Techland have a history with first person zombie killing games which is all we tend to associate them with. They might have developed the underrated Call of Juarez series, and produced smaller titles like the fun God’s Trigger, but Dead Island will be the surprise hit that started their notoriety for apocalyptic melee combat games. With Dead Island 2 still swinging in the wind with another developer and publisher, and it being 7 years since they put out Dying Light to fill the void left by that IP ownership debacle, it’s time to see where else they can take the genre in Dying Light 2: Stay Human. There’s clearly been no rush to get the game out, it’s been delayed to allow for sprucing up, and it’s not like we’re swimming in parkour zombie-fests, so they can afford to take their time. It’s also a much more ambitious open world adventure than before, with AAA Hollywood talent booked and a promise of hundreds of hours of content before DLC drops. Will it have been worth the wait, or should it be consigned to the dark?
A fair amount has happened since the end of the first game, and in fairness to players it’s not all apparent unless some deep backstory digging is done, lots of documents are read, and a fair few audio logs listened to. Kyle Crane’s adventures in Harran lead to naught with the city being wiped out to cull the zombie plague. In a less than timely move, the Global Relief Effort (henceforth known as the GRE) developed a vaccine for the Harran virus (known as THV), but being a shady military led organisation they experiment with it and it accidentally gets out in the year 2021. This becomes known as The Fall as the virus rapidly spreads through the world infecting humans and bringing down civilization as we know it. With no effective cure and only ultraviolet light able to suppress the infected, pockets of survivors cluster where they can and try to stay safe. Move on 15 years to 2036 and we take on the role of Aiden Caldwell who’s a Pilgrim – effectively a freelance runner in the wastes of the world – as he wanders what’s left of Europe’s settlements looking for his long lost sister.
Aiden finds himself in the city of Villedor after receiving information that his sister’s whereabouts can be discovered there, but it’s not a warm welcome. The citizens have walled themselves off from the outside and access is tightly controlled. Strangers are not trusted, and it’s clear there are several factions at each others throats spread across the city. Not helping matters, Aiden’s first encounter with a denizen results in him being given a strange piece of tech called a GRE key before the mysterious benefactor is slaughtered by the local bad guys. This paints a target on Aiden’s back, though does have the benefit of him finding out that the man he’s looking for that tortured him and his sister as kids is now chasing him. You’ve got to take a positive somewhere. A breakneck speed introduction to the town ensues and before long the reins come off and Dying Light 2: Stay Human is happy to let Aiden freerun around on various missions, trying not to get any of his limbs gnawed off by the infected littering the streets and dark places.
The principle gameplay is similar to the first game – run, jump and climb around a dense open world following an objective marker, whilst melee slashing/bludgeoning/dismembering anything that gets in the way. Daylight is your friend and only the weakest infected brave the Sun’s harmful rays; night time and darkness are to be treated with fear because that’s where the really nasty things dwell. Much like the unfortunate Kyle Crane in the first one, Aiden is infected on his arrival in Villedor, though the requirement to continually find medication this time is absent. With this being a different infection to THV it’s possible to keep it at bay with UV light, and every resident wears a Biomarker that indicates how close they are to turning into a bloodthirsty monster. Green is good, red is bad, and heading anywhere without those protective UV rays will see your immunity lower. It’s actually a really good mechanic in that it gives you a timer during the night or exploring indoors which you need to keep an eye on. Ignore it or risk it for too long and you’ll not stay human… and it’s game over. There are multiple ways to restore immunity, but it’s a nice additional complication to be aware of when watching out for volatiles and renegade gangs.
The best way to stay safe is clearly high up where you’ll encounter only a few virals at night, and the odd renegade during the day. Really, this is where you want to be as it’s the point of one of the core mechanics, and it really does show off how well the parkour is done. Getting around the rooftops and balconies of Villador is a dream most of the time, and that’s due to the extremely well designed map layout. Sure, some jumps and gaps might be a bit too far until you’ve levelled up, but there’s never a point it becomes completely impossible. Finding outposts on the rooftops means the ability to rest up or scavenge for healing items, and if you find a windmill then there’s the chance to scale it and switch some power on to get the UV working. If the zone the mill is in is controlled by one of the factions then it will add additional structures and side quests around it, changing the layout of the area. As the game progresses and you start supplying water and electricity, they bring the ability to choose who you want to run the zone, and with that you get more defensive combat or parkour options depending on the faction. In fact, the streets are arguably the most boring part of the game and you generally only find yourself on them if you’ve fallen there, or there’s a convoy vehicle to clear of the infected and scavenge through.
