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Dropkicking zombies is still fun

2015’s Dying Light served as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise overcrowded genre. About 90 percent of zombie games follow a rinse and repeat formula, where you drop into a location, scavenge for items, and shoot down waves of the undead. There was a blatant lack of creativity, and basically, everyone started putting out a ‘Left 4 Dead’ clone. Developer Techland, however, took a more primitive approach by encouraging players to run and survive.

Yes, the game had its problems with the cliche narrative and lazy combat, but the mere involvement of parkour skills set it apart from anything we had seen before. The sequel promises to improve upon these foundations, and brings a choice system that has drastic effects on the surrounding world.

Dying Light 2 review: Story

Our story is set 20 years after the events at Harran. Humanity has lost the war against the virus and has succumbed to a modern Dark Ages lifestyle. Everyone’s clothed in rags and tatters, the streets are swarming with zombies, and humanity, as we know it, is on the brink of extinction. The game often makes references to the prequel, though you need not play it to understand what’s going on here. It’s an entirely new generation – featuring new characters, places, and a reactive plot, which despite imperfections, fares just fine. The team was confident in its gameplay, and therefore, to deliver an equally strong narrative, hired writers from The Witcher 3 team.

Following the fall of Harran, humanity succumbed to a modern Dark Ages lifestyle. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

We play as Aiden Caldwell, a pilgrim who is on the search for his long lost sister, Mia. Flashback sequences suggest that the siblings were test subjects for an underground research program, headlined by a textbook evil doctor, Waltz. The characters at this early stage are quite generic, and the plot conveniences make for a lot of eye-rolling moments.

But, if you manage to sit through for another 30 minutes, Aiden eventually makes it to the heart of Old Villedor. It’s in this bustling, isolated city that the game springs to life. There are people everywhere – living in small enclaves, running errands during the day, and guarding the gates at night.

We’re first introduced to Hakon, a night runner who agrees to help us get past the central tunnel. To get access, you require a biomarker, a watch-like device that monitors your immunity levels, ensuring you don’t turn. It’s around this point the game informs you that everyone is infected, and applies a tutorial segment that neatly ties into the narrative. To create conflict, the script introduces three factions, with whom you can align in varying degrees. Your experience is tailored to the choices you make, though the effects aren’t as significant as the developers make out to be. Sure, there are multiple endings, but a lot of the subplots only go a specific way, regardless of what dialogues you pick.

Dying Light 2 review, Dying Light 2, The Renegades are a faction of mask-donning convicts hellbent on looting and wreaking havoc across the city. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

First, you have the Peacekeepers (PK), a rigid, military group who pride themselves on being able to reinstate law and order through harsh methods. Then there’s the Renegades, a crew of escaped mask-donning prisoners, who go about looting and wreaking across the city. In my playthrough, I aligned with the peaceful Survivors, a faction of regular citizens who utilise their environment to stay alive.

In this arc, you partner with Sophie, a leader who lives in hopes of tipping over the PKs and regaining control of the main water supply. Since you’re an outsider, the two of you don’t really click at the beginning, and constantly argue and get into scuffles with her irate brother, Barney. Finishing quests for her forms an alliance over time, though it is limited to cutscenes. You cannot team up for missions or explore with any of the characters, which is a bummer.

Dying Light 2 review, Dying Light 2, Aligning with the Survivors puts you on a team with Sophie, a leader who hopes to tip over the Peacekeepers. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

Circumstances soon cause you to switch sides and play a double agent for the opposing party. The game changes themes on you, and it turns into a crime drama with twisting revelations and talks of an impending war. Techland did step up their writing this time, offering believable scenarios and a well-rounded cast that function well on their own. Tie them into Aiden’s arc, and it instantly loses charm, owing to his bland nature and constantly wavering motivations.

At the end of the day, he boils down to your average cardboard-cutout protagonist, who forces a deep voice and grunts every once in a while to shed that ounce of emotion.

Dying Light 2 review: Gameplay

Dying Light 2 plays just the way Techland advertised it, but with some hitches. The open world is larger this time and has far more variety in terms of design. The streets are empty, with dilapidated structures, dry vegetation, and dull colour tones. Look to the rooftops though, and you’ll find greenery as far as the eye can see, with citizens growing crops, tending to their shops, and holding campfire parties – all interactive.

Dying Light 2 review, Dying Light 2, The general landscape has a contrast between the vibrant land above and the decaying one at the bottom. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

The sequel stays consistent with what you can expect from its freeform traversal system, though it is a bit more complex. The parkour, which we all fell in love with the first time, is equally crazy and exhilarating – provided you put in the time. What I mean by that is, most of the moves and abilities are locked behind a skill tree. You start as an inexperienced character and slowly work your way up by racking points and unlocking skills to get stronger and more agile.

I’d recommend you dump it all into stamina, as it helps with climbing tall towers and more precise leaps in the later stages. During co-op play, the parkour experience between you and a low-level friend will undoubtedly be different, as the game rewards those who spend more time in it.

Dying Light 2 review, Dying Light 2, The liberating parkour action continues to be a key highlight. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

Once Aiden’s skill tree is dripped out, the whole world becomes your playground. Getting across the map is no longer boring, as you have a range of risky manoeuvres at your disposal. Leaping over buildings feels terrifying, which is amplified as the surrounding sound drones out for a few seconds. Wall running and sliding mechanics feel natural as well, where you’ll occasionally find your “physical” feet jittering with each step. There’s no sprint button this time. You gain speed by upholding momentum, giving you a reason to be fluid and precise with parkour.

