Dying Light 2 Review
Some of us play games to escape reality. What better way to forget the world than to enter a fictional one? But try forgetting today’s world, where a virus has changed the way we live, with a game like Dying Light 2, where a virus has changed the way people live. Of course the two worlds are not the same. One has people avoiding a deadly virus with the help of curfews, while some walk around like zombies, and the other is found in Dying Light 2, a first-person action game featuring zombies. Techland are basically zombie experts by now. Their first zombie experience, Dead Island, came out in 2011. Then they made Dying Light, which was a comprehensive improvement thanks to awesome parkour movement and a brilliant day/night gameplay loop. Dying Light 2 is certainly bigger than the original, but underneath all the flesh and bone is some dark rot that keeps it from matching its predecessor.
At the start of the pandemic in the first game, several infected cities were isolated to keep the world safe. One of these was Harran, the setting for Dying Light 1, and another was Villedor, the location for the sequel. Enormous walls were placed around Villedor to keep people inside, but when the virus mutated years later, those same walls helped the city survive. Villedor still has zombies within its walls. In fact, everybody is infected with the new variant; they just take immune boosters and use a biomarker to keep track of the infection. Spend enough time in the dark and you will become another brainless flesh eater. Two groups vie for control of the city: Survivors and Peacekeepers. The Survivors are regular folk just trying to live, while the Peacekeepers are a military operation that believes in order. With bandits and zombies roaming the streets, the city is on tenterhooks just waiting for something, or someone, to upset the balance.
Enter Aiden from outside Villedor’s walls. Aiden is a Pilgrim, which means he runs between settlements to deliver supplies. Most people don’t like Pilgrims, presumably because they take too long to deliver Uber Eats orders. Aiden has come to Villedor to look for his sister, Mia. When they were children, she and Aiden were experimental subjects. The link to these experiments is a clunky part of the story, as we’re forced to view contrived flashbacks and put up with him struggling to remain human at inopportune times. To find Mia, Aiden will have to build trust with occupants of the city. After a constrained and lengthy introduction, Aiden is set free to perform quests, gather supplies, and cut down zombies.
The tasks in the city are broad and usually entertaining, despite some repetition. The city has two main areas with several districts in each. Every district has either a water tower (to climb) or an electrical station (to reconnect), then they can be allocated to one faction. This will fill the district with either Peacekeeper traps or Survivor navigation aids. Windmills will also become bases once they are climbed—each one is slightly different, like the towers in Far Cry 4—although the finished bases all look identical. Other activities are more dangerous; anomalies have a boss infected to defeat and research facilities, crawling with infected, provide character upgrades or valuable crystals. Stores and abandoned convoys can be raided for supplies. Survivors might need rescuing and parkour race challenges are there to gain skill points. Many activities have a similar framework, so some can get a little boring.
The side quests have a predictable structure too, but at least they use unique characters and stories. Some quest examples include collecting rare books, gathering special dark red blood from a boss zombie, or finding the source of water contamination. Some quest givers drone on for far too long, but dialogue can be skipped. At the target location there might be hostiles, but not every activity features combat. Aiden might have to follow footprints with his special survivor sense, or climb up/through a particularly tall building. What matters is that the story for each of these quests at least tries to make them feel unique.
When it comes to story, it’s either weird or depressing. The bizarre quests have silly tasks, like catching a scarf or collecting dating profiles from a dark zone. There are a few dry laughs here and there, but the narrative is pretty miserable overall. You might witness a man jump to his death from guilt, or put a dog out of its misery after some kids chase it into an infected building. Even the main quests usually offer a choice between two undesirable paths. There are so few moments of hope or joy across the 40-hour adventure, it makes taking on more side quests difficult, when you know it’s probably going to end badly.
Speaking of ending badly, Dying Light 2 has a terrible epilogue. Although most threads are resolved, the delivery is atrocious. The final sequence uses the only working vehicle, forces a conflict against a group that asked to parley, includes a terrible four-phase boss fight, and has third-person cutscenes. Like other quests, it has locked chests in side rooms for Aiden to open, despite the sense of urgency. It is incomplete and unsatisfying, no matter what choices were made. Capturing structures for Survivors or Peacekeepers makes little difference. Only a few story choices alter outcomes and this typically just changes the summary that is displayed as white text on a black background. And when it’s done, the game takes players back to when one main character is lying incapacitated and expects them to go off and do any incomplete activities in the world.
At least the gameplay is great, thanks largely to the parkour movement that remains much the same as the previous game. At first the parkour traversal can be a bit clunky, due to momentum and movement that is not quite the same as other first-person games. But once you get the hang of it, and unlock a few essential upgrades (like dash, slide, and wall run) the movement system is excellent. The first area of the game is a pleasure to navigate, with similar height buildings just within jumping distance of each other, and many natural running channels over street lights or vehicles. The streets below are never too far away to leap down and hack away at zombies, if that tickles your fancy.
