dying-light-2-review

Dying Light 2 is bigger, bolder, and better than the original.

When Dying Light was first released in early 2015, it wasnโ€™t met with the warmest reception. It was an enjoyable zombie adventure, largely due to its unique parkour system, but that was pretty much the only thing the game had going for it at launch. The game has come a surprisingly long way since its launch though, and the original Dying Light has become one of the most beloved zombie games in recent memory through word of mouth and incredibly dedicated post-launch support. It may not seem like that much time has passed since the first game was released, but itโ€™s been 7 years since the game shipped and updates have still been dropping even in the days leading up to the sequelโ€™s release.

To put that in perspective, when Dying Light launched, the first episode of Life is Strange was days away from release, the world had not yet seen the likes of Bloodborne, The Witcher 3, or Metal Gear Solid V, and ethesda was months away from hosting its first-ever E3 conference. The point is, Dying Light 2 is releasing into a wholly different industry than its predecessor, and it needs to do more than slap a fun parkour system onto a mediocre zombie game. The stakes are understandably high for the sequel, and Dying Light 2 has a lot to live up to.

Techlandโ€™s ambitious promises leading up to release have only added to the hype, and while Dying Light 2 doesnโ€™t quite fulfill the promise of a living, breathing city where every single decision can alter the course of the story, itโ€™s still a remarkably well-made sequel that delivers on practically every front. After spending dozens of hours across two playthroughs sprinting through the streets (and across the rooftops) of Dying Light 2โ€™s Villedor, itโ€™s clear that Techlandโ€™s vision for this ambitious sequel mostly stuck the landing.

The Perfect Concrete Jungle Gym

Even though thereโ€™s a giant number 2 attached to the title, Dying Light 2 is a standalone story set in an entirely different location than the first game. There are very minor references to the first game that eagle-eyed fans will catch, but you can go into this game totally blind and still have an excellent time. Dying Light 2 takes place many years after the first game too, and the virus has progressed to the point where there are very few populated cities remaining at all. You play as Aiden, who comes to the city of Villedor in search of his missing sister. Aiden is a Pilgrim, a sort of messenger that travels between the few remaining settlements to deliver goods and messages. Because of his status as a Pilgrim, he is an outsider to the citizens of Villedor and must slowly gain their trust while also working through his own personal story, making decisions that will shape the cityโ€™s future along the way.

As youโ€™d expect, the parkour is the shining star of Dying Light 2. The traversal in the first game was already great, but the sequel improves upon it in every way. Aiden feels a bit lighter than Crane did in the first game, so you can reach ledges and cross gaps with ease. Thereโ€™s a parkour-centric skill tree that unlocks new abilities like wall-running, a super satisfying long jump that lets you boost off of ledges, and much more. Once you have a few parkour skills under your belt, you really start to feel like youโ€™re flying through the city.

There are a few additional tools at your disposal this time around as well, namely a paraglider and a grappling hook. Both start out fairly underwhelming, but with upgrades, they become integral to traversal. The paraglider can eventually boost to help you maintain altitude, and the grappling hook can be attached to basically any point on any surface, allowing you to freely swing around the city. When upgraded, the grappling hook even lets you pull yourself forward using the rope, which basically lets you swing through the city like Spider-Man. Itโ€™s very easy to enter a flow state when youโ€™re using all of your tools in one long parkour combo. Jumping off of a roof, using the paraglider to reach a lower ledge, wall-running on a skyscraper, and then using the grappling hook to pull yourself into a window, there really arenโ€™t any places you canโ€™t reach in Dying Light 2.

Thatโ€™s mostly due to the outstanding world design. Creating linear parkour paths is hard enough, but designing an entire city with two huge districts and making every single possible route flow together naturally is no easy task. Thereโ€™s always something a platform just within jumping distance, a ledge just within your armโ€™s reach. Buildings interiors feel perfectly placed, cars (which are safe landing spots from any height) are parked in just the right spots. Every block of Villedor feels handcrafted like a perfect concrete jungle gym.

A Populated Post-Apocalyptic Playground

A massive world is nothing without activities to fill it, however, and Dying Light 2โ€™s city always has something going on. Random encounters can take place all over the city, ranging from saving wounded survivors to taking out bandits to battling special infected. The rewards for these always feel worthwhile, usually leading you to a chest with a weapon or gear piece. Windmills are scattered all across Villedor and provide power to local settlements, unlocking new vendors and, more importantly, new side quests. Water towers and electrical substations, with the former being parkour challenges and the latter being puzzle rooms, can be assigned to one of two factions in order to increase their control of the city.

