Techland’s new take on the zombie genre is an experiment action-horror, but don’t confuse it with Dead Island
Techland's Maciej Binkowski prefaced his career of developing a game about the zombie apocalypse by working at telecom company Nokia. It seems fitting that the studio's demo for the upcoming release of Dying Light is essentially a story of reconnecting, then.
At E3 this year, Binkowski — who is working on the title as lead game designer — gave us a taste of just how Dying Light innovates on basic gaming tropes of getting from point A to point B, introducing us to our main objective: Reconnect with a friend trapped in a building. This might be the most common questline in gaming, stemming way back to finding the princess in the castle, but Techland is experimenting. The team of developers plays with the idea of asymmetrical game design in this in-development release, giving their players a multitude of ways to reach any individual objective, and even the ability to veer off the path of the objective entirely.
While Dying Light shares its DNA with Dead Island, Techland’s most well-known zombie title so far — and the game that Dying Light was at one point being developed as a sequel to — this release moves away from the the stand-out traditions of Dead Island. In other words, if Dead Island is about zombie-slaying machismo then Dying Light is the story of simply trying to stay alive against all odds.
The studio isn't ignoring Dying Light's heritage, but Techland isn't actually considering this a zombie game as much as a "game about movement," we're told.
"This isn't really like Dead Island," Binkowski tells us, "This is a bit more of a survival simulator, actually. You don't want to walk straight into a group of zombies and start swinging, you never want to stay in the same place because more will just show up. You want to constantly be moving, and you want to try and find the best alternative routes and makeshift pathways."
Surviving a zombie apocalypse is a matter of giving players the freedom to avoid the undead, says Binkowski as he takes me through the two part demo which starts off with a weakling of a protagonist, who by a few hours in is able to fight further, fight harder and has with some luck accumulated new gadgets.
Even with more muscle behind the character, players are comparatively weak against the bigger hordes, and the tougher individual zombies. So they are given access to decoys, which when thrown near a group of undead, burst on the ground and attracts their attention for long enough for you to run past. Likewise, we're shown the game's parkour system, which Binkowski acknowledges will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series.
While lacking Ezio's building-climbing grace, players can still amble up buildings, jump across rooftops overhead of zombie masses and later on use zip lines which allow them to traverse longer distances at fast speeds.
All of these alternative routes play a huge part when Dying Light switches to its night time mode. The game features a day and night cycle, the latter of which triggers a new kind of zombie archetype which Binkowski calls the "most lethal predators" in the game.
They're known as volatiles, and Binkowski describes them as "capable of killing you the minute they get a hold of you." While the game's mini-map pinpoints where the monsters roam, and more importantly their cone of vision, we're spotted by one who chases us at incredible speed, followed by a smaller group of normal zombies. This combination of undead isn't meant to be fought, but rather outsmarted.
"If they catch up to you, you're dead," Binkowski says as we try to escape outside the horde's vision. "We want players to increase in strength over time, but the thing is, they're still human."
And despite all that walking death, some humanity — in the wishy-washy symbolic sense — is still left in the game. Players can wander off the trail to help out other humans being attacked by the hordes, or they can leave them be. They can help set up zombie traps or ignore these altogether. There’s always a chance that some of your fellow living beings have gone feral and aim to take you out, but your incentive to help those in need is rewarded with items and other in-game additions.
While Techland is tapping into a darker and more cinematic kind of tonality, this game — like Dead Island — features a robust weapons system that is fully customisable, along with bloody and often hilarious melee combat. The game also shares Dead Island’s penchant for creative zombie archetypes, which include the typically slow walkers, the slightly tougher Hazmat-suited undead, and those “Volatile” breeds of zombie that Binkowski suggests are so difficult they aren’t worth fighting. According to the lead game designer, there are over 10 types of zombies you’ll face throughout the game.
In the face of that kind of zombie variety, players have access to over 100 weapons, which can be warped into strange tools of death when combining them with items scavenged from zombies and derelict buildings.
A Flame Slasher does exactly what it sounds like by bursting zombies into flames when hit. Players can also trigger the main ability for the Zapper Axe, which spins the weapon around them and sends out violent electric shocks. Zombies can also be split entirely in half with the right weapon, and an impressive physics engine allows you to kick the two halves apart in all the detailed gore that entails.
The gameplay philosophy is so different from the studio's earlier approach to the zombie tirade, keeping more in common with the open world platforming of Ubisoft's Assassin franchise and the hopelessness of the Fallout series. Dying Light's roster of undead aren't just enemies filling an otherwise lifeless backdrop; they're the residual effect of a seemingly living, albeit apocalyptic, landscape.
Dying Light launches next February on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows PC.