A later point in the narrative throws you into a new district, one adorned with tall skyscrapers and billboard advertisements. And accordingly, the game provides a paraglider and a grappling hook for easy traversal, albeit they’re quite messy. I found myself struggling to open and operate the paraglider at times, where either the controls were janky or the button response was delayed.

Dying Light 2 review, Dying Light 2, The paraglider controls were quite janky and sometimes responded too late. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

Not to mention, the overall movement has a “floaty” effect to it, which slows down Aiden when jumping or falling from great heights. It’s jarring and getting used to it takes a while. But if you’re on PC, simply increase the in-game FOV (field of view) to make it a lot more bearable.

The combat, which has improved mechanically, could use some fine-tuning here and there. It is more engaging this time, as you can parry incoming attacks, hop over an enemy, and dropkick the unsuspecting ones into spike railings. Weapon upgrades also help make fights creative, as you can fix a spark mod that not only increases durability, but adds electricity to your makeshift equipment, allowing you to shock foes with each strike. You could also chuck an ignited gas cylinder to ensure chaos, or set a dozen infected ablaze with a well-placed Molotov cocktail.

Dying Light 2 review, Dying Light 2, The combat has seen a drastic improvement, though the human-AI react quite weirdly. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

Unfortunately, the way enemies react is quite weird, and I found the zombies to be smarter than the human AI. When warding off large groups, enemies have no idea how to gang up, letting you hack off their heads one at a time. It never pushes your skills to the limit and becomes more of an endurance test, even on the hardest difficulty. Zombies, however, pose greater threats – creeping up silently and grabbing you by surprise, as you brawl off the ones before you.

It’s at this point I decided to be more of a runner than a fighter. The choice-based system in this title changes the local environment to fit your playstyle. For instance, upon gaining access to the main water supply, Aiden has to pick between assigning control to the Peacekeepers or the Survivors. Depending on who you choose, you gain bonuses in that zone. Siding with the PKs gets you offensive perks, such as car traps that explode upon contact, while the Survivors lay out zip lines for smooth sailing across long distances.

The recurring day and night cycle was the most punishing aspect in Dying Light 1, especially if you were bad at parkour. Darkness is when the undead gain immense strength and speed, chasing you onto rooftops and eventually, biting down your intestines – discouraging many from getting out at dusk. So now, Techland introduced ‘Dark Zones’ as a way to incentivise night-time exploration. During the day, hordes of heliophobic zombies seek refuge inside dark buildings, making it daunting to get through. But if you come back at night, the nests will be empty, letting you stroll right in and collect that rare, beneficial loot.

Dying Light 2 review, Dying Light 2, The newly introduced Dark Zones are ideal spots for gathering rare loot. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

Speaking of loot, the inventory management system in this game is convoluted, or more bluntly put, messy. Throughout the run, you gather hundreds of items – sometimes without even reading the description, and stash them into your backpack. The game never fully explains how to equip or use some of it, and therefore, in hopes of saving time, you resort to using one comfortable loadout, while overcrowding your screen with unwanted junk.

You can’t even be bothered to get rid of it, as it’s again – too much work. Also, the build that I played on would lag every time exited to the menu or during the first minute or two of booting up the game. Hopefully, they get fixed as the day-one patch rolls out.

Dying Light 2 review: Graphics and Audio

Dying Light 2 is striking to look at, rich with vibrant colours that serve as a contrast between the lush greenery of the living and the rotting brown of the dead. The sunset looks almost ethereal, casting long shadows and a natural glow that highlights skin texture, and brings a sense of hope and liveliness to the vast stretches of Villedor.

This is in contrast to the dull colours of the first game, where everything looked grey and no elements really stood out. During night sequences, the purple UV lamps in safehouses not only add a visual pop to the world, but are able to capture any dust or fog in its path, adding that touch of realism.

Dying Light 2 review, Dying Light 2, The purple UV lamps in safehouses add that necessary visual pop to night-time sequences. (Image credit: Dying Light 2)

The ambient music here is top-notch, especially the low-synth, steampunk tracks that play while you’re getting chased by hordes of zombies. It gives you that adrenaline rush to keep running around in circles and toy with them, as you flaunt your parkour skills. However, I found some of the main tracks in this game questionable, almost as if I have heard these before.

The music in the main menu sounds too similar to Blade Runner 2049’s ‘Mesa’ track as if it’s been sped up, with different instruments. Another notable instance is whenever I took a nap, where it would chime in with indie-rock/lo-fi music that mimicked the ones in the game, Disco Elysium. Still enjoyable in their own regard, but the resemblance is hard to ignore.

Dying Light 2 review: Verdict

Dying Light 2 functions better as a standalone RPG (role-playing game) than a direct follow-up to Techland’s grittier, realistic take on the zombie-killing genre. The choice-based dialogue system adds some depth and engagement value to the otherwise cliche narrative, while the new combat mechanic is just inches away from being perfect. The parkour action continues to be the key highlight by a long shot, promising an overall solid, liberating experience that should come to fruition within the next patch or two.

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