The second area in the game features high-rise buildings and so the balance of parkour movement changes. First you get access to a paraglider, which is essential because of the height differential. To help use it, air vents provide lift to soar for longer. Unfortunately the paraglider is a bit clumsy, even when upgraded, and generally slow to activate. Many tall buildings are still climbable though, so crashing into the face of one is not so bad. Players will also get a grapple, which finds the most use when climbing around tall buildings specifically designed for it. A lot of work has gone into the high-rise area to make it easy to navigate, but it never matches the simple joy of running across the lower rooftops in the first area.
The combat is almost as good as the movement. It’s extremely satisfying to fight both zombies and humans alike. The basic swinging action, side-to-side, via either quick attacks or powerful ones, usually nets some gore and detached limbs. There are many useful moves in battle, including dodge, grapple, and block. Staggered enemies can be climbed on and used as a springboard to kick another foe. There is a heap of offensive tools, like grenades, mines, throwing knives, molotovs, and ranged weapons like bow and arrows. Even single-use items of opportunity, like spears, can switch the balance. Many of the melee weapons can be improved with various elemental boosts, although these mods take forever to upgrade because progression is quite slow.
The nighttime part of the sequel lacks the focus and tension of the original. Aiden has to take immune boosters in dark areas, which adds a time pressure to activities; the time can be extended with health and stamina upgrades. But since boosters are common, it just means using them when the game beeps annoyingly. While it’s brighter outside at night than in the original, this is actually kind of nice for navigation and interiors are still moody. The atmosphere remains excellent, with distant screams and unsettling zombie gurgling. Unfortunately night runs are no longer stressful or scary. You won’t lament getting caught far from home when the sun sets. One reason for this is because those big muscular Volatiles are now hidden away; they no longer roam outside at night. My first Volatile encounter occurred about 15 hours into the game, when entering a metro tunnel during the day—something the game recommends against.
Even though Volatiles have been pushed aside, there are still chases at night. Special Howler zombies stand on the street and will scream if they see you, thus beginning a chase sequence that has four danger levels like a GTA wanted system. Fast zombies burst from doors and hatches, giving chase as you clamber about. These chase zombies can tackle you, but it’s just not the same type of fear. Even on the hardest difficulty, it is simple to escape the first level of a chase, with so many safe spots and interior spaces. Also the Howlers are easy to avoid by remaining on rooftops. And since the Volatiles only show up at the higher chase levels, you might not even see them during regular play. Rather than ask players to navigate the dark carefully, like in the original, the night tempts them to mess around.
The other problem with night chases is that there is no mini-map like in the first game. The compass and HUD icons only give a rough guide as to what is ahead: howlers, quest markers, survivors in peril etc. The 360 degree threat indicators are too vague about range. You won’t know pursuers are close until you get a slap on the back. Maybe the 2D mini-map was too important in the original, but it added so much to both pre-chase and chase scenarios. Conceptually the night is more like a slightly harder version of the day, rather than its polar opposite, and the lack of contrast and tension is a disappointment in the sequel.
Day or night, the single player is technically satisfactory. It performs well on a relatively aging system, running consistently well on high settings. Even the loads are quick when fast-travelling between unlocked metro stations. The city is impressive visually with a lot of unique structures, points of interest, and great detail at short to mid range. Characters have pretty good lip syncing and their animations look decent, despite some clipping issues when they walk through each other. There are a few bugs when playing alone. The most annoying is when the survivor sense stops functioning, making it hard to locate resources until it fixes itself. Other times the game would not even let me go to sleep at night, which is cruel for insomniacs.
If you want to run about with others, 4-player cooperative play is available, but it’s practically broken a week after launch. The majority of games simply do not connect, whether it’s via quick find, the server list, or when you get a distress call from another player. If you are lucky enough to enter a game, co-op is prone to far more bizarre issues. It was not uncommon to join a game with all sound effects muted. Story quests can be completed but all players have to be near people/doors to begin each cutscene. Some doors did not recognize this, effectively breaking the quest. Although you keep any items you find during co-op, there is no quest/story persistence when joining others because everybody’s world is their own.
Despite the issues, Dying Light 2 is still mostly a good sequel. It is held together by fun parkour movement and gruesome melee combat. There is a wide range of activities to undertake, although some are a bit too similar. The story is not good, mostly because the ending is awful and the narrative tends to be miserable. Changes to the night gameplay mean it is not as effective as the original. Even the basic cooperative play is currently not in a healthy state. So unfortunately you will run into issues, while you are running from zombies, but that’s the nature of pandemics: they’re not always easy to navigate.