Dying Light 2 Review: Brilliant But Flawed
Dying Light 2 is a difficult game to review. The design is brilliant. It’s a model for the right way to create an open-world game. The synergy between setting, storytelling, and gameplay places it firmly in the company of the most engrossing and immersive worlds in modern video games. It absolutely nails the most challenging and oft-botched aspects of the genre.
Yet for as much as it does right, it stumbles on stability and lacks essential polish. The result is an outstanding, borderline transcendent, game reduced to something just “good”.
Dying Light 2 Review: Brilliant But Flawed
Dying Light 2 largely takes place in the fictional city of Villedor, Ground Zero of the Zombie Apocalypse. You are Aiden, and you are searching for your sister, from whom you were forcibly separated as a child. It’s a fairly simple premise that turns into a quality storyline, adequately motivating your progress.
At its best, Dying Light 2 is The Witcher 3 or Read Dead Redemption 2. Every side quest has the potential to become a memorable story. In every direction are interesting locales, emergent stories, and potential adventures.
One early, purely optional mission has you gather parts to make an electric fence for a goat pen. It's short, to the point, and has a hilariously unfortunate ending that gives you a new weapon blueprint, all wrapped in tight world building,
Another random side quest starts as a simple proposal for a side job. Before long, you're left juggling multiple conflicting interests, backstabs, and tough choices. One second, you're being betrayed, lead into a trap to be murdered and robbed, and the next, you're doing everything you can to save the betrayer and stop him from casting himself off of a roof. Life comes at you fast in the post-apocalypse.
The main story thrusts you between groups whose tensions have the potential to cause an all-out war. But you must take a side to have a chance at achieving your ultimate goal of finding your sister. All factions have reasonable arguments for and against supporting them. There is no “Right” answer, but you will have to choose nonetheless.
Dying Light 2 understands great zombie fiction. Like The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later, the story isn’t about the Infected. They are simply another characteristic of the environment, like the climate or geography. They are a simple fact of the world. People are trying to live their lives with the same mix of hope, generosity, greed, and darkness that has always defined mankind.
This is conveyed in every conversation and through level design. One early encounter takes places at an abandoned house in the hills. It's easy to simply pass through, but if you take your time, you can piece together a bittersweet story of people exiting the broken world on their own terms. This kind of environmental storytelling is a contestant throughout Dying Light 2.
The Heart of Darkness
Traversing through the streets hammers home the idea that you are one person living in the new Infected Dark Age. You can move freely about the city as you like but are constantly kept aware of the time. The Infected are like the ocean’s tides; they rise and fall from night to day. When the sun is out, most crawl into dark, abandoned buildings to sleep. At night, they flood the streets.
The dark can be terrifying in Dying Light 2. The Infected are numerous, aggressive, and dangerous in the dark. Your visibility is limited, with just a simple flashlight to illuminate your path. Special Infected have the ability to sound the alarm, resulting in a death-defying chase as you flee the monsters you know are on your heels but can’t see.
The darkness also poses a direct risk to your health. Aiden, like everyone in Villedor, is Infected. UV Light is the only thing that keeps the zombie virus in check. Anytime you are away from the sun or UV lamps a countdown timer ticks down. If it reaches zero, you turn, and it's game over. There are consumables to add time, and the duration is long enough that you shouldn’t hit zero, but the impending dread is constant, oppressive, and extremely effective.
It’s tempting to avoid the night altogether, but there are incentives to take the risks. Any action taken at night earns you bonus XP potentially. These points accumulate on their own, but to keep them, you must survive the night. There are special boss-level Infected called GRE Anomalies, too. Defeating these can earn you permanent stat boosts in the form of collectible Inhibitors, which can raise your max health and stamina.
Additionally, building interiors, Dark Hollows, and other special nighttime areas, often great sources for materials to craft items and weapon mods, are largely emptied when the Infected take to the streets, giving you room to sneak in and steal these supplies.
This constant timer watching, risk vs reward gameplay, is exactly the kind of tense, immersive decision-making Dying Light 2 thrives on. I found myself frequently stopping and mapping out imaginary parkour routes in my head. Will I make it? Do I need to wait this out? Is it worth the risk? The anxiety around the dark is brilliantly translated, engaging you in the thought process of any other post-apocalypse survivor.
