Techland has aimed to make Dying Light 2 Stay Human a much more ambitious follow-up to its 2015 open-world parkour zombie mashup. Notably, story has been given greater emphasis in pre-release footage, with Techland promising a narrative that can unfold with what seems to be hundreds of different possibilities. And in order to find out how it all actually plays, I went hands-on with Dying Light 2 on PC for about four hours of preview.
Dying for a Good Story in Dying Light 2
No one played Dying Light for its story, yet it’s seemingly become a key feature in Dying Light 2, because the small cast of characters I met during my preview session gave me more to chew on than the entirety of Dying Light. You play as Aiden Caldwell, a parkour-savvy pilgrim looking for his sister, Mia, in The City, humanity’s last hope for civilization. Things are not looking good for the Survivors and Peacekeepers, two of The City’s leading factions, as they are both lacking resources and not on friendly terms. Also, Aiden is infected and could turn at any minute. Great!
Aiden seems fine as a character, but the rest of the cast, like Sophie, Hermann, and Carl, really drew me in. Even jackass characters like Barney have a mischievous side that teases something below the surface. I left wanting to know more about them, thanks in no small part to Techland’s often astonishing presentation. Some far-out views could look muddy, and facial animations were sometimes slightly awkward — but most of Dying Light 2 looks and sounds so good that blemishes are forgivable. Even the PlayStation 4 Pro version, which I spent around a half hour with, looked great, albeit at a lower frame rate.
As Aiden, you steer the course of the story with choices large and small, sometimes with unpredictable consequences. One decision saw me choosing to aid Survivors Barney and Sophie instead of continuing my primary mission to meet up with Aitor of the Peacekeepers. I thought this would mean a closer alliance with the Survivors, but my decision meant my favored faction found out I was communicating with the enemy behind their backs. This led to a fight with Hermann, one of Dying Light 2’s most interesting characters and a gentle giant I had no interest in killing.
I was told that a decision made earlier on in the story would have veered the narrative in a direction separate from the hours I had experienced to that point. I was also shown a power plant, which contained a fun chord puzzle and enough electricity to send power upgrades to one of the two factions. Choose the more aggressive Peacekeepers to spread car traps throughout The City, or side with the less-lethal Survivors to line buildings with handy ziplines. Like with many things in Dying Light 2, the decision is yours, and there will be consequences.
Plagued by the Past
The main questline of Dying Light 2 often felt grounded and even depressing in preview, something the more horrific-looking zombies and overgrown locales reflect. However, the game’s assorted sidequests, while entertaining, can veer into campiness, which can create a distracting tonal clash.
Nonetheless, take a few jumps off the beaten city streets and you’re bound to find an “Encounter,” which can include Parkour Challenges, groups of bandits, loot, Bolter zombies, and more. Then there are climbable, Ubisoft-style windmills, but instead of revealing areas of the map, these points of interest open more Safe Zones that each have small, bustling communities – and a place to rest up. Another feature you’ll be introduced to are Bandit Camps, a side-mission that pumps the brakes on Dying Light 2’s fast-paced parkour. Use binoculars to scope out the area, take out the bandit leader and their underlings with stealth or regular combat, and claim the camp and its rewards to yield an additional Safe Zone. Bandit Camps and Encounters feel awfully derivative, but they don’t bog things down too much with all of the other sidequests to experience.
Even though the open-world formula seems lacking in innovation, Techland has included plenty of quality-of-life improvements. Combat is still the same at its core, but it feels appropriately punchy as you hack off limbs with cleavers and knock enemies into next week with blunt weapons. Lockpicking is back but much better too. Plus, two skill trees – one focused on aggressive combat and one centered on parkour – are each fitted with different abilities unlocked by using materials called Inhibitors.
By far, my favorite change is how zombies behave when Aiden is just moving through The City. Zombies will break through sewer grates and explode out of doors. They’ll fall off balconies and crawl through ventilation shafts to reach the rooftops. Nightlife isn’t quite as dire as it was in the original game, but hazards still make the streets a scary place to be. And just when you get used to the regular walkers, a Goon will come in, swinging a hammer at your feet. For open-world games, moments like these can take a game from feeling like a boring scripted mess to something organic and natural, and Dying Light 2’s zombies always managed to keep me on my toes. Although, I wish that Honey, a resource necessary for crafting health packs, weren’t impossibly hard to find.
A Leap of Faith
The one thing that gave me pause about Dying Light 2 in preview is maybe its most crucial element – the parkour. I’d often have a blast flowing through foliage and over the rusty obstacles, but other moments it felt like playing through any of the other dozens of open-world games of the last decade.
Specifically, the worry stems from the feeling of movement itself, as opposed to any lack of power-ups early in the game. The height of Aiden’s jumps can be controlled by holding the jump button down. Tap jump for a hop; hold it for a leap. However, while short hopping across the tops of abandoned cars feels natural, I always felt like it took too long to fall from those higher jumps. This lack of weight always felt slightly off, and new parkour elements don’t always pan out either. One new inclusion is sloped surfaces that can make Aiden lose his footing, requiring players to spam the action button to remain stable. Having to do this interrupts the flow of play.
New environmental obstacles fare better though. You can swing from ropes that move dynamically, and there are chandeliers and other hanging objects that have unique physics. Dying Light 2 also seems to ditch the traditional sprint button from the first game, leaving most momentum tied to the analog stick (for players with a controller). Ultimately, while the parkour feels clunky in places, it is at least clear that Techland wants players to move with purpose.
Getting Through the Night in Dying Light 2
Prior to my preview, lead gameplay designer Tymon Smektała had explained the four pillars of design philosophy for Dying Light 2: a vast open world set in the modern dark ages, brutal combat, a day-and-night cycle, and choice-and-consequence-driven gameplay. Dying Light 2 seems to sit safely atop these four pillars, and it is structurally sound in nearly every way. The game is a blast. However, I worry some gameplay elements, like parkour, may not have received the same love as features that Techland really knew needed improvement in the original.
Dying Light 2 Stay Human launches on February 4, 2022, for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X | S.