Dying Light, Brendy will tell you, is the best 7/10 game in existence. I’d tell you that too, and add that it could easily have been more. Perhaps if the plot had been halfway engaging, or if the more interesting second area and grappling hooks (yes, there were grappling hooks) had appeared at some point before the ten hour mark. They’re the kind of problems that a sequel could address, through dressing up fundamentally solid melee combat with necromantic bells and whistles. Based on the E3 demo I’ve seen, Techland appear to be doing just that.
We’re 15 years on from the last game, when a virus turned most of the population into zombos. Techland are dubbing the setting a “modern dark age”, which is a semi-new (and arguably more elegant) way of saying post-post apocalyptic. Society still exists, though it’s not in great shape. The wilderness has crept into the unnamed European city where the game takes place – along with much worse.
The road to societal redemption is bumpy. The demo starts with the city just about to run out of water, and new protagonist Aiden Caldwell (no relation) in the bathroom. He’s not in great shape. The virus is getting to him, as it is to all of the cities inhabitants, who wear bracelets to show how close they are to going all munchy.
But Aiden has more pressing concerns. As I said, people are about to get thirsty – and he’s just been told a chap called the colonel is hoarding all the water. Before he can set off to have words, though, a mob of humans starts battering at the base’s gates. Aiden jumps down into the fray, and three people very, very quickly lose their limbs and heads. The slicing is much the same as the last game, where a single well aimed slash can end a fight immediately.
The renegades are dead, but Aiden’s friend is in dire straits. It’s here I see the first decision in the demo, and the first hint that our presenter’s promises of meaningful choices might actually have… meaning. Does Aiden stay with his pal Frank as he bleeds out, or chase after a van that could get him into the colonel’s place? It doesn’t feel like much of a decision, because somebody else is looking after Frank anyway.
So he’s off, leaping between rooftops, wallrunning and sliding as he goes. Now though, Aiden can also whip out a paraglider. The city reminds me much more of the later half of Dying Light, the half with towers and grappling hooks. The first game took over ten hours to give you a grappling hook, and it’s unclear how long it will take to earn it here – when I asked, I was told you get it in the second of the games seven regions. “You can also do more with those tools later on,” creative director Adrian Ciszewsk told me. The grappling hook, for example, can be upgraded so you can chuck it at people to bring them in for a kicking, a la Scorpion in Mortal Kombat.
Without those fancy tools, though, the parkour still looks excellent. It’s Mirrors Edge with zombies, and it works.
Aiden can ride zombies out of windows and to the ground, where they cushion the fall. The movement looks smooth, but technical – a good combination of thought and automation. Not that it always works out. Aiden takes a tumble into a den that’s overridden with the undead, and starts sprinting through claustrophobic tunnels. I see zombies start to pile on top of him, placing their hands on each other like supportive participants in a rugby scrum – but then Aiden whips out a UV flare, and escapes via a ladder as they recoil. Even without being at the controls, I felt myself breath out as Aiden made it outside, back amongst autumnal rooftop greenery.
Finally, Aiden makes it to the truck he’s been chasing, and chooses to kidnap the driver rather than kick him out. That means hearing his nervous chatter on the drive up to the colonel’s castle, which turns out to be fortunate, as the compound has a pass code: honk, then honk twice more. Lo and behold, he drawbridge descends! It’s a neat example of a consequence, though who knows how representative this is.
Once Aiden’s in the compound, he takes a peep through his binoculars and spots a way up to the colonel’s building. A hop and a skip onto the roof, and the friend he’d left holding Frank let’s Aiden know that Frank is dead. The presenter says that he might have lived if Aiden chose to stay behind.
But there’s no time for mourning. The alarm’s been raised, and Aiden goes toe-to-toe with a series of guards as he fights his way to the Colonel’s halls. He makes it, thanks largely to a well-judged foray into some vents, and is soon face to face with the colonel.
He gets chatting, and tries to convince Aiden that he’s being lied to, and that the water can’t be switched on from here. Aiden — or at least, the person controlling the demo — clearly doesn’t buy it, and tells the colonel as much, at which point Aiden is set on by half a dozen guards at once. This is where the combat gets a little more interesting, until it falls apart.
Aiden uses the grappling hook to tug a barrel down onto two guards, then hops up to a man firing from above with a fragile-looking wooden rifle. Aiden steals the gun, but only gets to fire it five times before turning it into a club. That’s fine. He swings over the heads of reinforcements as they flood the room, then turns that swing into a groundslam.
The only foe left is a beefy guy with an electro mace, and he’s a bastard. Against foes that don’t go down in one hit, the combat immediately starts to drag – despite the slow-mo dodges and flying kicks, and despite the presenter’s assurances that the the combat has been expanded on from the first game. This dance seems deeply familiar. The big lad is a bullet sponge, but for stabs instead of gunshots. After far too many hits, he falls to the floor.
The demo has one more trick up its sleeve, and it’s an impressive one. Aiden turns on the water pumps, and watches as the compound’s floodgates rise — flooding a lower part of the city, and revealing an entire new area from where the water drains. Apparently this area has “new quests, new mechanics, and new things to find”. It also changes the story, as a horde of humans rush the freshly de-moated castle – and a new spiky zombie emerges from the swamp.
It’s a neat illustration of how your choices can have a radical impact on the world. Techland are adamant that you’ll only see 50% of the game on a normal playthrough – at least in terms of the story. That’s certainly one way to make decisions meaningful, and Ciszewsk was keen to stress how much you can miss. “You’ll be losing a lot of quests, friends, factions or communities. You can meet a lot of communities, then another player might not meet any of those communities because of the decisions they’ve made!”
It’s ambitious, not least because the impact of your choices can easily be checked by jumping into a friends game. There’s up to four player co-op, which will always take place in the host’s city. In a friend’s game, they might never have revealed that area – but, Ciszewsk said while grinning, they might find it if they go for a swim.
When Brendy returned from E3 last year with claims about how the city and story would change according to your choices, I was skeptical that those changes would constitute more than incidental palette swaps. While I’m sure most of the changes won’t be as dramatic as the one on display here, it does suggest that you can take your game in radically different directions. If Techland can pull this off, those choices could be among the most interesting I’ve made in a videogame.See our E3 2019 tag for more news, previews, opinions, and increasingly surreal liveblogs.