Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
February 4, 2022
It’s hard to believe at this point, but Polish game publisher and developer Techland have been long at work crafting and gradually refining some of the biggest zombie horror games to date. In eleven years alone, we’ve seen the release of Dead Island, Dead Island Riptide and, most notably, Dying Light in 2015. Seven years later, we finally have a follow up to the latter of the bunch in Dying Light 2 Stay Human. With the survival horror adventure comes living proof that good things come to those who wait. This is a sequel not to be missed.
Apocalyptic catastrophes and attempting to rebuild
Dying Light 2 Stay Human puts players in the shoes of Aiden Caldwell, a free-running ‘Nightrunner’ in a terrifying, dark, and dangerous zombie apocalypse setting. Aiden’s legacy trails all the way back to his troubled childhood. It’s here he, along with his long-missing sister Mia, were subject to tests within a research facility during the virus’ infancy. The large overarching plot here is that his arrival at Villedor (or The City as it’s otherwise known), the game’s concrete jungle setting, marks his first real stab at the hunt for his sibling. Of course nothing comes easy, and spanners in the form of enemies both human and undead are thrown into the works. As such, our hero must use the environment, and alliances with several factions, to get answers at long last.
Throughout the entire 20-30 hour campaign, players will meet groups of survivors, the rabid raider Renegades gang, and The Peacekeepers, a military group intent on policing the chaos. You’ll find ample time to get to know each faction, with many opportunities to have your search be either aided or abetted. Aiden often will have to watch his back and be careful of his choices, with some resulting in drastic backstabs or even character deaths, a large reason why Techland hyped up that sub-500 hours of gameplay. All of that sounds a bit cookie-cutter for an apocalypse story, and it is. It’s easily forgiven though because the ‘choices matter’ angle works for Dying Light 2, at least in a technical means.
I have not seen all the ways the narrative can branch, but at the very least my route had some clear and significant shifts, depending on the path I chose. Choices can leave you locked out of certain paths and character interactions to a world-changing extent such as key figures departing prematurely. Other instances presented allies coming to me at my hour of need or leaving me for dead. These left a literal impact on me in the sense that it was thrilling to have newfound obstacles to overcome, aid or manipulate, but they didn’t so much leave an emotional impact.
What Techland appeared to be hoping for, were these moments to be more moving than they actually were. Unfortunately, Dying Light 2’s cast is filled to the brim with people to meet, each with a mixed appeal. In a world where its rotating roster of characters can be as quickly ripped away as they are introduced, I can’t help but feel like I’m more there for the general rollercoaster ride that the game offers, rather than specific beats and moments of tragedy.
That’s not to say there aren’t some good ideas throughout the entirety of the story. Though this idea of ‘maybe humans are the real enemies, not the zombies’ is ground trodden long before in multimedia IPs such as The Walking Dead, it still provides a substantial go at this. Every so often, you’re given shining examples of relationship and societal breakdowns, hinting that the latter especially is just always doomed to fail.
These moments are almost exclusively exhibited by lead characters such as Rosario Dawson’s Lawan. They serve as a fellow companion survivor and are the strongest character in the game, demanding your attention every moment they’re on-screen. This comes with some personal and disheartening conflict with myself, a member of the audience that identifies as trans. Dawson, along with her family, was accused of assault and abuse towards a trans person in 2019, a case that never really resolved itself. Performance aside, I can’t help but feel cheated and disrespected with this casting. Horror long has been a genre adopted and championed by the LGTBQ+ community, much like Star Wars, another property she received flack for showing up in. It’s hard to say for sure when her casting took place and when her motion capture and voice work was locked in, but it stings regardless. So many other strong female actors could have been chosen for such a role.
By the time I rolled credits in Dying Light 2, I wasn’t all-in on the story told to me. However, what I took away so strongly was its sense of worldbuilding and immersion. Here, they remain unmatched for any apocalyptic zombie game I’ve played prior.
Immersing yourself in the darkest depths or highest highs
Bar none, where Dying Light 2 Stay Human remains at its strongest in its atmosphere and worldbuilding. If you’re at all familiar with the original Dying Light, this should be no surprise. Here, an at times weak story is made up for by the vibes you soak in or clippable moments you’ll experience. This includes the high intensity escapes from infected in the dark of the night, or reaching the apex of a skyscraper and reminding yourself that’s something you yourself pulled off with some handy footwork and climbing.
