(Pocket-lint) - Back in 2015 the original Dying Light game went some way towards proving that the concept of an intelligent zombie game wasn't a tautology. With its open world and eye-catching gameplay systems – like a parkour engine and a day-night cycle that saw its zombies achieve full fearsomeness after dark – it felt like a thoroughly modern game and generated a huge and enthusiastic following.
Now Polish developer Techland – propelled into the big league by the original game – is putting the finishing touches to the sequel, Dying Light 2: Stay Human. We attended a preview event encompassing roughly four hours of hands-on gameplay of this hotly anticipated game – which is due to launch 4 February 2022.
Added choices and consequences
Making the first sequel to a successful new intellectual property is always a balancing act as a developer: you don't want to deviate from the blueprint that brought success, but you also don't want to make the same game again. Our hands-on with Dying Light 2 suggests that Techland has struck a happy balance in that regard.
There are plenty of aspects of Dying Light 2 which will be comfortingly familiar to those who played the original game: the parkour-style movement, the overwhelmingly melee-based combat, the open world, the emphasis on crafting, and the day-night cycle in which the zombies hit the streets in full super-aggressive effect after the sun goes down.
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But this time around, Techland has added an extra level of complexity to that blueprint, via what it calls choices and consequences. Those, it maintains, not only allow players to alter the storylines they experience but the world itself.
We interviewed Techland's Lead Game Designer, Tymon Smektala, providing a great deal of insight regarding the sequel. "In the first game, there was a story which was always scripted, and you had absolutely no impact on it at all. So, our creative director, in the first sentence in the design docs in pre-production, wrote: 'We need to try to give players the same amount of freedom in the narrative that they have in the gameplay.' Then we started thinking about what we could do to make it a little bit different, and settled on choices and consequences not only changing the story but also changing the world around you."
In practice, there are two means of making choices in the game. The first is a system called City Alignment. At times in the main storyline you'll come across crucial infrastructure buildings – the first we encountered was a water-pumping station; the second, later on and in a different part of the city, an electricity substation. Having got both online after bouts of elaborate puzzle-solving, we then had to decide which of two local factions we would reward with control of them – thereby affecting the balance of power in the city (there's some echo of The Outer Worlds about that).
Plus, we encountered branching moments in Dying Light 2's storyline, particularly when pursuing side-missions, in which we had to, for example, decide whether to carry on trusting one (somewhat unreliable) character and continue helping them to execute their plan, or veer off at a different tangent. Even with a longer-than-usual play-through, we weren't able to witness the precise consequences of our choices, but Dying Light 2 certainly breaks away from the narrative linearity of its predecessor.
A modern mediaeval setting
Another pronounced shift away from the first Dying Light game comes about as a consequence of Stay Human's overarching storyline. It's set 15 years after the first viral outbreak, as chronicled in the original game, so takes place in a very different overall environment, which Techland describes as 'modern mediaeval'. That is, while the city of Villedor's buildings are still standing (albeit in something of a state of disrepair), the surviving humans living within it have reverted to a mediaeval form of lifestyle.
It's curiously pertinent given that we're still in the grip of a pandemic (albeit not one which induces zombification), and offers a neat means of addressing one of the few criticisms of the original game, whose storyline divided opinion and faced accusations of being somewhat bland and straightforward.
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Three factions have emerged: the Peacekeepers, the Survivors, and the Renegades. The first of those, as you would expect, offer a form of authority; Survivors seem to be protagonist Aiden Caldwell's spiritual brethren, since they are just ordinary people trying to survive; while the Renegades resemble a street gang.
A growing web of missions
Protagonist Aiden has entered Villedor as a member of an outcast gang called the Pilgrims, which grants him a measure of impartiality. He's on a quest to find his missing sister Mia, with his early investigations revealing that he needs to get to a part of the city called Central Loop, closed off by the Peacekeepers, whose local leader promises access if Aiden can ascertain who had recently murdered Lucas, the Peacekeepers' previous leader.
