Dying Light 2 is an ugly game. Taking place some 15 years after Techland’s parkour-fueled 2015 open world original, it’s set against a world completely ravaged by the viral outbreak that began back in Harran, where disputes are solved with a rusty iron pipe to the head and the people holed up in the small number of medieval settlements barricaded against the breakout are well beyond hope (this is a grimly prescient thing in more ways than one).
With its streets lined by crumbled concrete, patrolled by renegades in hockey masks and spiked leather jackets and where the surly survivor’s wardrobes seem to come entirely from Wickes, Dying Light 2 has an aesthetic that’s straight out of a second tier Xbox 360 game. It’s light on innovation but Dying Light 2 has the scope and breadth of your modern triple-A, rippling with systems and overwhelming in size. It looks and feels like the most ambitious Xbox 360 game ever made, and I’m fairly certain I mean that as high praise.
Coming seven years after the original game and now armed with a new and often outrageous scope, it’s a modern blockbuster in more ways than one, complete with a bulging grab bag of systems lifted from triple-A successes of recent years and like too many other modern blockbusters it comes with a turbulent development mired by high profile departures and reports of dire management. This is a broad, brutal thing, occasionally rough-edged, yet for all its stumbles it is massively entertaining.
Put a lot of that down to the fundamentals of the original, which provide the foundation and are here newly finessed. Underpinning Dying Light 2 is the same heavily pronounced day/night cycle: under sunlight the streets are speckled with the stumbling infected, while building interiors are awash with them; by night they come out and those streets are more ferocious still, and mere survival until sunrise becomes your priority, with safe houses and spots doused in UV light acting as respite.
These mad dashes to safety in the midnight hours are where Dying Light 2’s systems come into focus, and indeed where Dying Light 2 is at its best. The first-person parkour is simply brilliant, its integration into a vast, dense open world simply astonishing, and the act of getting from A to B is an absolute thrill.
As in the original, the parkour moveset is slow to build momentum with the bulk of abilities unlocked via a skill tree – it took about 20 hours for me to unlock the simple slide that allowed me to scoot through small spaces, and another dozen or so to have the full suite of wall-running skills – but by the end you’re pouncing from wall to wall like a panther, tying together dazzling runs from rooftop to rooftop. It’s sublime.
This is a stubbly Mirror’s Edge with knuckledusters on, and it’s to Techland’s credit that they’ve managed to serve that moveset so well with its open world – something DICE sadly stumbled at itself with Catalyst. Get stuck in the quagmire of the streets and you might trigger off a chase that escalates in stages, GTA-style, where you’ll bound from car bonnet to a fire escape before scuttling away to the rooftops in one swift succession. The amount of traversal options available to you at any one time is simply staggering, and that it holds together at all feels like an outstanding achievement in itself.
As a first-person platformer, it’s hard to think of anything that can match what Dying Light 2 achieves (though there’ll always be a place in my heart for the OG, the PlayStation’s dear Jumping Flash). At various points in the campaign there might be windmills to climb to unlock new safe zones, or TV towers to ascend, and they provide platform challenges that unfold gratifyingly. Yes, someone’s been kind enough to paint every ledge you might be able to latch onto in bright yellow, yet there’s still some thought that needs to be put into planning the path upwards, the best challenges and parkour runs putting to mind the fleet-footed Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
It’s not flawless, with a persistent stickiness to ziplines and fuzziness to movements that can sap some of that momentum. There’s the sense, too, that the ambition isn’t always matched by the execution – there’s a light Metroidvania touch in Dying Light 2, amongst its myriad other influences, as you collect Inhibitors ferreted around the map to unlock more health or stamina so that you can perform greater feats of athleticism and scale buildings that bit easier, but it’s something only ever gestured towards rather than fully realized.
The deftness of traversal is in bold contrast to the clumsy ferocity – intentional, that is – of Dying Light 2’s combat. This is a game pointedly without guns, excused in the narrative by a world that’s lost the expertise to craft weapons, which means to get things done in Dying Light 2 you’ll have to get your hands dirty. Which is just as satisfying, in its own way, as the parkour; there’s a cathartic crunch to melee battle, given a fierce edge by the weapons which can be modded out via blueprints. Because in this game there are hatchets, and then there are hatchets with fizzing shock mods in the shaft and spitting flames at the edges.
Combat is served by its own skill tree, with the same slow trickle of new movesets unlocked by the combination of specific XP and how much health you’ve available. There are deliberate choices to be made in how you build your own character, pushing them towards either athleticism or bare-knuckled brutishness, and it’s a choice that even extends to the open world itself. Within Dying Light 2 there are facts you can all yourself with, the city changing in tune to those choices. Pick one side and they might strengthen up the defenses on the infected-infested lower levels; pick another and you’ll unlock more options up on the rooftops, with parkour equipment being put in place or putting big yellow trampolines on the streets that propel you skywards (why you wouldn’t opt for the trampolines is beyond me).
Choice is somewhat paramount to the story, with main character Aiden Caldwell’s underlying quest to find his sister Mia providing the main thread, out of which Dying Light 2 spins so much. It’s a story told predominantly in shades of grey, presumably to give space for your own input, though sadly the results tend towards incoherence more than moral ambiguity. Caldwell himself is a non-entity – again, presumably by design – though that’s more on the writers than voice actor Jonah Scott.
There’s too much grit and never enough character for Dying Light 2’s story moments – of which there are many – to land, but what’s there does at least give the sprawl of Dying Light 2 a human heart, kept pumping along by standout turns from Jonathan Forbes ‘ Hakon and Rosario Dawson’s Lawan. There are big story choices that have big consequences – with branching dialogue moments upon which your own plot line will pivot even if it still feels like it funnels towards the same endpoint. It’s bluntly done but impactful nonetheless, the overall effect like a Fallout-lite.
Away from the main quest line, there’s plenty to do. I guess the measure of an open world is how easy it is to get distracted within it, and Dying Light 2 excels here. Some of the best evenings I’ve had with it have been idly running through the city at night, rescuing stragglers and raiding night stores while occasionally picking up a side story thread to pick at, or simply ticking off the numerous parkour challenges.
Here’s a blockbuster, also, that only blossoms if you persevere. The prologue is a little overlong, the first area that houses the first dozen hours or so is a little dreary, but push through some leaden pacing and Dying Light 2 brightens at its core. In the vaster map around The City’s center there’s variety and color in abundance. It’s a post-apocalypse that’s told in the same lushness of The Last of Us, and can even be quite a pretty thing.
There are stumbles here and there – including infrequent technical issues, which again seem synonymous with the territory of a game of this scope, with models infrequently popping awkwardly into each other or levitating a few feet from the ground – but they’re infrequent enough to be overpowered by the ambition of everything else that’s in play. Dying Light 2 is not exactly an innovative game, but it’s one that throws so much together with an enthusiasm that is, if you’ll pardon the pun, infectious. Even more commendably, for the most part it sticks.
I can’t pretend to be an expert in big blockbuster games – the bloat and overstated breadth isn’t exactly to my taste – but Dying Light 2, with its varied systems lifted wholesale from elsewhere, is a welcome reminder of how hugely entertaining they can be There’s a brutality to its breadth, to the vastness of its world – this is the triple-A experience served up with the subtlety and grace of a modified hammer to the head. It’s rarely elegant, but it is most definitely enjoyable.