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Dying Light 2 review: Story or gameplay, which would you save?

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Midway through Dying Light 2 Stay Human, I took a side mission that, in hindsight, neatly summarized the strange pacing and unmet ambitions of its larger story — a story that often struggles to match the compelling gameplay and richly detailed world that developer Techland has created.

It unfolds like a bog-standard fetch quest. You’re a stranger in a strange land, searching for a lost loved one and finding yourself pivotal to a dying city’s fight for survival. Right now, an ally is gravely wounded and needs medicine urgently. But seeing as how this version of the zombie apocalypse has — quite convincingly — turned the fictional European city of Villedor into a Middle Age society, the only remedy is folk medicine from a blind witch. She provides the player character, Aiden, with specific instructions on what to gather, when to gather it, and what parts to administer to the dying man.

Zombies only mildly inconvenienced me as I snatched up the item. As I was parkouring back to the sick bay, the game gave me a strange update: “Choose which medicine to give him.” Wait, why wouldn’t I give him the correct dose? Only then did it occur to me that the blind witch might have been lying, intending for me to poison him as revenge for what his faction did to her.

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In an instant, I went from a desultory side quest to making a decision with huge stakes. Taking people at face value in this game had already earned me some legitimately angering betrayals. So here I was again in Dying Light 2, putting in a lot of extra work — against a timer, no less — to care about characters and situations that aren’t central to the story.

Used well, this kind of vexing indecision could have elevated Dying Light 2’s color-by-numbers narrative into something with a bigger emotional payoff. At least, it might have if the game’s ambiguity felt more intentional. Instead, Dying Light 2’s story feels more like a rough draft that the player must finish with a lot of side activities.

For those who come in as fans of the original Dying Light, especially for its hard-hitting melee combat and fleet-footed free-running moves, this profusion of extra missions may not feel like much obligation. In fact, the extra side quests and in-world events deliver a lot of the loot and XP that helps your character’s progression keep within hollering distance of the story. As slow as the going is in the first half of Dying Light 2’s central story branch, the unlocking of new combat tactics or parkour techniques unfolds even more slowly unless you’re also constantly looting zombie hives in the unstructured nighttime gameplay loop.

Still, Dying Light 2 expects a lot of its players’ time, and that investment is too often repaid in scenes that are resolved with expository dialogue that stands preceding developments on their head. Choices do matter in Dying Light 2, some of them more cosmetically, perhaps; but all the struggles, the fighting, the puzzle-solving are moot when a fearsome adversary decides to forget whatever was bothering him and help you.

If that’s how Dying Light 2’s story is going to roll, then at least all the fighting and jumping and climbing is fun for its own sake. The melee combat, dealing mainly with improvised blade weapons, is intense and satisfying. With a smartly balanced fatigue meter governing attacks and movements, Dying Light 2 makes me think about, and use, all the tactics available to me, especially in boss and sub-boss fights. Spamming strikes or laying back to counterattack everything will, at best, drag out a garden-variety scrum into a skin-of-your-teeth escape. Usually, you’ll end up dead, with a lot of your health consumables and other buffs wasted.

But it didn’t take much for me to develop a workable two- or three-move melee pattern and then add more tactics, and tactical devices, as I got more confident, both with my surroundings and with my adversaries. Dying Light 2’s combat and traversal are supplemented by two perk trees with choices that really extended my capabilities. For example, from your first fight, you can block standard strikes with perfect timing to stagger an opponent. Then, naturally, you run into heavies who have strikes that can’t be blocked. But a perk on your combat tree allows you to stagger a foe by dodging their attack with perfect timing. I appreciated how my focus on counterattack moves was rewarded, but only after nudging me into a different mindset first.

The parkour in Dying Light 2 is much more fluid and confident than the system its 2015 predecessor introduced. Some of its flashier executions depend on being very familiar with your surrounding environment, but Aiden’s leaping, grappling, and running have a lot more range than the first-person view conveys. And if you do overestimate his ability to make a jump, there’s an active-landing perk that takes a lot of the sting out of even the biggest falls. Regardless, Aiden has the capability to turn jumping puzzles into something that challenges your planning more than your ability to execute moves. Once you see the path (usually helpfully marked in green), it’s no problem to traverse. Suffice it to say, with Assassin’s Creed effectively abandoning its verticality, Dying Light 2’s first-person system is the new standard in parkour platforming.

The combined strength of the combat and parkour means that most players can probably handle a higher difficulty than they think, especially if they’re willing to think tactically with their approach to fighting. On the medium setting, I think I went my first 20 hours with only one death. (But I did come out of some dumb fights so weakened that I just quit and respawned.)

For all the extra work one is expected to do in Dying Light 2, the lack of urgency in mission givers’ pleas did little to encourage me to deviate from the main story path. It was very easy to just keep taking the next core mission and finish the next chapter, without aiding this civilian, or clearing that resource area of infected. Unfortunately, this left me with a rather incomplete feeling — my progression came so slowly that I thought I was going to be underleveled by the time I hit endgame content. Enemy strength matches Aiden’s current level, which is fine, but you’ll need more of his combat unlocks when taking on larger numbers of level 3 thugs and zombies.

This has the effect of giving you a mild difficulty spike that requires a disproportionate grind period to overcome. Weapons and gear, while plentiful, are also limited to Aiden’s current level, and all of them need at least one offensive mod if you’re going to get any value out of them before they break. Weapon mod blueprints can be bought from vendors, but then the recipe components must be scavenged. The better mods let the player key in a special blast attack after charging it up with a few hits; the weaker ones trigger special attacks on random critical hits only. Guess which one has components that are harder to find? I spent nearly all of levels 3 and 4 (I topped out at level 5) holding a recipe for an electrical charged attack, but never scavenged a single battery to install it. I likely would have found these parts if I wasn’t devoting all my time to story missions. Once again, that steers us back to that looming grind obligation.

Being so slowly paced, so much of the time, can make Dying Light 2’s narrative developments and inversions seem head-spinning, even if the plot is arriving at a reasonable story point. It’s good that Dying Light 2’s choices have consequences, and it’s great that the writers often show the confidence to present those outcomes long after the decision has been made. That said, many of the consequences don’t have much beyond cosmetic weight: Getting a windmill or power substation back online is really just a question of which flag you want to see flying over that site.

Then, after a long middle stretch of making these seemingly arbitrary choices, Aiden is suddenly playing for keeps with people’s lives. Dying Light 2 also has the guts to present the player with multiple, no-good-choice outcomes to conclude the whole adventure. The story, as it accelerates into these dilemmas, really takes a lot of the shine off of Aiden’s exceptionalism, and that’s a welcome, sophisticated touch. But the nihilism that permeates so much of the rest of Dying Light 2, however frank and realistic it may be, makes the most selfish and unsatisfying choice the most reasonable one. It was the most reasonable one for me, anyway, as someone who tried to role-play the game’s decisions as much as its perk trees and gear loadouts.

Dying Light 2’s appeal is, ultimately, more game than story. Perhaps Techland’s developers were presented with their own vexing, profoundly consequential choice, where they had to choose to save one structural component or the other. If so, they picked correctly. This is a video game, after all, and a well-balanced combat system, plus exhilarating parkour with effortless contextual moves, can save even the weakest story. Vice versa seems impossible.

Dying Light 2 Stay Human launches Feb. 4 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a download code provided by Techland. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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