Dying Light 2 review: Going quietly into the night

Seven years later, we finally step back into the dying light.

Dying Light 2 Review 2022
(Image: © Windows Central)

Dying Light was a bit of a sleeper hit when it launched back in 2015. The open-world zombie sandbox won heaps of praise for its dense cityscapes, solid parkour gameplay, and satisfyingly violent take on co-operative first-person combat. Dying Light 1 remained heavily supported several years after release, getting new content drops, new activities, and other features to keep players returning. Seven years later, we finally have the game's sequel, after a notoriously long and reportedly turbulent development cycle.

Taking place several years after the first game, Dying Light 2 puts you in control of a new character, in all-new locations. A mysterious virus has wiped out much of humanity, leaving survivors to carve out a bleak existence in a handful of remaining enclaves. It's a new dark age, ultimately, where virtually everyone is infected, and all they can do is manage the progression of the disease with makeshift drugs and UV lamps.

Dying Light 2 launches in a fairly busy period, with sure-fire megahits like Elden Ring, Pokémon Legends, and Horizon Forbidden West dropping in the same window. Can Dying Light 2 cut a niche for itself in this strangely crowded February? I think it can. This is Dying Light 2: Stay Human.

Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Techland. The company did not see the contents of the review before publishing.

Dying Light 2: Setting, performance, and sound

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One thing that really stood out about the original Dying Light was the quality of its visuals. For the time, Dying Light really stood out for its gorgeous vistas, dense and thoughtful map design, and impressive lighting. Dying Light 2 continues the tradition, albeit with some caveats.

The original game took place in the fictional city of Harran, and now we've moved to a new fictional city somewhere in Western Europe. The map is split into outskirts areas, complex interior locales, and an impressively vertiginous downtown area, replete with skyscrapers designed to encourage parkour enthusiasts. Other parts of the map are blighted with strange chemicals the authorities used in attempts to contain the virus, leaving pockets of poisoned and hazardous terrain that ramp up traversal challenges. The game sports various bespoke NPC hubs and areas too, which give the game a real sense of life, somewhat ironically, given the sheer volume of death you'll encounter in its decrepit hospital interiors and mutant-filled tunnels.

Dying Light 2 revolves around its night and day cycle, as its title suggests. To that end, Dying Light 2 retains its impressive lighting features. Sunrises and morning mists paint truly stunning vistas, juxtaposed against the backdrop of a dark, ruined world.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Indeed, the corpses pile high in Dying Light 2. The world is relentlessly bleak, with NPCs proselytizing the end of the world on one street, while burying the dead on another. Infected zombies roam in impossible numbers, and gain strength, speed, and intelligence during the night, owing to the photosensitivity of the mysterious virus that has wiped out civilization.

It's truly impressive how many mobs Dying Light 2 can handle on-screen at once without noticeable performance degradation, at least on performance mode anyway. While it's not quite the numbers we saw in games like Dead Rising, dropping a grenade in a dozens-strong crowd of zeds creates spectacular cascades of gore and giblets. Enemies gush blood after being struck by blades weapons, and realistically decapitate or pop depending on whether you're using a bladed or blunt weapon. The art direction elevates the impactful feel of the combat and world at large, but so does the incredible dynamic music system.

Dying Light 2 has some of the best sound design I've heard in recent years, with very reactive and dynamic music and distortion for different events and occurrences. The more zombies that engage you, the more the tension ramps up.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Even when performing parkour combos, the music reacts to your momentum, pushing you forward. The whole system is very elegant, from its grand overtures to its more minute details, like the Silent Hill-esque air raid sirens that signal the coming of dusk. Dynamic music is something many games do now, but Dying Light 2 seems to take it to another level.

My biggest gripe with Dying Light 2's visuals and presentation pertains to performance on the Xbox Series X. At 1080p in "performance" mode, the game settles at around 60 FPS with relative ease, but if you don't have the best TV for Xbox, i.e., one without FreeSync, you may notice screen tearing during frame dips. The game also has "quality" and "resolution" graphics modes, but both of these are utterly unplayable, going from 60 FPS down to 20 FPS, and lower, depending on the situation. Hopefully, Techland can land some new tech to improve the situation here, but I suspect almost everybody will be playing this on performance mode, at least on Xbox Series X.

