The undead in "Dying Light" (Warner Bros., for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, $59.99) are a relatively laid-back bunch. During the daytime, they're mostly content to idly stumble about the city of Harran, catching some rays while they search for their next helping of human flesh.
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But when the sun goes down, they become "volatile" and will relentlessly chase down any warm-blooded human who crosses their path. Sure, you can stay indoors until dawn breaks — but you haven't experienced "Dying Light" until you're desperately fleeing through pitch-black alleys with a pack of tireless man-eaters on your tail.
"Dying Light" is the latest adventure from the Polish studio Techland, best known for the 2011 thriller "Dead Island." The new game shares much of its predecessor's DNA: Once again, you're stuck in a hellhole teeming with infected former humans, with little to defend yourself other than flimsy sticks and broken pipes.
Still, there has been some evolution. The new protagonist, one Kyle Crane, has some radical parkour-inspired skills, which make running and jumping across the rooftops of Harran a smooth, at times exhilarating, experience. And when you get a chance to slow down, you can appreciate all the well-drawn details Techland has used to create a convincing, once-lived-in city.
The developers have also cleaned up their chaotic inventory and crafting systems, making it easier to build more effective weapons from the objects scattered around the slums. On the other hand, weapons still wear down awfully quickly; having your carefully assembled electrified cricket bat collapse in the middle of a melee remains frustrating.
The close-up fighting in "Dying Light" is still pretty rough. You can aim your makeshift machete at a zombie's head for maximum impact, but they don't go down easily, and you'll often find yourself simply flailing until your opponent drops. And for some reason, Kyle — who can run halfway across Harran with no problem — gets winded after a few swings, so you're in big trouble if you try to take on more than one zombie at a time. That particular problem is exacerbated by some tedious boss battles against behemoths that can absorb a lot more damage than your average mutant.
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The story is a stew of genre cliches. There's the cocky American dropped into a third-world country to show the locals how it's done. There's the snarling villain to remind us that the worst monster of all is mankind. The writing falls somewhere between the campiness of Capcom's "Dead Rising" and the somberness of Telltale's "The Walking Dead" games, with welcome flashes of black comedy to relieve the anxiety.
If you haven't yet gotten worn down by pop culture's recent zombie explosion, "Dying Light" serves up a decent helping of fresh, scrambled brains. And it's such an improvement over "Dead Island" that it makes me hungry for whatever Techland comes up with once it's finished with the undead apocalypse. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.
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