Fight and Flight
The parkour-based movement in Dying Light 2 is brilliantly executed. You are frequently leaping from rooftop to rooftop. There’s enough freedom and control that skillful free-running skills make a significant difference, but with just enough magnetism that you rarely miss targeted platforms.
Even the best movement skill can become stale, given the distances you cover in Dying Light 2. Techland artfully keeps ahead of this with a constant drip of environment changes and traversal tools. Just as you perfect your skills in the lower one- to five-story buildings in one region, you unlock a sprawling downtown commercial zone with towering skyscrapers, and a hang glider that completely changes the speed, distance, and verticality of what's come before.
Combat is a frequent occurrence in this post-apocalypse. Fights in Dying Light 2 start off clumsy, with wild swinging attacks from crude melee weapons. Simple blocks and dodges are your only forms of defense, but through progression, you gain an increasing arsenal of maneuvers. Fights transform into an elaborate dance of devastating attacks mixed with parkour, throws, and dropkicks. You feel powerful, and gaining levels is rewarding as things transform into a zombie-slaying power fantasy.
Dying Light 2 is crammed full of content, too. There are multiple, divergent story paths. You can unlock fast travel zones through Metros and resource centers to allocate to different factions. There is crafting, weapon modification, and parkour challenges. That’s just scratching the surface.
That can seem overwhelming, especially given the 500 total play hours Techland is claiming it would take to see and do everything. But most of it is completely optional. You don’t have to unlock Windmills, clear Bandit Bases, or engage in most side content. You can progress just fine without modifying weapons or min-maxing the stats on the clothing pieces that drop.
But if you do engage with these, you are rewarded for your time. Experience points to level up are awarded liberally. New ziplines from one faction can appear to help you move quickly, traps for the Infected from another can save you in a pinch.
There is a lot to love in Dying Light 2. The soundtrack is shockingly good, in particular the string accompaniment that fades in on long uninterrupted parkour sequences. The sound design is outstanding, and the voice acting is stellar. The views and vistas offer legitimately breathtaking landscapes. The entire presentation looks and sounds great, which adds to the experience in meaningful ways.
The Downside of the End of the World
Dying Light 2 is dazzling when it works. That caveat, unfortunately, hands over the entire experience. The ideas and design of Dying Light 2 are top-shelf, but there is a significant amount of optimization and polish missing right now that rears its ugly head too often.
Parkour feels great, but too often a leap towards a climbable handle results in clipping into geometry. The visuals are very good, but multiple times I had to relaunch the game because broken textures cast bizarre shapes around characters or into the sky.
Quest dialogue is occasionally out of sync or missing entirely. On one occasion, a character who starts a mission was stuck in an animation loop, preventing me from beginning that particular adventure. I completed missions only to have them show up again on the map as unfinished.
It’s a shame. Dying Light 2 frequently feels like an astonishing game, from an elite team at the peak of its abilities. But bugs and rough edges result in a game that seems rushed, published a year too early.
Dying Light 2 Review — The Bottom Line
- Every mission and locale feels handcrafted, on par with the most acclaimed open-world games
- Parkour is fast, addictive, and rewards skillful play
- An immersive doomed world
- Strong audio and video presentation
- Bugs, ranging from annoying to potentially game-breaking
- A lack of refinement hurts the otherwise strong presentation
- Enemy encounters can become repetitive
Dying Light 2 does so much so well. You never know what you are going to get when you venture out into Villedor. Every handcrafted quest and environment tells a story, something that many other games aspire to, but few achieve. The movement is thrilling, the musical score is tremendous, and there is a bounty of good, but optional content.
It just isn’t finished yet. There are too many graphics errors. Audio bugs are too common. Issues with geometry and clipping are too frequent. Dying Light 2 is close to delivering a transcendent experience but just misses at a critical juncture. The result is a great but flawed game; one that is oh, so close to being something astonishing.
[Note: Techland provided the copy of Dying Light 2 used for this review.]