Update: Other reviewers have been in contact with me to suggest that the frame rate and screen tearing issues I was experiencing may have been a bug, so hopefully they'll be rectified for you with the retail version of the game.

Dying Light 2: Story (no spoilers)

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As mentioned, Dying Light 2 takes place some years after the first game, with society degrading even further from the initial wave of infections. Now, virtually everybody finds themselves infected, able only to keep the photosensitive virus at bay with UV lamps and increasingly scarce drugs. The infection plays a significant part in both the story and the gameplay, and the seamless weaving of gameplay elements with the story itself is laudable — more on that in a moment.

You play as Aiden Caldwell this time around, on a mission to track down his younger sister. Both Aiden and Mia were experimented on as children by the militaristic Global Relief Effort (GRE), who went to somewhat extreme lengths to cure and manage the outbreak. Aiden is known as a pilgrim in this new world, traveling outside the walled cities as a courier and scavenger. Pilgrims have a negative reputation for thievery and are generally met with suspicion from city folk, who actually attempt to hang Aiden when he initially reaches the city.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Indeed, Dying Light 2 initially presents itself as a feudal, medieval society that takes inspiration from the real-world dark ages, where superstition and shallow accusations supersede justice and good sense. Unfortunately, I don't think Dying Light 2 explores some of these more interesting themes in enough depth, or with enough consistency. The first part of the game wants me to believe that water is scarce and people are desperate, although it's not too far into the game that you'll come across a large nightclub where people are partying. Aiden's character delivery feels inconsistent at times too. Despite being betrayed by various characters in the first act, he repeatedly seems eager to trust every stranger almost immediately.

Dying Light 2 introduces some new elements to make its plot and world more engaging, to mixed success. There are story decisions in the game, but much like The Witcher or Cyberpunk 2077, it's hard to ascertain just how much of a difference your choices make without doing a second playthrough — something I didn't have to do as of this review deadline. Potentially there's some replay value in there if they do offer divergent outcomes, but there is a general choice for most decisions that revolve around supporting civilians, or supporting the authoritative Peace Keepers. The game doesn't judge either faction in any sort of binary way, which I feel makes choices less satisfying as a result. Whether you choose to support the PKs or the survivors, both have their flaws and positives, and the "shades of gray" differences between each faction make decisions feel arbitrary. There are gameplay implications too, however, for some of these choices, which we'll get to in a moment.

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Dying Light 2 Review 2022 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Dying Light 2 Review 2022 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Source: Windows Central

Dying Light 2's third faction is the antagonistic renegades, made up of criminals, mercs, and psychopaths, led by a malevolent scientist known as Waltz. Waltz is a relatively interesting character and helps drive the story, but I suspect Resident Evil fans will struggle to avoid comparing him to Albert Wesker both in design and delivery — complete with Wesker's iconic trench coat. As a result, many of the overarching plot elements tread familiar zombie apocalypse ground, even if Waltz's character acting and dialogue are quite good.

Overall and without spoiling, Dying Light 2's story is a passable take on the well-trodden zombie apocalypse diaspora. At best, it serves as a good canvas for creating unique story events and gameplay moments, interweaving gameplay mechanics with plot twists in a fairly impressive way. However, I found myself getting tired of the story and its haphazard world-building relatively quickly. Thankfully, the gameplay goes to some lengths to compensate.

Dying Light 2: Gameplay

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Where Dying Light 2 shines, ironically, is in its light-bending night/dark gameplay loop, which seamlessly blends the core of the story with high-stakes and often nerve-wracking scenarios that add depth to the open-world formula.

As mentioned, you're infected with the virus in the game's intro sequence, leaving Aiden with a particular susceptibility to darkness. The disease progresses in the dark until it essentially turns you into a zombie husk, like one of the game's many thousands of enemy mobs. During the daylight hours, you're essentially fine, but to get some of the game's best loot, and progress your stats, and even sometimes in the story, you're forced to contend with the darkness at regular intervals.

At night, the open-world gameplay takes a leap in difficulty, much like the first game. Zombies become faster, smarter, and louder, creating swarms that essentially force you to flee rather than engage. More heavily mutated "volatiles" and other variants appear at night too, and require more intense tactics and weapons to take down effectively.