Dark hollows and abandoned stores are filled with gear and valuables, but your only chance of surviving them is at nighttime, which is another fantastic change made in this sequel. Both daytime and nighttime excursions have their own benefits and activities. Infected are asleep inside dark buildings during the day, making the streets safer to traverse, but you canโ€™t get inside any buildings to loot resources or gear. If you wait until nightfall, you can get inside and face fewer infected foes, but youโ€™ll have to stick to the rooftops and avoid the now crowded streets to get there.

Thereโ€™s even a new chase system, which is basically a wanted level, that begins when youโ€™re spotted by a new special infected class called a Howler. To end a chase, you must either get far away enough from the infected or reach a safe zone with UV lights. Youโ€™re also limited by a timer at night that decreases when youโ€™re in the dark, but it lasts a few minutes and can be fully restored with items or by stepping into UV light for a short time. All of these nighttime changes make the day/night cycle matter much more in Dying Light 2, and thereโ€™s no longer a reason to sleep until morning every time it gets dark. Itโ€™s an engaging risk/reward mechanic that actually encourages nighttime play.

The gameโ€™s audio design also plays a large part in making Villedor a fun place to explore. During the day, thereโ€™s great music that swells up as you do more parkour, and you can hear distant survivors clearing out infected or fighting with bandits. Things really get intense when the sun goes down though. Nighttime is permeated with the shrieks of faraway infected and the screams of survivors making their last stand. Itโ€™s genuinely harrowing at times, and it really sells the idea that nighttime is not the best time to be out and about.

Fight to Survive

Audio also makes combat feel much more visceral. Techland has removed guns from this sequel entirely, so itโ€™s just melee weapons and bows this time around. The crack of a bat against a banditโ€™s skull, the clang of a metal pipe blocking a machete strike, every attack feels and sounds like it has actual weight behind it. Aiden is also very vocal during combat encounters, grunting and yelling with every swing and huffing and puffing when heโ€™s low on stamina. The enemies do the same, and even though itโ€™s a small touch, it goes a long way in making fights feel like life or death duels between actual people.

Combat is much more than just swinging sticks around though. Parkour plays a large role in fights, and it can be the difference between life or death in some situations. One of the first actions you unlock allows you to vault over stunned enemies to kick one of their allies, and you can unlock other parkour attacks like dropkicks and perfect dodges as you level up. Enemies will regularly block standard attacks too, forcing you to mix things up to land consecutive hits. The game gives you so much flexibility when it comes to combat encounters, and thatโ€™s very appreciated.

Wrestle for Control

One of the major selling points of Dying Light 2 is the city control system, which adjusts Villedorโ€™s overall faction alignment based on which facilities you assign to which faction. There are only two factions in Dying Light 2, and each is basically the polar opposite of the other. There are the Peacekeepers, a militaristic faction that values security and order above all, even if that comes at the cost of personal freedoms. Opposed to them are the Survivors, which are, well, everyone else. The Survivors value freedom and community, hoping that the people of Villedor can put aside their differences and make sure everyone has what they need to survive.

If one of those sounds like the obvious choice over the other, then youโ€™d be right. The main problem with the dual faction dynamic in Dying Light 2 is that the Peacekeepers just arenโ€™t as appealing as the Survivors. The initial Peacekeeper grunts you deal with arenโ€™t the most likable people in the world, and even though the higher-ups you interact with later in the story are a bit more charismatic, itโ€™s still hard to shake the first impression that their ideology makes. Theyโ€™re not as comically evil as, say, Caesarโ€™s Legion from Fallout: New Vegas, a faction with an ideology that nobody legitimately supported unless they were a fascist or just delusional, but itโ€™s still hard to see the Peacekeepers as the faction thatโ€™s supposed to be โ€œthe bad guys.โ€

Thatโ€™s not to say the Peacekeepers donโ€™t have interesting or sympathetic characters within their ranks or that the Survivors donโ€™t come with their own share of problems, but it feels like the game really leans toward you running with the Survivors for your real run and then just messing around with the Peacekeepers on a repeat playthrough.

Outside of the narrative problems with the factions, the gameplay side of things also didnโ€™t pan out all that well. Each faction has a skill line that you progress through by assigning facilities to them, so a choice that should be a serious narrative decision (who gets control of a district) ends up being reduced purely to โ€œwhich reward do I want next.โ€ The game is heavily biased toward the Survivors in this aspect as well, since they will place incredibly useful parkour assists like trampolines and zip lines around town. The only cool thing the Peacekeepers really have is a crossbow. The gameplay rewards should have been given out based on how many facilities youโ€™ve unlocked in total, that way you would base your decision on which faction is best for the city overall.