“Bar none, where Dying Light 2 Stay Human remains at its strongest in its atmosphere and worldbuilding.”
Just how these wonderful gameplay moments and feats are achieved is via the parkour skillset on offer in Dying Light 2. There is said to be animations for these moves in the thousands and frankly, it shows. Whether you’re wall-running, vaulting small obstacles in your path or making leaps and bounds across rooftops, it all feels authentic and comes with a superb flow state with that first-person perspective. A majority of the buildings you’ll traverse feel quite thought out, having the clever placement of handholds or ropes to swing off to launch you to a higher spot. Pretty soon, you’ll find endless joy in the platforming puzzle that comes with exploring The City.
What’s new in your movement skillset is exciting in itself. A huge addition is a paraglider, something players will not nab until about halfway through the campaign. This can be deployed at any time when in the air or above a large vent, emitting a big gust of air. The instance you first obtain this item is quite hype-worthy, proving a fun set piece of soaring and tactfully landing between buildings, in pursuit of your comrade Lawan. Wall-running is but another new means of parkour movement in-game and is a delight to chain with some quick jumps or slides. I take great pleasure in games that prioritise player experimentation and fun. Dying Light 2: Stay Human is a shining example of that, providing plenty of traversal options new and old.
This all compliments the urban setting you’ll find yourself in-game. Take to the rooftops and you’ll see plenty of other structures to later unravel and reach their apex or centre. Below you echo loud groans of the undead or survivors calling out for help. Above you, the sun shines bright with the sky a crisp blue; a powerful juxtaposition that highlights that, while society has crumbled, the world keeps on turning. Other than this, exploring the dark zones (that is, deep dark areas in structures without light) leave players on their toes as they creep around sleeping undead in a thrilling search for resources. Safehouses provide friends, refuge and shopfronts, highlighting quite well the remainder of communities and those on your side. Players have a notoriety style chase meter at night that, if too many infected are alerted, can fill up and result in bigger and tougher floods of undead on your doorstep. Entirely hectic in the moment, but also effective in making you feel like you’re in the thick of things.
Fans will be pleased to know that the worldbuilding set within The City is also stronger this time around. This venture is set fifteen years after the fall of society, with the world more adapted and familiar with the virus. What this results in is plenty of side missions in-game that allow for locals’ insight into the history of Villedor and its city. One instance saw me visiting a memorial statue on behalf of another, learning of the moment the virus was just hitting, and the cruel militant firing squads that occupied the streets.
Another side-story felt entirely silly but fitting in nature, having Aiden pursue an individual’s scarf they’d lost across rooftops. Each time he’d near it, another gust of wind would come along sending it a block or two down. Of course, this is a silly escapade he’d find himself on; he’s a Pilgrim. A man of the people. However, if you’re after the deeper stuff, you needn’t worry. We see familiar undead type return here like the night creatures such as the dastardly quick Bolter and brutish Volatile, along with new forms I’ll leave you to be surprised by. Players also learn more about the antagonistic scientific organisation known as GRE and the aftermath of the events that transpired in the original setting of Harran. If there are any questions and gaps you had post the original Dying Light, you get some pretty good answers here.
One of the most interesting elements is that our hero Aiden also actually lives with the virus himself. Not only does the nighttime or dark bring out the worst of the undead, but it affects our Pilgrim too. If they linger in dark areas too long, their immunity to the virus decreases. If that meter reaches nil, players receive a fail state. It’s a good incentive to exercise caution, always ensuring you never stay in an area too long. If you really must, it’s required you be kitted out with a supply of boosters to refill that immunity. This idea of what it’s like to live with the virus, witnessing it slowly change Aiden’s body as he displays more and more symptoms is engaging. His grapple of wanting to find his sister, needing the help of others whilst being scared of harming those he calls friends, was an interesting turn of events to unfold. It also aids in providing more character to Aiden, a protagonist that can otherwise at times be a bit of a blank slate.
