That zombies are such perennially popular videogame adversaries is probably a reflection of the limitations of consoles. All kinds of lazy behaviour and creative shortcuts can be written off on the singular truth that zombies are stupid.
Zombies don’t need as much development. They don’t require complex AI algorithms. Zombies are also culturally relevant, and generally speaking, culturally inoffensive. No developer risks inciting the wider public’s ire with representations of reanimated corpses. In the right numbers and in the right atmospheric circumstances, they’re also frightening.
And despite higher hardware specifications, the games industry’s love affair with zombies doesn’t appear to be abating with the next generation of consoles either. From the makers of the daft, guilty pleasure that was Dead Island comes Dying Light, a kind of spiritual successor that plays it a bit straighter.
In it, players control a nimble survivor in a vast city overrun by zombies. This brand or strain of walking dead is docile by day, but rabid and vicious at night. Not only must players negotiate the hordes, but they must compete against other enclaves of survivors for scarce resources, some of which are dropped into the city by air.
Techland isn’t talking about the game’s plot yet, says producer Tymon Smektala, but he believes the studio has provided some tantalising questions and clues as to where it might head.
“People inside might be trying to get out, and they might be wondering what’s happening outside,” he told journalists at an event in Sydney. “There are airdrops, but who is providing them? The dynamics are different compared to your regular zombie game where an outbreak happens overnight and you have to escape. The people trapped in this city know they’re trapped in the city, they know there’s some form of [normal] life outside. That poses lots of new questions and tensions.”
The mission demonstrated to press will not feature in the final game. Instead, it was assembled to showcase many of the game’s features. In it, the player character must navigate to a power station and restore electricity to the area.
“There are about five percent of our story missions that have to take place at a certain time. But 95 percent of our missions, and 100 percent of our side missions, can take place any time you want, so it’s up to you,” says Smektala. “When you do them at night, we reward you. You get extra experience points, there are some little tweaks that level up the night experience.”
En route, the player is familiarised with a number of traps that will become useful when trying to escape in a madcap after-dusk dash. These range from rigging cars to explode to running a deadly electric current through grates the player will kite the zombies over.
“There will be at least fifteen kinds of traps in the final game and we’re experimenting with some that you can make yourself, but that’s not something that’s not finalised,” adds Smektala. “What we’ve shown is an escape sequence at night, but you don’t always have to escape like that. You can be sneaky. If you’re intelligent in using your stealth skills you can complete your missions at night without attracting zombies.”
That may be true, but the game’s parkour-like movement is worth experiencing in the first-person. It’s a frenetic dash through a crazed zombie horde that appears to have succeeded in combining high speeds with a real sense of heft to the character physics.
This demonstration build was tuned down to make it accessible to players picking up the controller for the first time, said Smektala. “We wanted to get into direct contact with the zombies to show you that they are dangerous. You can kill them with one hit in this demo, but that’s not the way it works in the final game.
“Everyone who plays through the first two hours a second time tries not to come into contact with the zombie because they are so mean, so vicious. Once you get some skills and weapons you can face the zombies, but when the night falls, the challenge goes up again.
The world in Dying Light is large – about three to four times larger than the worlds Techland built in the Dead Island series, estimates Smektala. “The thing about Dead Island is that you can only walk through corridors.
It was a very flat game. In this game you can go everywhere, and you have to multiply that number by a verticality factor. You can go into the majority of the buildings.”
It’s an ambitious undertaking, especially as Dying Light is a cross-generational title that will be released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as well as Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Smektala briefly hesitates when asked if developing for such a wide range of hardware is frustrating, saying that new hardware from Sony and Microsoft mean developers can “see that there are new frontiers opening for you”.
“I think that any of the games you see on next-gen consoles in the next 12 months will only use the processing power in terms of graphic fidelity, in terms of processing sound, maybe some little tweaks to AI, but I don’t think we will see a real advancement in gameplay for over two years," he says.
“People have to learn these platforms, they have to learn how to use them smartly, and they have to learn what they can do with them besides having better graphics. We’re an independent developer from Poland. Warner Bros. is a great partner, but when you’re an independent developer you can’t just focus on next gen consoles because you need to reach as big an audience as possible.”
“We have lots of ideas on what we can do specifically on next-gen content, so I think in two years people will see really exciting stuff.”
Even if, like the adversaries at the centre of the game, Dying Light appears to reanimate ideas that have been thoroughly explored over the last five years, it also teases enough compelling new dynamics to keep us interested in following its development up to its release some time next year.