With how much the faction and city control system was hyped up prior to launch, the current implementation in Dying Light 2 feels half-baked. Most players wonโ€™t even think about it all that much outside of the rewards, as most of the major faction decisions come through the main story anyway. This system would have been much more engaging if it was more dynamic, perhaps with each faction retaking each otherโ€™s zones like in Saints Row. Itโ€™s an interesting foundation, but in its current state, itโ€™s underwhelming.

Shape Your Story

Thankfully, the faction dynamic works much better in the gameโ€™s main narrative. Dying Light 2โ€™s overall plot is not very interesting. Aiden comes to Villedor searching for his sister, but Aidenโ€™s quest to find his sister is easily the weakest part of the story. Dying Light 2โ€™s story is at its best when itโ€™s either letting you make serious decisions or letting you spend some quiet time with the supporting cast.

Choices were heralded as one of the major new features of Dying Light 2, with players supposedly being able to shape the city in many different ways. While the choices arenโ€™t as in-depth as the marketing would have you believe, the narrative can branch pretty heavily, resulting in different quest lines, locales, and characters. The game pauses and gives you a timer when youโ€™re given a decision that will actually have consequences, but normal dialogue options can still lead to different quest paths, particularly in side quests.

The big decisions have equally large consequences, and youโ€™ll usually be locked out of something or cause a major character death by going one way or the other. You may want to go with the Survivors for one decision, for instance, but the Peacekeepers have better resources and could also be a good choice. Since these decisions are made independent of the city control system, you can choose purely based on what you feel is right. This can lead to some uneasy alliances with characters you may have never worked with otherwise, and itโ€™s unlikely that most players will make the same overall decisions during a playthrough since everyone will probably have different takes on certain characters and plans.

Ironically, side quests feel like they give much more control to the player than the main story. The main story is quite linear until you reach a predetermined branching point, but in most side quests, your normal dialogue options can dramatically affect the outcomes. All side quests are self-contained as well, serving as bite-sized stories that flesh out Villedor and give you a great sense of agency within the narrative. The side quests range from short comedic tales to fake kidnappings to trade deals gone wrong. Thereโ€™s a ton of variety and you never really know if youโ€™re going to get a shockingly heartfelt side story or a fun little adventure.

At the end of the day, though, Dying Light 2 is carried by its characters. Aiden is likable, if a bit unremarkable, but itโ€™s those he hangs out with that are the highlight of the game. Lawan in particular, portrayed by Rosario Dawson, is the heart of the story, and she steals just about every scene sheโ€™s in. Characters like Hakon and Frank are easy favorites as well, equally great for comic relief and tugging at the heartstrings, and on the Peacekeeper side of things, you have characters like the proud but composed Jack Matt.

The scenes and decisions involving these characters are infinitely more compelling than the overarching Peacekeepers vs. Survivors power struggle. Do you forsake your personal quest to save a friendโ€™s life? Do you forgive someone, even if theyโ€™ve seriously wronged you? If the possibility of a liar arises, who do you trust? Itโ€™s not just the big decisions like those that matter, but also the smaller, more personal ones, like choosing the best strategy to take when comforting a friend in a time of need. Despite a blank slate protagonist and a so-so antagonist, Dying Light 2โ€™s character moments are surprisingly affecting.

Thatโ€™s largely due to the performances of everyone involved. Aidenโ€™s personality isnโ€™t all that intriguing, but his voice actor nailed his performance. Itโ€™s the little things, like Aiden muttering โ€œthat was coolโ€ to himself after landing a tricky jump or surprising an ally with a tongue-in-cheek remark over the radio. The gameโ€™s performances really elevate what would be average writing, and they help the good characters stand out even more. Facial animations could have used some work, especially since the game never breaks from the first-person perspective so youโ€™re always close to peopleโ€™s faces, but theyโ€™re good enough and the voice acting helps to cover that stuff up.

Looking Forward

What is most exciting about Dying Light 2, however, is the promise of whatโ€™s coming next. Techland has already committed to 5 years of post-launch support, and while weโ€™ll see how far that support ends up going, the first Dying Light establishes a promising blueprint. Compared to its launch version, the original Dying Light is a much, much better game today. Knowing Dying Light 2 will get that same treatment is exciting.

The Verdict

Dying Light 2 is a bigger and bolder sequel that improves upon the original in every way. Not only does it have one of the most enjoyable traversal systems in any game ever, but it also provides players with interesting characters and quests to break up all the running. The faction system is disappointing in its current iteration, but it sets up a solid foundation that can absolutely be built upon. Most people were expecting top-notch gameplay from a Dying Light sequel, but the story and characters ended up being pleasant surprises. When it comes to open-world zombie games, itโ€™s hard to do better than Dying Light 2.