All in all, Techland have done a wonderful job creating a believable apocalyptic world. If there’s any complaint to be had it’s the minor technical issues I did experience on PC. Even with my setup being quite beefy, Dying Light 2 wasn’t a stranger to experiencing some frame issues from time to time, especially when you load into the game from the main menu. Wait out that awkward minute or so and it’s all but stable again, albeit with some of that occasional open-world jank that comes with games of this ambition and scale. While it didn’t ruin the experience by any means, it did every so often take me out of the immersion. However, these issues at least on my end weren’t all that large and something I don’t doubt will be ironed out by release.
Finding sandbox joy in the apocalypse
Dying Light 2 Stay Human offers many of the same open-world offerings of its predecessor and then some. Safehouses, hubs that let you sort out your gear, respawn or sleep until day or night can be secured by finding the relevant spot and firing up a generator, not too dissimilarly to how it would go in the first game. Variants arise in the sense that some of the structures you make as these homes are windmills, which come with fun little splices of puzzle platforming, or encampments that need clearing out of either the infected or Renegades. Comparisons can easily be made to the Ubisoft style formula of infiltrating a point, taking out all the enemies and then now controlling said point, but the combat and parkour skillset on offer here make this specific instance a stronger argument. Never have I had more fun doing the exact same type of open-world missions I’ve been doing for over a decade now.
This is also where it will lose some players but then also gain just as many. Dying Light 2 doesn’t really re-invent the wheel for the type of AAA open-world games you’re used to, but it’s one of the most fun examples. No firearms are present in-game, but that doesn’t really matter. Single or double-handed weaponry feels so fun to handle, and storming into a structure, dodging and swinging your weight around is entirely entertaining. Want to mix it up? I highly recommend frequently using the joyously overpowered dropkick ability (especially on high buildings), sending undead or raiders flying through the air and down to the streets below.
Villedor is so densely populated with things to do that, if you want to, you’ll never really have a down moment. Random encounters can occur on the streets such as saving survivors from the undead. Side missions are aplenty. There are parkour time trials to hone in and practice your speed and flow as you careen across rooftops. Enormous skyscrapers stand in a monolithic fashion, begging for you to explore them and net whatever goodies lie inside. Even GRE anomalies pop up at night, serving as unique, big undead bosses to hunt down in a given arena. There is so much to see and do.
All of this works to make the numbers of Aiden’s parkour or combat abilities go up, allowing you to unlock the next ability. If that at all sounds undesirable and too familiar, the ways your skillset is built upon make it all the more worth it. Every so often games like Far Cry 6 have you inundated with tasks, overwhelming you entirely. Despite that completion mark running low in these games and even with you giving it a good go, you’ll often feel like after a while you’ve seen all there is to do. That ceiling is yet to exist for me in Dying Light 2, even after completing the campaign. There’s so much fun out there for me to create myself, along with different ways to go about it. This game feels like the ultimate toolbox for me to mess around in. Co-op only went live late into the review period and as such, I only got about an hour of co-operative action in. What I can say is that if you’re able to look past a little jank and the jarring image of a second Aiden in your game, it’s certainly serviceable. It can only add to some of the wild shenanigans players will engage with.
What I’ll remember most fondly about my time with Dying Light 2 is the wealth of fun to be had. So many chases saw undead spilling onto the streets or out of crawlspaces, having me completely surrounded. These escapes can be a bit of a puzzle themselves, having to work quickly to make your way out of hairy scenarios. Part of the big thrill is these gameplay moments that could foster water-cooler style chat. The other is the nitty-gritty exploration players have ahead of them. This game is entirely special in the way these moments happen organically that it has to be seen to be believed.
- Finds a way to create the most fun version of an already known sandbox formula
- Plenty of worldbuilding and immersion for both newcomers and series fans
- Parkour mechanics have diversified and are their smoothest yet
- You can get a paraglider. Need I say more?
- Story, while it has its moments, still leaves a bit to be desired
- Not without its technical issues
Dying Light 2 Stay Human is a more than worthy follow up and worth the wait. Whilst not necessarily reinventing the wheel, it excels in being one of the best versions of the open-world formula we’ve known for some time. With silky-smooth parkour and combat mechanics, and plenty of things to see and do, I highly recommend the plunge into The City. Where there’s slight polishing to still be done and the story at times leaves a bit to be desired, shining moments and performances make it all the more worthwhile, standing as a stronger entry than its predecessor. This has become my favourite free roam zombie game to date and has me constantly itching to jump back in and tool around some more in its playground. Not bloody bad, Techland.