Dying Light 2: Stay Human Gameplay And Performance Review - Beautiful But Deeply Flawed
Dying Light 2: Staying Out A Zombie State Was Never More Frustrating
Back in 2011, a little Polish games company released a game called Dead Island. It was a bit buggy and lacking in polish (no pun intended), but it was remarkably ambitious, and succeeded more than it failed. Dead Island was a big hit for the developer, Techland S.A., and so it went that "zombie game" sort of became Techland's bread and butter.
After releasing a sequel to Dead Island, Techland released a game called Dying Light in 2015. Just like the Dead Island games, the new title was a first-person survival horror game, but it was more properly open-world, rather than the "wide linear" style of its predecessor. It also brought a critical change to the core gameplay: parkour. Where the Dead Island characters could be a bit clumsy to control, Dying Light protagonist Kyle Crane was agile and highly mobile, able to clamber over obstacles, climb up ledges, and leap across rooftops.
The original Dying Light was another huge hit for Techland, and it still has an active player base to this day. Dying Light 2, then, refines the formula of the first game. It's set in the same world, but 22 years later, in 2036. Society has fallen apart due to a rampant zombie virus, and "pilgrims" travel between scattered settlements carrying messages, packages, or other valuables. You don't play as Kyle Crane anymore—veterans of the first game will know why—but instead as a young pilgrim named Aiden who's looking for his lost sister.
Fortunately, playing as Aiden is pretty much like playing as Kyle Crane, which is to say that the gameplay remains mostly the same: first-person parkour action, with a heavy emphasis on high-mobility melee combat. There's no firearms at all this time around, and while bows can offer the ability to attack at range, Aiden must mostly rely on his ability to bash, slash, and smash zombies with hand-to-hand combat and a decent variety of makeshift weapons. Like the previous Techland games, there's a crafting system in which you can modify your weapons or craft supplies to keep yourself alive, although it's considerably shallower than in the last game, as weapons themselves are no longer craftable.
Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse In The Dying Light
The core gameplay loop in Dying Light 2, once you get past the four-plus-hour-long tutorial, consists mostly of exploring the city, collecting upgrades, and capturing points of interest for your faction of choice. If that sounds a lot like an Ubisoft-style open-world, well, it should, because this game draws heavily from the library of Far Cry and Assassin's Creed. It even has the haystacks to fall into after you leap from a great height—just that in Dying Light 2, they're mattresses with blue targets on them.
Perhaps the second most-impressive thing in Dying Light 2 is the mostly-seamless open world. Stepping through a window or doorway straight off the street leads you into long-abandoned domiciles and shops full of the walking dead. The number of buildings that have fully-fleshed interiors despite being irrelevant for any greater purpose is nothing short of astonishing. The world is lovingly detailed, though you'll understandably come across plenty of reused assets and duplicated decorations, which can make everything feel a bit too similar at times.
Our biggest complaint with Dying Light 2 is what we would call a schizophrenic approach to immersion. This could have been an incredibly immersive game, with its hyper-realistic presentation, believable open world, and first-person perspective. To be honest, even as folks who normally love first-person games, we found the camera in this game to be offputting and frustrating. It's easy to lose your bearings while exploring the environments—even more-so if you don't raise the narrow default FOV—and it also can be difficult to accurately determine the correct distance for attacking enemies because of the face-first camera.
Aiden uses his hands and feet to climb obstacles, and things in the game world are more or less where you'd expect them to be. Slashing weapons deal more damage, while blunt weapons can knock enemies away. Overall, the experience feels surprisingly realistic, and at times, you'll start to get a little immersed in the game. Then the HUD will pop up some redundant reminder or tutorial tip and it will rip you right out. The real problem, though, is just that the game's rules are exceptionally "gamey." As in, "arcadey," or the opposite of "simulationist."
Aiden opens cabinets with his mind, patches gaping wounds with honey and chamomile, carries a dozen or more weapons at once (nevermind all his resources), and never needs to eat or sleep at all. Lots of games make these abstractions, for sure, but they feel out of place in a game with such realistic presentation. The camera motions, the aforementioned first-person hand and body animations, and the environment give you the impression that the game wants you to be grounded in its world, but it's impossible to feel that way for long.
That's to say nothing of the fact that your "survivor sense" power can even show you items and enemies through walls. Survivor sense in the first game was mostly just a quick shortcut to show you where interactive objects and collectibles were in the cluttered environment. It never made any sense, but now in Dying Light 2 there seem to be certain places where you cannot interact with an object unless it is actively highlighted by your survivor sense. Your author played the majority of the first game without ever using it; here, you're expected to tap the button every 15 seconds no matter what.
