak around, roaming patrols of powerful super-zombies known as "Volatiles" to make it back to the warehouse. Once I got there, I peeked down through the hole with my torch until I caught a glimpse of the raider's feet. I circled around to the other side of the hole, jumped down to the rafters, and lunged at him from behind.
I swung at the man's leg's first, to make sure he wouldn't be able to escape. He buckled and fell to the ground, writhing in pain and struggling to get up. Standing over him, I bashed at his shoulders and head with the hammer over and over again until Crane's vision blurred and he started to breathe in ragged gasps.
I hadn't even finished the quest that was still waiting below me at the bottom of the warehouse. But that didn't matter anymore. I had a gun now. "Time to see what this bad boy is capable of," I thought to myself.
I climbed back out of the warehouse and strode boldly into the night, itching for a fight. Once I saw a Volatile appear on my mini-map, I approached it, took aim, and fired. The monster flinched for a second, then turned around to look at me.
The impenetrable night around me erupted with inhuman shrieks as zombies poured towards the sound of the gunshot. I shot the Volatile two or three more times as he sprinted at me with alarming speed. That didn't stop him. I turned around and tried to dash in the opposite direction, but ran smack into an oncoming horde of lesser zombies. A few moments later, I was dead.
Episodes like this are what make Dying Light a great game. At face value, the game has a lot in common with its two Dead Island predecessors. Melee combat is just as gratuitous and satisfying as it was in those two games, and the zombies you spend so much time hacking to bits are as mindless and gross as well. But the key difference between Dying Light and Dead Island, and the one that makes Dying Light a far superior game, is its punishing difficulty curve.
Dying Light takes the "survival" part of its gameplay very seriously. Learning to move from point A to point B in Harran in one piece requires you to identify and master all the tools you have at your disposal. The learning process is the fun part of Dying Light, then.The game only starts to struggle with how it keeps challenging you after you've learned all of its fundamentals.
Early on in the game, for instance, I perched on the roof of the power station trying to figure out how to get the zombies below away from a switch I needed to flip. I knew I wouldn't survive meeting them head-on with a fight. So what the hell was I supposed to do?
Then it hit me: use the firecrackers. A character had given Crane a handful of the things a little while back, and told him they were a good way to distract zombies. I chucked two firecrackers a little ways away from the station, and watched as the undead shambled away from my object. They didn't go too far, so I threw another just to feel safe. That was my last one, and I hadn't thought far enough ahead to realize I'd still need it in case there were more zombies inside of the power station. There were.
I left that scene in Dying Light giggling from the exhilarating rush of just barely surviving the ordeal. Once I'd made it back to a store in Harran, I spent all my money buying as many firecrackers as Crane could hold—up to 100.
Similar to how it handled the guns, Dying Light accomplished something incredible for an open-world game with this firecracker-less moment. The game let me exercise my own poor judgement, and therefore make an almost fatal mistake. Allowing me to go through this entire process on my own taught me a valuable lesson: that I should never venture out in Harran without proper equipment.
Trapped on some far-off power station, low on supplies and scared of the coming night: those are the dazzling, tense moments where Dying Light makes you feel like you really are stuck in the middle of a horrible apocalyptic landscape. But the thing is, you can only really discover something once. After uncovering some new facet of Crane's character or a novel bit of equipment, it just gets folded into the giant teeming pile of zombie-killing activities that sum up Dying Light. That's not always a good thing.
I only needed a single reminder to carry more firecrackers, for instance. Once I got that, the game became easier in the sense that I spent less time perched on rooftops trying to figure out how to get the zombies below out of the way. But that also meant that I wouldn't have any more striking, genuinely frightening moments trying to work my way around a situation when I really needed firecrackers but didn't have any at my disposal.
If you've played either of the Dead Island games, you can probably see where this is going. I enjoyed the beginnings of Dead Island and Riptide for many of the same reasons that I loved getting my bearings in Dying Light. Learning to survive in a large, complex environment full of dangerous enemies and environmental hazards was an intriguing challenge. The problem with Dead Island is that it failed to offer any new and equally interesting challenges once I'd gotten my feet on solid ground. It only took 5-10 hours to accrue experience and unlock enough powerful zombie-killing abilities to make the rest of my time in either Dead Island mind-numbingly repetitive.
As an all-but sequel to Dead Island, then, I was scared of getting to that point in Dying Light. The one where even the game's wonderfully grotesque ultraviolence starts to seem drab and unsurprising. When this:
...starts to feel more like this:
When the words "NIGHT IS COMING" don't trigger a moment of blind "holy fuck how am I going to stay alive" panic.
That moment hasn't come yet. I could've sworn it was about to set in once I unlocked the head-stomping ability, which (much like it did in Dead Island) makes pounding zombie skulls into a pulp much easier. But all that's done is make it killing the zombies I run into on rooftops less of an unpleasant surprise to deal with.
...which implies that I still feel the need to make a break for the rooftops very often:
Dying Light might have become more playable as more advanced abilities and zombie-killing techniques revealed themselves to me. But similar to Dead Island, that also meant that it became less interesting—though only to a point. And that's key. The game doles out all the new stuff it has to offer in brilliantly small portions. This means that every time I've begun to feel like I'm settling into a routine, suddenly I trigger a quest that drops new, even scarier zombies into the fray. Or I might unlock a seemingly crazy new move for Crane like the grappling hook, only to discover a moment later that there's still a whole other part of Harran's world complete with intricate and intimidatingly tall buildings to climb.
Dying Light isn't just a more difficult game than Dead Island—though that's certainly a good thing it has going for it. Really, what makes this game special is how it handles its steep difficulty curve. Every time I acquire some new, seemingly formidable asset, the game offers up an even bigger challenge in turn. Even after spending more than 20 hours exploring Harran and unlocking many of Crane's most powerful abilities, I still feel compelled to step back into Dying Light once again to see what else there is to discover within.
For every disappointing moment like my firecracker revelation, then, Dying Light has many others that hold together beautifully—like acquiring a gun, only to realize that using one comes with a prohibitively high risk. Parkour is a particularly welcome addition in this regard, because it allows the game to handle running and jumping away from zombies with the same level of attention and care that Dead Island reserved for attacking them. This seemingly subtle shift transforms the entire beginning of Dying Light into a fast-paced stealth game in which you must avoid enemies at all cost rather than ever try to meet them head-on.
With time, Crane becomes strong and dexterous enough that choosing fight over flight starts to seem like less of a fool's errand. His parkour abilities take on a new predatory dimension in turn. Ingredients for crafting weapons and creating impromptu medkits that once seemed terrifyingly scarce now appear in abundance. Even crazily risky long-shot items like firearms and explosives become usable once you realize all you have to do is run away from whatever new zombies they attract. And all the while, the game keeps offering up the same essential mission over and over and over again: go to point B, flip a switch or pick up a satchel, then return to point A for your reward.
Dying Light manages to keep its core errand-running routine fresh and exciting long after the point when Dead Island's grew stale simply because the latter game came up with a bunch of great ideas to make exploring its world interesting and rewarding. Unfortunately, adding things like parkour and the day-night cycle don't end up adding nearly as much to Dying Light's story as they do to its gameplay. While the latter makes this a unique and revolutionary first-person adventure, the former leaves me with the disappointing realization that it's still just an unremarkably routine stab at a well-worn genre in many ways. It's tragic that Techland couldn't do more with the story in its new game, because if any competing shooter or platformer draws inspiration for, say, Far Cry 5 or Grand Theft Auto 6, it will probably end up leaving Dying Light in the dust.