The first ten hours of Dying Light 2 are rough. The player is restricted to the Old Villedor section of the map, a run-down shantytown whose human inhabitants are barely holding on due to the effects of “The Fall”, the catastrophic event that is responsible for the hordes of undead roaming the streets. Now if this sounds generic, that’s because despite a commendable effort from the writers, the story never escapes the enormous shadow that is its similarities to the quadrillions of existing zombie-focussed media. This in and of itself isn’t a deal-breaker because the narrative was never a prime selling point to me. On the other hand, the platforming being held back in these initial hours was extremely disappointing. The design of Old Villedor hinders the parkour as it simply doesn’t compare to the impressive scale or options for traversal provided in the ‘Central Loop’, an area only accessible once you get past this initial stage.
Upon reaching the Central Loop, the remains of a megalopolis post-outbreak, the platforming in Dying Light 2 begins to shine. The controls are responsive and the movement is incredibly robust, paving the way for a smooth free-running experience that isn’t without its modularity. The creativity of the level design combined with the varied movement allow for there to be multiple, equally thrilling routes to your destination at any one time. The presence of various traversal options encouraged me to mix up my movement, going from using sane strategies such as climbing then paragliding from atop a skyscraper to cover more distance in flight to trying out crazy ideas like using the grappling hook to swing from building to building like Spidey. Dying Light 2’s parkour flourishes precisely due to this flexibility. There are a few unlockable platforming skills that aren’t realistic at all, the Double Jump that allows you to leap miles into the air and Active Landing which protects you after falls from ridiculous heights (as long as you hold circle when you land) come to mind but I can’t complain because well… I enjoyed them. Sure, surviving a mistimed jump from a height that definitely should have killed me isn’t pushing the bounds of realism, however, the ability to live on and continue my run whilst preserving some of its momentum helps keep the gameplay feeling fluid and my desire to experiment with the movement intact.
Similarly, the campaign thrives when the quests are built around platforming. ‘Revolution’ and ‘Broadcast’ are the best of the 22 missions in the game because they showcase the flexibility of the parkour and feature clever level design that both rewards players who have been practicing efficient free running in the open world and challenges them with imaginative routes that require a strong understanding of the introduced mechanics. The music, with most tracks being a mix of upbeat electronic and brooding orchestral tones, is also strong throughout. And.. that’s pretty much all that works here.
The rest of Dying Light 2 is a sad package, plagued in equal parts by three primary issues: a ridiculously slow progression system, a poor story that is given too much focus, and a general lack of polish that manifests itself in the lacking optimization on PS5 and the countless bugs that hurt player immersion.
My main gripe with the progression system is that about half the abilities in the parkour skill tree should be unlocked by default… and aren’t. A skill like Afterboost that gives the player a speed bump after executing specific free running abilities, I can understand that being locked in a skill tree. But a Double Jump? Wall Running? Hell, even the ability to sprint has to be unlocked. On top of that, the rate at which XP is gained, even with the bonus granted for playing at night-time, is simply not high enough to unlock these skills within a reasonable amount of time. This hurts the game in a similar way to the level design in Old Villedor as it hinders the parkour. Specifically, the “varied movement” I mention above because much of that variation comes from these particular skills, which are locked away for far too long.
The combat is a mixed bag. Fighting the zombies early in the game with limited health can be exhilarating due to the real danger they present to your character at this weakened state. Getting cornered by the undead in an alley and having to slash your way free with a broken shovel can be thrilling while the danger is still tangible. Unfortunately, this feeling of danger passes once you have upgraded your health and stamina beyond level 5, a point I reached mid-way through the story and may happen earlier for eagle-eyed players picking up more inhibitors, the collectibles required for these upgrades. After this point, I always either had enough health to tank my way through the zombies or could use the larger stamina pool to escape from most perilous encounters.
In general, the combat is at its best when you’re on the move, much like the game itself. Dropkicking a foe square in the face, then leaping onto another and stomping their head into the ground, that’s fun. There are also a raft of useful mods for weapons that allow you to spruce up the nature of their damage. Personally, I carried a dedicated axe with a Spark mod at all times as its electric stun debuff helped immensely with crowd control. That being said, the design of the human enemies left a lot to be desired. Their attacks are predictable and easy to dodge, taking away much of the challenge in the gameplay. Even the bosses possess similar attacks to one another, which contributed to them being so underwhelming. This lack of challenge gets tiring quickly and I was mostly disinterested in the human fights just a few hours in. Increasing the difficulty to hard from normal ensured I took more damage for missing a dodge or blocking the wrong attack, however, this didn’t fix the game’s broader issue of there not being enough depth to the enemies and their attacks, to sustain my interest through the roughly 20 hours of minimum gameplay required to beat it.
A Dead Tale of the Undead
The trailers for Dying Light 2 put a surprising amount of focus on the characters and narrative, a peculiar decision that I now understand after playing the final product which emphasises the hell out of both. As I mentioned above, the story was not the reason why I was intrigued by this game and an underwhelming one wouldn’t necessarily sway my overall verdict one way or another. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, the story is prioritised too heavily to be immune to criticism. At seemingly every turn in a main mission, you are pestered with nonsensical dialogue or forced to make ‘difficult’ choices. These choices are each made to feel significant but only about four that made any sort of impact by the end.
On top of the lacklustre dialogue, the characters are also annoying and based entirely off tropes. The prologue features a wise old man, the protagonist Aiden is a chosen one of sorts, there is a femme fatale love interest introduced at the halfway point and last but not least, the sidekick Hakon. Hakon and Aiden are the only characters that have any likeability whatsoever and even then, the former does not feature as often as he should. I have held off on discussing the actual plot because crucial developments happen so late, that almost any specific story beat I bring up would be considered a spoiler. But the gist is that Aiden is looking for a missing person from his past and subsequently spends the majority of the campaign doing favours for others in order to find out about their whereabouts. These favours felt like chores and it was genuinely tough to keep playing at times because the personalities requesting them were so obnoxious. Ultimately, the story is wholly uninteresting and the twisty finale fails due to its messy execution, which included the final boss glitching out inside a metal container and refusing to come out.
On the PS5, Dying Light 2 is riddled with bugs and shoddy optimisation. The Performance mode offers 60fps but the lower resolution will look dismal on practically any 4k display. Resolution mode offers a sharper image but its 30fps output is a sticking point, especially during parkour, where mistiming a jump can result in death or a run losing all its momentum. Performance mode is the safe bet here but an increase to gamma and brightness is recommended to counteract the blurry resolution, which will impact visibility in the dark. This is unacceptable optimisation. The PS5 should not be struggling with the presentation to this extent and the visuals aren’t impressive enough to justify these results.
In addition to the poor optimisation, there’s also plenty of bugs. Common ones include animation errors on zombies that rotate their heads and limbs 360°, enemies rag dolling 200 feet into the air, hands holding onto thin air when climbing instead of ladder rungs and my personal favourite, the grappling hook propelling me inside unfinished buildings, at which point I would try to find the transparent walls that would let me back out. Admittedly, there’s some humour to be had from these glitches but their substantial presence hurts the atmosphere and becomes exponentially more frustrating as the game rolls on.
Summary: Dying Light 2 is an experience rife with suffering, stemming from its dawdling progression, woeful narrative and intrusive presentation issues. In spite of these shortcomings, the parkour shines once the right equipment and skills are unlocked, salvaging a modicum of joy from this disappointing nightmare.