What can be done freshen up the zombie genre at this point? Videogames, television shows, movies, comics -- virtually every pop culture medium's been infested by the craze, long ago hitting a saturation (and then oversaturation) point. So, how does a developer like Techland, who's most well-known recently for its zombie games, take the concept and still manage to make it its own?
Techland's creating a game about zombies, that isn't really about zombies. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, that's what it's doing with Dying Light. And who knows -- maybe that's the take on the undead genre that'll liven it up a bit.
Dying Light, rather than being about zombies, is about movement. It doesn't take long to figure this out. Every facet of the game is designed around traversal. The zombies that litter the landscape are less active enemies, and more active obstacles to discourage any disingenuity when getting around.
Spanning the open-world map looks as if it'll be an enjoyable exercise, with moments of frustration peppered in due to the drawbacks of the methods at-hand. Best described as a Mirror's Edge-esque free-running system, isolated incidents of climbing buildings, mantelling over ledges, and jumping over a gap can be thrilling -- like a well-executed combo in a fighting game.
However, first-person platforming is a fickle mistress, and the inherent irritations spring up often enough to be noticeable. Exactly what you can climb and how far you can jump are issues that take continuous trial-and-error to solve, especially given that you can feel the character's weight in a sense that you just know he's not capable of everything, even if sometimes it seems like he's totally capable of anything.
Being a game about movement, it's a no-brainer that these free-running mechanics will be employed constantly. Guided at all-times by a waypoint on a mini-map, players are best served sticking to roofs and avoiding the ground when searching for the next objective. Techland rewards that style, as almost every climb and jump earns experience points toward agility, hopefully ensuring that the player will eventually feel less clumsy and more confident in their actions.
Although taking the roads isn't advisable, it's definitely feasible -- at least for half the game. During the daytime, zombies are generally weak and slow enough that combat isn't completely ill-advised. However, combat can seem like a chore, as the melee system has that clunky, unwieldy feel about it that just isn't pleasurable to use. Even if there are some neat improvised weapons on display (less a novelty, and more a staple of zombie games by now), avoiding interaction altogether is the more enjoyable route.
Keep in mind, that's all when the sun is up. At nighttime, discard any ideas of engaging the zombies because it'll most likely just lead to imminent death. That's when the Volatiles -- the worst of the worst in Dying Light come out -- and the need for discreet and deliberate movement is higher than ever. The mini-map graciously provides a coned effect to represent each Volatile's field of view, and its value is indescribable. In the event that it's impossible to stay hidden from these, the next best course of action is to take advantage of the game's traversal system in any given direction -- just make sure it's quick.
As Dying Light progresses, it's remarkable to see the transformation of the mechanics, presumably all that acquired experience paying dividends. Warped from an early-game setting to somewhere significantly later, the difference in my character's abilities were almost like day and night (to draw an apt analogy from Dying Light).
All of a sudden, getting around just seemed easier. The uncertainties that plague the whole first-person platforming situation still existed, but everything that worked worked better. Climbing was faster and more fluid. Jumping had some much-appreciated extra distance to it. There was even a handy grappling hook of sorts that yanked me to whatever was targeted; it almost felt like cheating in a way.
It was at this point that a Techland developer requested for me to climb down to fight a few zombies. He wanted to show off some of those gadget weapons, like ones that added electric or fire damage to the melee attacks. I briefly obliged, but was still unenamored. I couldn't wait to get to back to the roofs and just move about the buildings.
It's fitting that Dying Light is about movement, because it's by far what it does the best. At times, it's unclear how substantial your objective is, just that you're moving toward something. Maybe the objective is only to survive. That'd make sense. For all the zombie material that focuses on attacking the undead, it's an unwise approach. Much smarter would be running, jumping, and climbing to get as far away from them as possible. Dying Light ensures you'll do plenty of that.