2015’s Dying Light, developed by Techland and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, showed players a perspective of a zombie apocalypse filled with melee-centric combat, parkour, and a punishing day-night cycle that pushed players to prepare when venturing out after dark. After a favorable reception, it received a generous plethora of updates and DLC from the developers. The game’s proper sequel Dying Light 2: Stay Human was announced in 2018, this time developed and published by Techland. The success and post-launch support of the original put the sequel in a tough place. The volume of zombie games across the games industry can make it difficult for zombies to feel fresh while the massively expanded scope of the first title also makes it harder for the sequel to feel as though it is a worthy follow-up that innovates and expands on the ideas and world of the original. The industry has been waiting to get a look at the sequel, and I was lucky enough to be invited to preview Dying Light 2: Stay Human for myself in San Francisco.
My hands-on time with the game began with a short introduction of the game’s new protagonist Aiden Caldwell, a pilgrim – the term for people who travel the apocalyptic wasteland to help settlements stay in contact with one another. However, Aiden has lost his memory and has no idea why he is as capable at combat as he is, and the player is introduced to him as he travels to the last human city, simply referred to as the City, in search of his lost sister.
The demo I played was split into two portions, the first of which was set in a region of the city known as the Bazaar which houses two warring factions: Survivors and Peace Keepers. The survivors are a cult-like group that has to fight tooth and nail for everything they have and follow an enigmatic leader. The Peace Keepers are a more authoritative group fully equipped with military gear and resources that are struggling to keep the various groups of survivors under control to restore peace and order to the City.
Tensions between the two groups reach a peak when a high-ranking Peace Keeper is murdered, with Aiden being roped into investigating the Survivors to determine if they know anything about who did it. This is where my preview of Dying Light 2: Stay Human begins, with Aiden working his way into the hearts of the Survivors while secretly reporting to the Peace Keepers whenever he has a moment of peace.
It quickly became apparent that a greater emphasis has been put on the narrative by Techland this time around. This comes in the form of not only more polished cutscenes and a higher variety of characters, but also in the effort devoted to player choice. Nearly every dialogue I saw had options to choose from, each one leading to different bits of information or directing what activities Aiden got up to.
These choices had a range of impacts, including learning where materials and resources were stashed around the map, determining whether certain characters live or die, and even aligning with one of the two factions at war with one another and determining which ultimately gained the control they desired.
Introducing choices to nearly every interaction players have throughout the game proved to be a massive boon for Dying Light 2. A fair number of the conversation options were mostly just ways to tailor how much information players want to hear about the world, characters, and factions, but there are also instances that it carries very high stakes.
One example I came across was a sidequest that eventually led to one of the characters in it deciding to kill themselves. I found myself atop a church steeple with him as he threatened to jump, and was given the opportunity to talk him down from the windowsill. And I failed.
Honestly, I was shocked. I expected to have multiple dialogue options or other options, but I had screwed up and it was too late. It was a surprisingly sober moment that followed me shooting a fireball out of an ax made with a scavenged street sign just a few minutes before, and it was incredibly effective.
In fact, Dying Light 2: Stay Human’s ability to effectively shift from one tonal space to another was exemplified repeatedly throughout my time with the game. Narratively, the main story quests are very grounded and navigate a tightly woven exploration of trauma and how people struggle to hold onto their humanity when facing great adversity. This is offset by what the developers referred to as micro quests that can be found scattered throughout the City.
These smaller side stories help break up the pacing of the game and seemed to often take on a more comedic tone, such as an opera signer that speaks in third-person who asks Aiden to chase her mink scarf around the City as it’s blown away in the wind. Micro quests focus on either humorous stories such as that, or as a way for the developers to highlight a certain mechanic or feature of Dying Light 2, and from what I saw of them they are more than worth checking out.
The tonal shifts of the narrative are also evident in the game’s mechanics as well. Players spend plenty of time navigating the world in style with wall-running, scaling buildings, paragliding, and sliding. The parkour controls feel more floaty than they did in the original game, but the system has been greatly expanded on and gives players ample opportunities to change their plan on the go as they navigate the city or the game’s solid platforming puzzles.
Parkour sections then transition with ease into the game’s greatly improved combat. Dying Light 2: Stay Human focuses on melee combat as it is set in what the developers dubbed the Modern Dark Ages after most firearms have either been confiscated or don’t have ammunition to be useful. This has led to most using improvised melee weapons and has allowed the developers to hone the combat experience to deliver impactful engagements that feel as brutally visceral as they are fun and open.
Both parkour and combat give players a number of options on how they wish to approach them with both having a dedicated skill tree that sprawls with a number of options. I did not get a chance to see very much of what was on offer, but what I did get to test out was all fun and seemed to allow players to customize a playstyle without being locked out of content if they don’t have particular upgrades.
Player customization also carried over into the world itself through the factions that players decided to align themselves with. Every region has a number of resources like water towers, electricity generators, and windmills that players can claim and then assign to either of the two factions with each one promising different types of bonuses for doing so. Survivors focus on making parkouring across the map easier with trampolines, winches, and ziplines while the Peace Keepers cover the map with UV Lights that deter the infected and a variety of different traps to help players survive through bloodshed.
These options allow players to further customize their gameplay experience, although I found that my decisions were primarily motivated by the characters on either side of the conflict and whether or not I wanted to support them. As it was just a preview of Dying Light 2: Stay Human I also did not get to see much of how big of an impact the changes really have, but there is a lot of potential there for each region to end up looking and playing very differently by the end.
A new gear system has also been introduced which sees players equipping various rarity of hats, jackets, gloves, pants, and shoes on top of crafting and customizing their own weapons with augments that can deliver electrical, poison, or fire damage. The weapons have a lot of great variety that each play with nuanced but noticeable differences, but the other gear, at least early on in the game, was not interesting enough to warrant much attention. The system could definitely be expanded upon by launch or in the later sections of the game, but during my preview, the gear in Dying Light 2 seemed rather lackluster with nothing but small incremental increases to stats that was hardly noticeable.
Dying Light 2 has also brought changes to its day/night cycle. Where the first game saw more difficult and intimidating versions of infected coming out at night, the sequel instead sees players having to ensure they do not stay out in the darkness too long or they start taking damage. The activities spread across the map are also only available during either day or night, which helps push players to strike out into the City at different times and pushes them to adapt different playstyles accordingly. While the absence of the more ferocious infected during the night is a tad disappointing, the new use of the cycle is a fun way to mix things up and allow the players to revisit areas of the map in an organic way.
All in all, my preview time with Dying Light 2: Stay Human was a slice of a game that ticks all of the boxes. The world is expanded and more interesting than its predecessor, while it innovates on the core identity of Dying Light in a meaningful way. Some of the changes may not land for every fan of the original, but overall they seem to open up the choices given to players while also offering a well-written and detailed story for fans to explore to see its multiple branching pathways.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human releases on February 4, 2022 for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.