Unlike a zombie bite, Dying Light gets better with time. You'll feel a little underpowered during the undead-'em-up's opening exchanges, but as you gradually cross quests off your multiplying mission log and sink your teeth into the title's story, Polish developer Techland's parkour-inspired escapade really comes into its own. This is essentially Dead Island with the budget required to do it justice – and while it's not exactly the most original outing ever made, it will get its claw into you if you allow it.
The plot is as predictable as they come, plopping you into the running shoes of the ever-dependable everyman, Kyle Crane. You've been dropped into the infected South American-inspired city of Harran by a shady organisation, and it's there that you're tasked with rendezvousing with the natives in order to recover a mysterious file currently in the possession of a tyrannous war lord. It's an ambitious premise, but one that's packed with pantomime personalities and dodgy double-crosses, and it ends up offering little more than context for the release's corpse culling sandbox.
It doesn't help that the voice acting across the board is beyond bad. The ex-Call of Juarez maker is renowned for its questionable use of accents, but its latest endeavour borders on self-parody at points. Most characters can't seem to decide which country they're supposed to be from, so what you're left with is a rabble of expatriates performed by Eastern European actors. This wouldn't be so bad if the title didn't attempt to tug at the heart strings at times, but it does, and any attempts at poignancy subsequently fall laughably flat.
Fortunately, this clearly isn't an affair that's coveting some kind of story-telling award, and it makes it easy to skip through the dismal dialogue in order to get to the title's meaty core. At its infected heart, this is an open world quest-a-thon in a similar vein to Far Cry or even Fallout, in which it's fun to simply get out in the field and be the problem solver that everyone expects of you. Within about five hours of starting the release, you'll have a mission log longer than your chew bitten arm, and all of these can be solved individually or co-operatively with a party of up to four players. Naturally, you'll all play as the same person.
Locomotion is crucial in any sandbox game, and this adventure succeeds by giving you a tremendous sense of speed. Building upon many of the abilities teased in Mirror's Edge, you'll be sprinting across favela rooftops and through winding sewers, performing all manner of slick manoeuvres. This isn't as fun as it should be at first, purely because the progression system limits your stamina to an almost obstructive degree, but as you start to level up and acquire skill points, you're afforded an impressive sense of freedom.
The thing that really makes the system shine, though, is just how tightly designed the sandbox is. Unlike in DICE's seminal release – where there was only ever one true path that you could take – Techland has managed to infuse its free-running outing with dozens of different routes, allowing you to pick and choose exactly where you want to go. The studio does break the momentum that this enables in places – pixel hunting for an entrance into a blocked out building is the ultimate mood killer – but when you get a real run going, the satisfaction is immense. As already alluded, this only gets better with time, too, as you increase your energy levels and even unlock grappling hooks.
Of course, you won't be entirely unobstructed while going about your business. Harran is infested with lifeless lurchers, and you'll need to dispatch of these should the situation arise. Much like Dead Island, you'll be spending most of your time swinging melee weapons such as cricket bats and machetes, but you will eventually happen upon woolly firearms. These aren't especially fun to fire, and it's clear that the emphasis has been put on hand-to-hand combat; fortunately, this area equips itself rather well.
As with the parkour, the game limits you a little too much at first, so you'll be spending several hours desperately clocking the undead with table legs in order to do any damage at all – but once you've crafted some serious makeshift murdering materials, you'll feel right at home. Slow-motion and x-ray effects depict the damage of particularly brutal strikes, while elemental properties can also be attached to your preferred body puncturing implements. You'll need to gather up various bits and bobs in order to construct makeshift pieces of kit, but scavenging the environment for goods is all part of the package's appeal.
Sadly, the release does lean a little too heavily on weapon degradation, which will leave you feeling cautious when it comes to actually taking your very best gear out onto the field, but later unlockable skills diminish the impact of this – another example of the experience getting better with time.
Still, whichever goods you have in your arsenal, they won't be especially effective at night, as the dynamics of the game completely change. While you'll earn double experience points for being out and about when the sun's gone down, you'll find yourself up against much stronger iterations of the undead. This can lead to chases, as you attempt to outrun your aggressors and return to the sanctuary of a nearby safe house. Unlocking these havens demands that you do the kind of busy work that's so common in open world games, but it is worthwhile, as leaving yourself stranded in the evening is undeniably the easiest way to get yourself killed.
These pitch black pursuits inject the title with some much needed tension, as the horror aspect can take a backseat through much of the game. There are some instanced encounters which ratchet up the scares, but you'll spend much of your time smiling at the silliness of the various enemy types. These all have ridiculous alter-egos – from the scaredy-cat Bolter right the way through to the explosive Bloater – and you'll learn how best to deal with them over the course of the game. Sadly, fighting human foes demands a lot less forethought, as you descend into button bashing territory.
Fortunately, whoever you're fighting, the presentation is top-notch. There are some aliasing issues here and there, but the fluttering of foliage and pronounced lighting effects give the release a really strong tropical flavour. Facial animations are poor across the board, but given the already dire voice acting, this doesn't really detract too badly. One surprise standout, however, is the soundtrack, which makes excellent use of soaring synth leads and snappy drum beats in order to create an otherworldly ambience; the music's truly one of the highlights here.
And listening to it while you're in co-op is one of the best ways to experience the game, as it's all been seamlessly implemented. You can port your character and inventory into other peoples' campaigns and help them along the way, with the release throwing in makeshift challenges that add a competitive edge to the action. You may, for example, be asked to slaughter more shufflers than your accomplices, and a dynamic leaderboard will pop up plotting your progress next to your pals. It's a simple addition, but it gives the adventure that little extra edge, and encourages banter as you go about your business.
Slightly less successful is the Be a Zombie mode, which was originally intended as a pre-order bonus, but is now free for all. This essentially creates asymmetric multiplayer matches within the open world, as hunters can invade other players' games during the night. The objective here is for the zombie to off a certain quota of humans, while those of the flesh must destroy various nests. But while the corpse is fun to fight against, the mode isn't particularly well balanced if you're playing alone, and you'll be scrambling to switch it off in the options after a couple of interruptions.
Dying Light starts out disappointing, but once you allow its brand of undead action to circulate your bloodstream, it can be difficult to put down. The storytelling is expectedly lacklustre, but with some 40 hours' worth of quests to complete, this is the type of title that's made for kicking back in co-op and culling corpses to your heart's content. The best thing about it, though, is that it gets better as the time flies by.