Dying Light 2: Stay Human is real, I can assure you. Last week, I was given free reign for four hours to run around the open-world in a relatively early part of the game, given complete freedom to tackle the preview experience however I wanted to. Would I take on Dying Light 2’s main story as Aiden tried to find a way into Central Loop? Perhaps I’d get distracted by survivor stories in the open world, going on an assortment of fetch quests for characters like a maudlin old lady pining for the glory days. Or maybe I’d just hunt for treasures long lost, guarded by hordes of infected that most smart people wouldn’t get anywhere close to. How about all of the above?
Techland describes the world as a “modern dark ages,” an apt description for the state of things. While the first Dying Light was much more recent to the outbreak, Dying Light 2 is set in a world that’s been living with it for quite some time. The old comforts are long gone, and new ways of life have started to spring up in the remaining pockets of humanity. Aidan Caldwell, known as “The Pilgrim” after having come to Old Villedor from the outside world, is looking for his sister Mia, but the locals aren’t exactly making it easy on him. This “modern dark ages” sense really makes Dying Light 2’s world feel different from Haran, the city from the first game.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human Hands-On Preview – The Complex Art of Hitting Things
My first stop, after getting all of the requisite story quests from the main hub area, was just to go smack a zombie with whatever I had in my inventory. The melee combat in Dying Light 2 feels very good. There’s a nice chunky “thwack” as you attack infected, with plenty of blood sprays to paint the town red. The visceral combat also plays with creatively using the environment, allowing you to get some gruesome kills based on what’s around you. And the infected are everywhere. Even during the day, they’d crash through windows and fall right in front of me. Stopping to fight every one started to wear on me. Clearly I wasn’t supposed to take out every one of these. I was supposed to run.
Parkour means you can get around the city quickly, without needing to stick to the streets and alleys. You can climb buildings and cars to escape infected, but be careful when night rolls around. Things do get… rather spooky. While some of the parkour and movement systems did feel a little slow at times, I took a peek at the skills menu, which has a wealth of unlocks to improve movement. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try out any of the more advanced maneuvers and skills, but the impression I got was that leveling up will have a huge impact on how Dying Light 2 actually feels. Combat similarly has a lot of options that will make a drastic difference from the early game once you unlock some of those abilities.
The hands-on gameplay was actually divided into two sections. The primary portion gave us the opportunity to run around Old Villedor, the oldest part of the city. Here we were treated to the same story we’ve seen in past gameplay showcases: the feud for water between the Survivors and the Peacekeepers, not to mention a couple of self-interested bandits gumming up the works. Without getting into spoilers or too many story details, this portion really showcased the width and breadth of the choice-based system, and how every choice you make will have repercussions; whether those be sweeping consequences that change the very face of the city, or smaller impacts character by character.
Big choice-based moments are indicated with a branching arrow icon, easily showing when you’re making a decision that might have rippling effects (and that you often can’t go back from). For example, you can choose how to handle taking back the water tower in multiple ways: making a deal with the bandits, or killing them and giving it to either the Survivors or the Peacekeepers. And depending on which faction gets it, you’ll find yourself faced down a whole different path of quests. While my giving it to the Survivors led to an epic setpiece where I was climbing a flaming windmill with a ticking time bomb, a couple others handed it to the Peacekeepers, which sent them in a completely different direction, expanding on different characters and different story arcs.
But keep in mind, not everything is so cut and dry. It’s not about good or bad, but in making the choice that you feel is best and right. And sometimes, those choices may be revealed to not be as…altruistic…as you may have believed them to be. Dying Light 2 leans into the complexity of humans, and there were certainly choices made that I later regretted because of how certain reveals twisted and reframed my perceptions. Hopefully this narrative complexity persists throughout the entire game. I don’t want Dying Light 2 to feel like it has “right and wrong” or “good and bad” choices, but rather to present players with morally complex quandaries that eat at the soul.
