In Blake Snyder’s break-into-Hollywood novel “Save the Cat!”, he talks at length about pitching your idea to studios or execs. It’s an insightful chapter in an equally eye-opening book, but one thing stands out more than anything, and that’s that your pitch should really be no more than around two sentences long, and even those need to be snappy, punchy and to-the-point. You could have the most comprehensive highbrow work of all time, but unless you can squeeze that work down into two bite-sized sentences of awesome, you’re probably not going to get it off the ground.
This concept translates to videogames in a few different ways, but the biggest is through gameplay -- being able to represent what to expect as far as immersion goes is as important as telling gamers there are dragons, aliens or henchman in your game. This leapt out at me while sitting through a presentation for Dying Light by Dead Island developer Techland. Not because it was easy to couple in a few examples of stand-out experiences riddled throughout their latest opus, rather the studio has come a long way in recent years, and being able to aptly relay why you should be excited is important because as fun as Dead Island was, it was still a flawed experience, and despite a familiarity in enemy inhabitants, the two games couldn’t be further apart.
So here goes: Dying Light is Mirror’s Edge meets Dead Rising with a little Assassin’s Creed thrown in. Also, zombies.
That’s it, that’s my pitch. Think about that for a little bit though -- a free-running first-person experience that employs a slew of verticality to keep you off the zombie-infested ground, which means the game also has multi-tiered level-design opening up exploration because, like Dead Rising, it also happens to be open-world. This alone should make for a tantalising thought, and while we’ve played plenty of FPS titles with zombies before (Left4Dead), the open-world nature of the game means you’re less likely to know where the undead will emerge from.
Playing the game for a short while was a tense experience because of this. The zombies themselves aren’t particularly smart or difficult to fight, and like most zombie games, it’s when they lunge at you in numbers that things become difficult, making that verticality a must-use tool of survival. Not having a wider field-of-view like you would in a third-person game like this is one of Dying Light’s strongest points, and given you’re on the run more often than not, it’s more difficult to keep track of, or tabs on, who or what is lurking around you.
Of course this wouldn’t be any sort of zombie experience without the all-important true monster -- human enemies. These come in the form of militant groups who’ve taken control of infected zones and, where possible, will also take control of airdrops dumping in much-needed supplies for boarded up survivors. The best example of how this works saw the player-character having to survey a dropzone with distance and measure. Running in without knowing who’s waiting for you there is as dangerous as making out with a zombie, and so in this sense Dying Light also offers up a heady amount of player-driven stealth. All of this is coupled with a dynamic on-the-fly narrative served up between the player-character and a helpful partner offering suggestions and advice over a two-way radio system.
Simply scavenging for supplies while avoiding militant humans or lazy undead wouldn’t be too much of a game though, and while Techland were cagey on story details, there’s also a lot of potential for emergent gameplay and intimate storytelling. This was exampled when on the way to an airdrop to investigate our hero came across a little girl in a small shack. She was hiding out -- the norm for any sort of zombie breakout -- though in this instance she didn’t really see the bigger picture and was, in actuality, hiding from her father who’d attempted to save both of them despite being bitten-and-turned himself. How long his transformation took is the player’s guess, and her reaction to both him and the overall event is a jarring and grounding moment. It’s also an indication that Techland are moving away from the more slapstick design of Dead Island and into a rich and potentially emotional journey with Dying Light.
The game’s name is not a catchy marketing angle though, but rather an apt description of the juxtaposition you’re faced with when night falls. While I joked about lazy ground-based undead earlier, at night they become far more frisky. They’re also joined by “Volatiles” a kind of monstrous mutant creature that emits a sonic pulse which, if you’re caught in its doppler effect, will alert this bullish creatures to your location, meaning you have to run. Running, however, only amplifies your presence at night and alerting one Volatile can quickly mean you’ve called in half a dozen. They’re fast, unrelenting and can also jump and climb. Moreover, it’s dark and harder to see in what you would, during the day, consider a freerunning playground, but at night steps, walls, poles, trees, platforms, overhangs etc can all be considered potential impediments. And getting even slightly hung up on the environment with a handful of Volatiles in tow does not look like a good recipe for, you know, life.
As a survivor, you’ll spend a fair amount of your time building new melee weapons to help keep the undead at bay and the team is obviously working off the system they’ve been perfecting with the Dead Island series. Here, it feels a bit more serious though, and Techland has also been kind enough to issue out a sort of ‘X-ray vision’ of your attacks on zombies showing the amount of damage you’re issuing with each blow. Some melee animations and attacks felt responsive and cool while others also felt a bit off and disconnected. Obviously what I saw was still early in development, so hopefully this aspect of the game will be balanced and refined closer to release.
In all Dying Light looks fantastic. The visual pallet of its sun-drenched desolate shanty town I was privy to, post-infection, adds a kind of sickly rich and inviting light
to what is obviously a hopeless situation. It reminds me of District 9 and Resident Evil 5 in many ways. But the core experience is where the game’s meat lies and here it’s all gravy after sundown, in the dying light of the game. The fluidity of movement is incredible and responsive and the game really rewards the player for thinking on their freerunning toes with a playground of solid level design. Hopefully the final product will maintain this and the balance between the obvious main quest and the open-world are handled with aplomb and measure. We could be looking at a game that gets right all the things Far Cry 3 failed to, with a unique flair of its own. It’s difficult to stand-out in the zombie-infected gaming world, but Dying Light has done just that leaving me hostile and volatile
Dying Light has been announced to be releasing on Xbox 360 and Xbox One, PS3 and PS4 and PC. Stay tuned for more as it’s made available.