Another detriment to your immersion in Dying Light 2, particularly in the early parts of the story, is the way it constantly rips control from your hands for yet another first-person cutscene. We understand that letting players go amok during conversations or tense dramatic moments is a surefire way to ruin whatever emotional impact the developers wanted the scene to have, but frankly put, Dying Light 2 was never going to be The Last of Us, no matter how badly it wants to be. Taking control away so often destroys any sense of urgency, which in turn makes the player check right out of your story. Again, this complaint isn't exclusive or unique to this game; recent Far Cry games are guilty of this too. It's still frustrating here, though.
Speaking of Far Cry, there's a scene early on in Dying Light 2 where a friend asks you to flee through a hidden vent just as the villain of the game appears. Rather than being able to actually run away (like you were told), you are forced to sit and watch as the villain slowly tells your friend a pointless anecdote, then brutally eviscerates him before noticing you and having his flunkies give chase. It's a stupid scene that transparently apes Far Cry with its attempt to set up the villain as a memorable character. That might just be this author's opinion, but the developers really should have left players the option to watch the scene or move.
We wouldn't normally complain about a game leaning harder on gameplay at the cost of immersion, but it feels hypocritical in Dying Light 2, given that the game does many other things that seem to be for the sake of immersion. Simply put, immersion is a lost cause in this game, and so we would have enjoyed leaping across rooftops a lot more if we could have watched Aiden do it. It would help with judging distance for those long jumps, too. Lots of games have the ability to switch between first- and third-person viewpoints, like Bethesda's Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, as well as Grand Theft Auto, so the missing option here feels especially lacking.
Shakespeare, Thy Name Is Not
Speaking of the story, we admittedly did not finish the game, but by the ten-hour mark it is not going anywhere fast. When the game starts, you're dropped in a wooded area outdoors, and given the "pilgrim" premise, you might reasonably expect that you'd spend most of your time traveling between small settlements. Not so; less than an hour in, you're locked into another walled city just like the first game. This time it's called Villedor, and it has a distinctly European vibe that contrasts with Harran's Middle Eastern feel.
The game's plot itself is a confusing, seemingly self-contradictory mess where characters have little defined personality from moment to moment. It almost seems as if the developers wanted the player to be confused and disoriented by the game's events, which isn't a good look. It would be nice if you could just ignore it and play the game, but unfortunately the events of the story do have a big impact on your environment—not that you're likely to have any idea what's happening before each event is over.
Through the course of the hilariously-convoluted narrative, you get juggled between two morally-grey factions full of hostile, unlikable characters. You're forced to make numerous decisions that often have unforeseen consequences, as if the game developer is smugly watching you play and laughing at how dumb you are for not knowing things you couldn't possibly have known. We liked some things about Dying Light 2 and were more middling on others, but the story and the way it's told in this game are both extreme low points.
The subtitle for Dying Light 2 is "Stay Human," and there's a reason for that. It's not much of a spoiler to tell you that within the first 30 minutes of the game you get infected by a zombie, and then you spend the rest of the game dealing with the consequences of that. While UV light can keep the infection at bay, you can only spend a few minutes outside of said light. In the daytime sunlight works well enough, and you only need worry if you go indoors—a bad idea, usually, as most buildings are filled with zombies fleeing the daylight.
At night, your only recourse is to head to an area protected by UV lights. Fortunately, there are safe areas all over the city. You're hard-pressed to get more than 200 meters away from one; that's a good thing in a sense, because your "immunity" doesn't last long, but it does sort of make the whole immunity mechanic a bit less of a problem than it probably should be.
You can restore your "immunity" in a few ways, but the simplest is just returning to an area with UV light, where it regenerates immediately. This feels silly, as zombies also can't chase you into UV light, so nighttime excursions become a game of "tag" as you rush out into the darkness, keeping an eye on your immunity timer, and if you get noticed, you only have to run back to "base" like a playful child. It was entertaining the first couple of times, but like so much else in the game it becomes repetitive quickly.
Your "immunity" is the first of a few arbitrary-feeling limiters on what you're allowed to do in the game. Just like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, your weapons in Dying Light 2 are mostly fragile and disposable. Several times we had to simply flee combat because we were down to the last weapon and didn't want to be left defenseless in an emergency. There are plenty of ways to get weapons, so as it usually does in games (including the first game), the durability system feels tacked-on and unnecessary; a way to punish the player for trying to engage in the honestly entertaining combat more than absolutely necessary.