While fleeing, the game's music ramps up, and there's even a GTA-style threat meter which creates gradually increasing threats the longer you're away from the safety of a UV-lit outpost. On the flip side, you'll gain bigger EXP boosts and better items for traversing the night which creates a gratifying risk vs. reward feedback loop. This sense of high-stakes play extends to various additional in-game activities, too.

To grow your character, you'll hunt inhibitor injections which the GRE set up in caches across various facilities in its attempts to contain the virus. Since these areas are always interior, they're always filled with photosensitive zombies and are best accessed at night, since many of them will leave the confines to roam outside. The darkness adds tension in its own right, adding layers of claustrophobia with its reduced visibility. Another layer is the management of your own infection. In the darkness, the virus progresses on a timer, displayed at the top of the screen. It creates a sense of urgency that can quite easily panic you, and of course, Dying Light 2's zombies get very upset when you create loud noises in the dark.

Thankfully, the game gives you a wide range of toys to play with for dealing with zombie hordes. Many of the weapon types from the original game return, alongside many familiar attacks. Drop kicking enemies off rooftops is as gratifying as it was in the first game, with decoys, grenades, spreading fire, explosive barrels, and other weapons providing creative zombie hunters an extensive toolkit.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Dying Light 2 Review 2022 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Dying Light 2 Review 2022 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Source: Windows Central

Slicing through enemy limbs or crushing zombie skulls never gets old, and you'll feel your power incrementally grow as you progress your strength, gear, and skill tree throughout the game. New zombie types will force you to switch up your tactics, and the game's robust, if inconsistent, stealth mechanics allow you to tailor your playstyle to some degree. Although I think bow weapons feel a bit undertuned as of writing.

Mileage on repetition will vary, depending on the gamer, though. I definitely felt the game starting to drag as someone who is a bit tired of standard open-world games. Although, the elevated stakes found in nighttime gameplay certainly helped to keep me engaged, at times when the story and its relatively shallow side quests couldn't. Looting boxes and mountains of dead zombies gets tedious fairly quickly, though, especially since upgrades and crafting materials can be relatively scarce. If there was one game desperately in need of an AoE loot mechanic, it's Dying Light 2.

One aspect I didn't have the opportunity to test is cooperative play. In co-op play, players can essentially play the whole game with their friends. Players are able to vote on story decisions too, and enemies gain additional health to offset the extra damage output of multiple players. I can see Dying Light 2 being a lot more fun with friends, if you have them, at least, cries.

As a solo player, I found Dying Light 2 to be relatively fun overall. It does things to change up the open-world formula that many other big AAA publishers are scared to implement for fear or hurting those magical engagement figures — an actual challenge, and for this, I appreciate what Techland has tried to do here.

The way your decisions can shape the world, granting factions visible control of the city, is a nice touch, but I don't feel like it adds too much to the experience. The story also struggles to command your attention, although perhaps it's designed to be light in view of the fact most may seek to play in co-op. I think fans of the original will enjoy what Techland has put together here generally, but if you're tired of open-world games, I'm not sure Dying Light 2 goes far enough to make a mark.

Dying Light 2: Is it worth playing?

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There's nothing particularly bad about Dying Light 2. The combat is fun and well realized, with impressive gore mechanics and impactful melee systems. The parkour gameplay is also well designed, with a city that feels believable in its traversability. Dying Light 2 also impresses with its layered night and day gameplay, which dramatically alters the game based on the time of day. Higher stakes at night can create truly harrowing situations, and reward the player well for their efforts.

My sense of fatigue hit pretty hard as I got to the midway point of the game, and never really abated. I am, however, someone who is fairly tired of open-world games at this point. If you find that you're someone who can't get enough of open-world games, though, I'm pretty confident that you'll find a lot to love about Dying Light 2.

It probably won't find a place among the best Xbox games out there, but I certainly found myself on edge during some of the game's unique sequences. The chase mechanics are excellent, the dark zones are suitably terrifying, and the world itself is gorgeous. For open-world fans, I think Dying Light 2 will be a satisfying experience, particularly for groups of friends.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!