With Dying Light 2’s map essentially being in two – old Villador and new – there’s a real contrast in the building types and layout of each. The former is relatively low level and easy to traverse from rooftop to rooftop with leaps and the odd rope bridge; the latter is a testament to steel and glass skyscrapers and challenges your perception of verticality in games. That first moment when you move from one to the other is impressive, and the game doesn’t give you chance to take it in, it just makes you get on with it. Both areas have their charms and are fun to explore, it’s just the new buildings offer much more in the way of a challenge to climb (and an incentive to improve your skills). Most of the time they’re worth it too with collectibles or secrets stashed on the way up. A lot of locations will have side quests tied into them so you’ll end up visiting eventually, but it’s so easy to get distracted and just decide to explore somewhere, and it’s great when it pays off unexpectedly. Sure, the story drives the pace of the game, and that’s unrelenting at times if you doggedly follow only that, though taking a timeout and seeing the city that’s been crafted is highly recommended.
Volatiles are the real monsters of Dying Light 2 and are bigger, stronger and faster than anything else you’ll encounter, of which there’s quite a variety. These bad boys hide in the dark zones of Villador waiting for the unwary to trespass, and venture out at night to hunt those daft enough to journey once the Sun’s gone down. Regardless of how well equipped you are and how fast you think you can be, getting cornered by just one can mean death in a few hits. Come across a group and my advice is simply run to the nearest UV source and hope you make it there before they grab you. Fortunately the volatile encounters are quite rare in comparison to the others especially if you manage to stay undetected. Howlers, bolters, virals, goons and spitters are some of the more common ones you’ll face and aren’t too taxing to take down as long as you can keep some space around you. For the masochistic gamer there’s a new type called the revenant which can be sought out that are failed GRE experiments – pure killing machines with the ability to re-animate the dead. Most of the difficult foes need to be found to start a fight with, and whilst it might not be enticing to begin with, killing them nets rewards that are needed to improve Aiden and his kit.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human looks like an action adventure, though in reality it’s an unapologetic RPG. Levelling up Aiden’s immunity, kit, clothes, stats and abilities are baked into the basics of the game. You don’t need to take part in it if you don’t want, but you will struggle otherwise. Firstly there are two skill trees – combat and parkour. Finding GRE stashes with immunity boosters allows you to decide whether the levelling up goes into health or stamina. Skills and abilities are locked behind certain health and stamina barriers, so picking an upgrade path depends on whether you want to be able to batter the enemies with flair, or scale the tallest structures. There are not enough upgrades in one playthrough to do both, so compromises have to be made. Next it’s the skills themselves that are opened by gaining XP for running around and bashing zombies, and this is the only way to gain the unlock tokens to buy a new move. Aiden’s clothing also gets involved where the 6 pieces of apparel that can be changed offer different stats depending on their affiliation style (tank, medic, etc.). Finding these in containers or on dead enemies means there’s a near constant supply of threads to check out. All of these combined make Aiden a better character, though there’s not an easy place to see what holistic effect it’s having, you’re just taking it on faith.