On the topic of the combat, braining zombies is still entertaining, but you see far fewer special zombies in this entry than in the first. Instead, this game has a much greater focus on human enemies than the last, and they can be downright tiresome to deal with. Dying Light 2 introduces a block-and-parry mechanic, and it expects you to use it extensively to deal with human enemies. Even doing so, though, fights against human targets can drag on if they abuse their invincible dodge or attack you alongside zombies that really should be attacking any nearby human.
Disappointingly, a number of combat functions which were present in the last game, including throwing your weapons, are gone from this release. It's also more difficult to hit multiple targets with melee attacks than it used to be—a critical tactic for clearing a swarm of zombies. Furthermore, the sequel completely lacks firearms altogether, and whatever you think about that design choice (they arguably weren't that great in the first game), the reasoning given in-game is absolutely cockamamie; it would have been better to simply not mention it.
You can still drop-kick enemies to send them sprawling, though, and that's just as fun as it was in the original. You have to unlock it on the skill tree first, of course. Toward the end of our time with the game, our combat loop basically consisted of drop-kicking or sliding into enemies to knock them down, then using the instant-kill head stomp to finish the job.
Our Reviewer Doth Protest Too Much, In The Dying Of The Light
If it sounds like we're being really negative about the game, that's because we're utterly frustrated with it. Let's be clear: Dying Light 2 is not a bad game; at times, it's brilliant. It's not even that it's difficult—it's not, at all. Rather, nearly everything about the experience of playing Dying Light 2 is an exercise in tedium and frustration. When you aren't running short of resources, struggling with strange design decisions, and the game isn't pulling control away from you for an in-engine cutscene, it often simply isn't working at all.
A perfect example is in the game's core parkour mechanics. Generally they work well enough, albeit a bit clumsier than in, say, Mirror's Edge: Catalyst. Sometimes, though, you'll slide off a surface for no apparent reason, or the automated ledge- and ladder-grabbing mechanics simply won't work. This can lead to you falling to your death, or at least running out of stamina and having to restart the movement puzzle you're on.
It's not the end of the world—you can harmlessly respawn after death—but it's irritating the first time, and downright tedious after the tenth time. It's especially galling given that movement seemed a little more fluid and responsive in the previous game, perhaps because of the removal of the manual sprint key.
Later on, you acquire a grappling hook as well as a paraglider that magically deploys from nowhere, similar to the wingsuit in in Just Cause. Afterward, your parkour abilities are basically pointless, because you'll use these two tools to get around everywhere. This is still a lot of fun, just as it is in every game with these functions.
That has its own frustrations, though, like how the paraglider will sometimes deploy instantly, sometimes after a few seconds, and sometimes not at all. The grappling hook can be irritating to use too, because the game tells you to equip it in one of your tool slots and it's all too easy to accidentally swap to a different tool and then drop to your demise. We learned later that you can use it "offhand" with a hotkey, but this isn't explained anywhere.
This zombie is about to have a bad time... if my attack connects.
The game even feels inconsistent in combat. All too frequently when swinging a weapon at an enemy, even though you may be clearly in range (like, close enough to kiss), your attack will simply pass through the enemy harmlessly, usually resulting in you taking a nasty whack yourself. Other times, you'll carefully investigate an area before engaging in combat, only for the the game to just spawn extra enemies nearby out of nowhere. It renders all your caution and care moot.
We'll talk about the settings a bit more on the next page, but Dying Light 2's graphics menu is quite buggy. Adjusting options can silently adjust other options, or even lock out certain settings in other categories, too. Plus, most of the graphics options have the wrong description altogether. Key rebinding was added in a patch, but it barely works; rebinding keys doesn't rebind the alternate functions of those keys, so it's very likely that what you've ultimately done is just break the game for yourself. Oh, and like so many other players, we could not actually get the multiplayer mode to work at all.
Some of these issues might seem like nitpicky complaints, but we've actually been quite lucky. Browsing through the Steam discussions you can find dozens upon dozens of users complaining of more serious errors, including broken scripts, memory leaks, and even crashes. One player noted that the equipment and items that he was finding simply stopped scaling up in level with him, forcing him to start a new character. A few other players were not awarded the once-per-save-file reward for completing the game's story.
So, that's a lot to chew on we're sure, but what about performance and this game's occasional flashes of brilliance and beautiful landscapes? Journey on for our look at PC game performance and image quality analysis, next...