Dying Light has some work to do in order to differentiate itself from fellow open-world zombie game Dead Island 2. Which is an odd state of affairs, as developer Techland was behind the first game in the series that's now their main rival, before a split with publisher Deep Silver forced them to go back to the drawing board. Yes, it's been a long and winding road for Dying Light, but judging by the brief hands-on session I managed to grab at EGX last month, all that adversity hasn't necessarily been a bad thing for the game.
The big selling point here is undoubtedly the free-running system, which lets you skitter across the city roofs out of reach of your undead foes. In general it's a fun and satisfying way to get around. Although there are moments when you'll try to skip up over a ledge only to awkwardly wipe yourself against it while a zombie sinks his teeth into your backside, by and large being able to nimbly skip over obstacles and clamber to safety in dire situations gives you a great sense of freedom and power over those foolish zombies.
Yes, this sledgehammer will do very nicely
Staying on the undead-packed streets is a bad idea, especially once night falls and the zombies get increasingly aggressive, so being able to acrobatically move around town is key to survival. Techland's quick to point out that Dying Light's not your traditional zombie-splatting romp – the stakes are higher here, and the game rewards careful planning and quick-thinking rather than brute force tactics.
Not that there's any lack of gore and violence. First-person melee is notoriously difficult to pull off, but it's surprising just how satisfying and natural Dying Light's combat feels. There's an absolutely brutal physicality to swinging a baseball bat directly into a zombie rotter's knees, cracking his legs from underneath him then clonking it down to crush his head. It's a thing of disgusting beauty.
There's plenty of fun weapons too, by the look of things. I got to try out the afore-mentioned baseball bat, a flaming machete thing and an electrified axe. Each was devastating in its own way, and Techland promises a bunch of other goodies for players to craft. Don't expect the same level of ludicrous excess as in Dead Rising, you won't be riding around in wheelchairs with machine-guns strapped to the armrests, but enough variety to add some spark to the already excellent brawling.
Though there are occasional hiccups, in general the free-running makes the city your playground
As tempting as it is, jumping straight into a horde of zombies and swinging away with your new mace is not always a good idea. There's a time and place for taking a zombie's head straight off like a meaty bowling ball, and the key to mastering Dying Light is to know when that is; my session was too brief to really get to grips with the survival side of the game, but even I quickly realised there's a strategy to deciding when to get stuck in, and when to scarper like a startled chicken. In large numbers, you'll get shredded very, very quickly. Especially if you start firing guns about willy-nilly, as I discovered to my rather violent cost.
Ranged combat is far, far improved from the woolly and imprecise shooting found in Dead Island, but it's still not quite as fun as melee. I do like the risk/reward element to firearms – they're powerful enough to knock all but the largest enemies on their undead behinds, but the noise they make swiftly results on Left 4 Dead-style bum-rushes by hordes of speedy 'virals', the speedy 28 Days Later cousin to the shambling hordes of walking dead which make up the majority of Dying Light's enemies. Still, if I'm given the choice between a 9mm automatic and a baseball bat with anvils in it? No contest.
There's plenty of enemies around that require variation in your approach. The afore-mentioned should be taken down fast, as in large numbers they can quickly swarm you. Spitters and self-destructing bloaters are best taken down at range with your throwing knives, while club-wielding brutes are slow enough that you can dart in for a few hits while they wave their weapon around awkwardly. Human survivors will require even more care, as unfortunately they've got their hands on a bunch of surplus guns.
I didn't bump into any other humans, but hey, these guys look friendly, right?
Interestingly, producer Maciej Binkowski tells me you can use some rather underhand methods to take care of living enemies. Sneak into their base and fire off a few rounds to bring the virals running; providing you can get away yourself, you can watch as your undead lackeys help themselves to a light lunch. Evil, but fun. Hopefully there will be some more of these moments when Techland's open world playground quite literally starts to devour itself.
All in all I'm very hopeful about the way it all comes together. The addition of free-running gives you an excellent feeling of control over the world around you, and the much improved melee and ranged combat packs a real punch. Hopefully Techland can translate these solid core mechanics into a campaign that doesn't run out of steam halfway through like Dead Island did. Right now things are looking promising, and Dying Light was one of the most viscerally satisfying games I played at EGX this year. I honestly didn't see a weird mix between Mirror's Edge and Dead Island working this well.
Most Anticipated Moment:I'm hoping that Techland's promises about night-time being really, really bad for you are accurate. A focus on survival rather than just hack and slash fun should give the game some extra depth.