Old Villedor has some verticality to contend with, allowing a significant amount of parkouring while running through its ruined streets, but a more focused gameplay section in Central Loop turned buildings to skyscrapers and gave us access to the paraglider, where we navigated the city in a whole new way using an assortment of air vents. Central Loop also introduced us to Lawan, the character played by Rosario Dawson. Lawan is a fun character in that Dawson gives her a unique personality, different from many of her other characters, while yet retaining what people love about Rosario Dawson. Lawan is sharp, and almost painfully carefree. But her almost devil-may-care attitude definitely seems to mask a deeper emotional tale that we are certain to uncover during the game.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human Hands-On Preview – Human or Monster?
When I asked Narrative Director Piotr Szymanek about writing Lawan’s character, he let me know that players will get different sides of Lawan depending on the choices they make, but each is still true to who Lawan as a character is and how she would respond in those situations. He also had high praise for what Rosario Dawson brought to the role. “What Rosario brought to this project was incredible energy,” he said. “We started the session, and Rosario started to act. And there was no longer Rosario Dawson. It was Lawan. It was like ‘oh my God!'” Szymanek also revealed that Dawson was able to nail the part without multiple takes. “We didn’t even make any other takes, because she was so great. She was so into this character.” Szymanek noted that he wrote Lawan specifically with Dawson in mind once he knew she was attached to the part, which helped him to craft a character that felt perfectly suited to the actor.
I was struck by how much of Dying Light 2 really isn’t about the infected. It was human. Every mission and story uses the infected as a backdrop, but every story centers on what makes people human, and conversely, what makes them monsters. Each story and sub-story is yet another narrative thread tying back to Dying Light 2′s main themes, portrayed right there in its subtitle: Stay Human. You don’t have to get bitten to become the monster, after all.
Even at four hours of gameplay though, I still felt like it wasn’t really enough to explore everything there was (which was kind of the point). Talking to others journalists at the event revealed the different ways that we had all approached the world, and the assortment of tasks that we each undertook. I was able to complete the main story thread for this demo portion, but that was only through speedreading and skipping spoken dialog to rush along to the conclusion. Many others were content with exploring, scavenging for new weapons and upgrades. We each found that we had completed different side quests a long the way too, providing lots of different stories and experiences.
While Dying Light 2 does connect loosely to the first game, a nice cinematic catches players up, effectively revealing that while the virus was initially contained, continued research prompted a follow-up outbreak which quickly brought the world to its knees. It felt a little too real, if I’m being honest, because as we all know very well, humanity seems to have trouble actually handling the impacts of a pandemic even when it doesn’t turn you into a literal bloodthirsty infected monster.
The first Dying Light changed the game. Part Mirror’s Edge, part Dead Island, it answered the question of what a parkour-infused zombie game could be, focusing on running as much as fighting (and largely taking guns out of the equation). It made the daylight dangerous, but it made nighttime downright terrifying. The sequel has been highly anticipated, but not without its fair share of issues ahead of release. Given Dying Light 2’s reported troubled development and delays, Techland wants to prove it’s stepping up to the plate with this one. Indeed, we were critical of Techland earlier this year, skeptical of requests for trust without putting anything of substance behind them. After all, we’d just had the Cyberpunk 2077 fiasco to deal with, which put a lot of scrutiny on developer promises. However, Techland seemed to hear what we were saying and addressed those concerns head on. Techland seems hellbent on not repeating the mistakes of their Polish colleagues over at CD Projekt RED.
To this end, while the build we played was on PC, Techland did give us freedom to play around in the open world on the last-gen PS4 version (on PS4 Pros). While it definitely had lower quality textures than the likes of the PC build, I was impressed at the smooth framerate and overall gameplay consistency found on the PS4 version. Of course, there’s lots of polishing to do on both versions of Dying Light 2—even the PC build (which was a month or so old) had its fair share of pop-in and other goofy bugs one might expect from a massive open-world game. But that’s why it’s out in February 2022. The core experience is here, and what I’ve played seems like a very solid foundation thus far.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human is real. The ambitious title does exist. Its playable, I’ve played it. Skepticism turns to cautious optimism turns to a smile and a nod as I realize that Techland is ready to deliver once again. Dying Light 2 launches February 4th, 2022.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human hands-on gameplay preview event put on by Techland. Travel and accommodations were provided. COVID safety guidelines were followed including mandatory vaccines for entrance and mask requirements.