From where I’m perched, Harran looks desolate. Plumes of smoke pour out of buildings, and roads are dotted with cars ablaze. But other than the few infernos and the billowing palm leaves, it looks almost peaceful. Clambering down the the Tower of Babel-sized radio tower, the real Harran starts to reveal itself; the zombie-infested city that serves as Dying Light’s blood-drenched stage.
That’s the problem with being above it all - I start to feel safe. But the moment I hit street level, that changes. Falling out of windows, crawling on top of cars, smashing against fences, zombies fill every nook and cranny of the Turkish city. So I swifty ascend again, Spider-man without the jokes, and I stare out across the roofs. These are the real streets of Harran, the rooftops and balconies, and I sit there and plan. I have to, because the hell below is bubbling with danger.
Dying Light, like most sprawling open-world games, does not make a good first impression. A plodding intro cutscene followed by an hour of busy work and tutorial missions is an awful way to start off a game that’s all about exploration and non-linear progression. I was exhausted before things had really kicked off. But like an attempt to eat a turtle, I needed to break through the unappetising shell to get to the juicy good bits.
Techland made Dead Island, an open-world zombie game with lots of customisable melee weapons and 4-player co-op. Dying Light is an open-world zombie game with lots of customisable weapons and 4-player co-op. These games are nothing like each other.
It was a surprise to find just how vast the gulf between this and Techland’s last zombie outing turned out to be, especially since Dying Light mimics lots of other open-world games, particularly those unwieldy, bloated Ubisoft ones, with maps similarly bursting with icons and diversions. The parkour that lies at the centre of Dying Light is a domino, knocking over all the others, informing all elements of the game until it bears little similarity to its predecessor. It isn’t so much a zombie game, as it is a parkour game with zombies. Ignoring direction and the flavourless, endlessly repetitive missions - which never feel like more than mundane tasks - in favour of exploring the city is key to getting the most out of it.
Right after the prologue Harran opens up, ripe for vertical exploration, looting, and grisly zombie-killing. The whole city is a theme park dedicated to running and slaughtering. Every building can be scaled, usually with ease, and frequently ransacked for weapon parts, chemicals and, of course, chocolate and cigarettes. Prison currency goes a long way here.
With the streets of the city playing host to an ocean of hungry walking corpses, exploring the city from above is the safest way to go. And by far the most fun. Early on, I thought it almost matched Mirror’s Edge, though it lacked that game's grace. Now, I couldn’t say which one has superior movement.
They are different, and with Dying Light using RPG-like progression, it takes a while before hero Kyle Crane - a gloriously awful action movie name - reaches his peak. But it’s his occasional fumbles, the moments where he’s completely out of breath, his vision clouding, that make running high above the zombie hordes so compelling.
It’s at night when navigating the map becomes a proper delight, though. No, not delight. That’s the wrong emotion. Unrelenting, ass-clenching terror is more appropriate. During the day, there are plenty of threats, but when the sun sets, Dying Light becomes a survival horror game.
With my co-op companion, Rob, in tow, I strike out into the night, leaving one the game’s small pockets of humanity behind me. We have a mission, but it’s really just an excuse to brave the dangers of Harran after dark. That’s all missions are in Dying Light, excuses to go wandering. They’re insipid things doled out by bland survivors who never inspire even a tiny amount of investment. But they get me out of the house.
The mission is to go and press some switches - a frequent request - which will result in lots of zombie death. The locations are all spread out, so we know we’re going to be doing a lot of running. We’re not a metre out the door before we freeze. There are things prowling out there, in the pitch black.
Dying Light’s got a lot of different types of zombies, from the ineffectual shambling corpses who can only overpower in numbers, to horrible, fat things that spew out toxic sludge. They’re all a joke compared to the things that lurk in the dark; monstrous things with slimy mandibles that run and climb faster than even Kyle.
These beasties slowly, erratically patrol, from streets to rooftops, searching for prey. So we wait. We watch our mini-map, keeping an eye on their cones of vision. There are two at either side of us, but they both turn away, and we make a break for it.
“Turn off your light,” Rob whispers. I forgot that my torch was on, but frankly, I’m not keen to turn it off. This is true night, not the blue-grey, moonlit nights most games favour. It doesn’t matter, anyway. We’ve been spotted. The sweating starts even before I bolt.
We split up to separate the pack that was now hound us, leaping across buildings, occasionally diving down onto the street, lungs struggling the whole time. We almost collide, and the group following me soon follows, quickly deciding that Rob looks tastier. We’re laughing, but I think mostly out of fear.
Eventually, after more than a few deaths and a horrible encounter with an entire compound filled with zombies, and no room for little old us, we complete the quest. I can’t recall the reward. It’s entirely unimportant. The tension, the fear, our half-blind sprint through a dead city, that was the prize.