Upgrading isn’t just for the player, items and weapons get the same treatment. Falling into two camps, there’s consumables that are crafted for health, immunity, boosters and support items; and mods that add effects to the weapons as well as repairing them. When a blueprint is found for a specific mod or item, Aiden is able to craft it on the fly assuming he’s got the right parts needed (scavenging 101). Blueprints can be improved to make better quality items and mods, and presenting them to merchants along with the requisite parts and cash will get that done. Of course, what’s needed for the higher levels of blueprints becomes more challenging to obtain, which is all well and good in a game like Dying Light 2, but it is really, really, really grindy to get anything half decent. Blueprint upgrades need different types of zombie tokens (called Infected Trophies) which only come from defeating specific enemy types, and whilst the most common ones are the virals which are fairly easy to beat, you’ll need to have slaughtered a shed load to upgrade a blueprint fully… and that’s before the higher level upgrades kick in and you need oodles of rarer zombie tokens too. On paper I’m sure this is a good idea to encourage exploration and combat variation, in practice it’s a massive chore and one that that you don’t even need to bother with as long as you’re content to stick with the base level blueprints.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human also has unique items that become a key part of Aiden’s traversal and survival, known as Nightrunner tools (a pretty self explanatory name). Yep, you guessed it, these can be upgraded too, but this time they need Military Tech which can only be found in hard to reach airdrops. At least these seem to have a decent purpose and solving the traversal puzzles to get to the drops can be fun. Plus there’s the incentive that the tools only have a couple of upgrade levels unlike the 10 for each blueprint… and the game is bugged and gives you the Military Tech again if you visit the same air drop after a period of time. There’s a lot going on under the surface of the FPS part of the game, and at stages it feels like it’s there to add an unnecessary complication or stretch out the gameplay. Running alongside everything is the currency system which you use to buy items with and gain when you sell. Why this couldn’t just be used for vendor blueprint upgrades I don’t know, and maybe it was meant to be at one stage because I never found myself short of a coin or two. Interestingly you can actually scavenge coins from vending machines which are known as Gulden Coins and these can only be used to throw and distract enemies. So I suppose that’s another currency at play too.
Techland also go overboard with the graphics options for Dying Light 2: Stay Human on the latest gen consoles and PC, with performance, resolution and quality all selectable at any stage. Performance does what you’d expect and runs at 60 fps throughout, though at 1080p; resolution mode goes for near-4K with a framerate of 30 fps; and quality mode takes the 30 fps and locks at 1080p whilst making use of ray tracing to make it look as good as it can. You can change all of them at will from the pause menu, though I found I preferred the presentation from the performance mode with the faster framerate. Regardless of mode, the character portrayal and capture is very good, giving everyone you meet a depth and realism that helps cement the story. Obviously the standout is Rosario Dawson as Lawan, but that shouldn’t detract from what the others deliver. Dialogue is quite heavy, there’s a lot of it in both the cutscenes and radio calls whilst on the move, and it’s a testament to the focus of the developer on getting all of that conveyed without getting dull. It helps that the audio design is spot on for the atmospherics driven by the lighting effects, especially in the dark zones, and a decent surround setup will have you knowing exactly where that volatile is about to leap on you from.
Is it all sweetness and light when it comes to stability? Well no. I didn’t come across anything game breaking and didn’t have any crashes either, but Dying Light 2 doesn’t play well with the PS5’s rest mode. Around the 3rd or 4th boot up I’d find that the frames started to tear during movement and it needed a restart to fix it. There’s an impact on the cutscenes too where the NPCs involved would just give up movement so you’d have a static figure as your camera moved around and interacted with them. It’s mildly amusing as you pass through them, or have other none related NPCs photobomb the scene, but not exactly the best thing to watch. For trophy and achievement hunters some of those are bugged, and I’ve got early story related ones missing from the collection for some unknown reason. That’s all cosmetic though, the structure of the game and confidence in what it’s delivering is solid, and in this world of large day one patches and fundamentally broken games, it’s not that bad a situation. Arguably, one of the biggest issues is actually there’s very little peril in exploring the world. Dying will reset you to a nearby safe house, but you don’t lose anything for it. All collectables are still intact, XP is saved and objectives completed. It’s a respawn rather than a death, and it takes a lot of the tension out of what was unique in the first game that made the night terrifying.
There’s a huge amount of content in Dying Light 2: Stay Human, the story alone is a decent length. Techland say 20 hours, but realistically you’re not going to mainline that without getting side-tracked, so add on 50% again at least. Then there’s the alternate options you could take in the story that change the outcome, the new game plus to max out your stats and abilities, and the simple joy of exploring the whole of the city from bottom to top. Yes, there’s some padding in there, not least the multistage final boss fight which went on far too long and that you weren’t ever prepared for, and some really odd design choices in the upgrade systems; yet it doesn’t make the game worse, just gives you more to do. The support for this over the coming years is likely to be significant, and you’re definitely getting your money’s worth from the base game, so anyone on the fence shouldn’t have concerns about diving in. There’s also the drop in/drop out co-op that brings options for clearing dark zones and dealing with the volatiles as a team which I’ve not even tried yet. It’s a monster of a game that’s far from perfect, though deserves its place in the UV spotlight.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human is out now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox X|S, PC, and will be coming to Switch via the cloud at a later date.
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