At this pretty early stage in the storyline, the choices system comes into evidence. While venturing out at night on behalf of a Survivor called Sophie to find her feckless brother Barney – who has gone dark (radio communications still work in Villedor) while trying to acquire a cache of precious crystals – you're told of another Survivor, Birdie, who had been with Barney, and then you decide whether to risk looking for him as well.
A web of quests and side-missions then emerges, which might not please those who like everything to be cut and dried, but at least showing that Dying Light 2's narrative complexity is an order of magnitude greater than that of its predecessor.
As Aiden finds a breakthrough in his investigations – using what the game calls Survivor Sense, meaning he can detect blood trails and the like – there's an encounter with a mini-boss, Hermann (who is Sophie's bodyguard), leading to yet another big choice. Dying Light 2 is definitely not a game for the congenitally indecisive.
Our demo was then fast-forwarded a few hours further into the game, to Central Loop, which is characterised by an abundance of skyscrapers, having been the financial district pre-outbreak. Aiden's mission there is to restore power, which had been out for years, resulting in acquiring a paraglider – an extremely useful item assisted by handy updraft fans – enabling gliding for considerable distances. It's not all on foot or by zipline in Stay Human, which adds to the fun.
Slick, responsive melee action
Gameplay-wise, Dying Light 2 very much continues where the first game left off, but shows plenty of signs of extra refinement. Front and centre all the way through is the melee engine.
Unlike the first game, however, conventional guns won't feature at all. Smektala comments: "Melee combat, visceral combat, in-your-face brutal encounters is something basically written in Dying Light's DNA, so definitely we wanted to focus on that."
That's not to say there's no ranged combat though: in keeping with the modern mediaeval theme, there are bows and crossbows – we acquired a bow which was particularly effective for zombie headshots – and that it will be possible to craft a boomstick that, as Smektala says, "just fires once, but when it does, it really has a devastating effect."
But there's no need for such hardware when you have a melee engine as precise and responsive as that of Dying Light 2. With one of the sharp crafted weapons – a cleaver improvised from an old road-sign, say, or a machete – you seem to have fine control over your aim and timing, and when you catch everything right, slicing a zombie's head clean off with a single slash, it's deeply satisfying.
Blunt weapons like police batons are equally handy, thanks again to that creamy control system. And it's all kept pretty simple: you can press-and-hold for a heavy blow, so if you knock a zombie down, you can launch into a vaulting move that inflicts extra damage; plus you can dodge and defend against incoming blows.
As you progress, you gain blueprints for crafting the likes of Molotov cocktails, grenades and mines, and discover you can do things like pick up gas canisters, light them and chuck them at groups of encroaching zombies.
Crafting, skills and rooftops
As in the first game, you can largely avoid zombie interactions by sticking to Villedor's rooftops, which also house some crucial resources such as honey, chamomile and lavender for crafting healing packs. After dark, unless he's somewhere bathed in UV light, Aiden has to take medication to stop his immunity dropping below a certain level.
The game has two skill trees, for parkour and combat, bringing a raft of new moves and perks. At the conclusion of most quests and side-quests (and sometimes randomly), Aiden finds chests containing so-called Inhibitors that can be used to improve stats like health and stamina. Lock-picking again features prominently, and weapons swiftly degrade, but are plentiful and easily crafted.
Overall, Dying Light 2: Stay Human has an even more pleasingly open-world feel than its predecessor. You could see yourself spending hours searching for specific resources, taking out random zombies, and generally getting to know the map.
When you tire of that – well, if you do – there's a storyline that is clearly made up of a vast web, plus the tantalising prospect of your choices influencing the story and your surroundings. It's not an on-rails game, which gives it distinction in a field of so many linear and gun-based open-world titles.
Our preview visit to Villedor left us yearning to return to it. It certainly gives the impression that Techland has become a big-league developer in the full flush of great confidence. If the entirety of Dying Light 2 lives up to what we've experienced so far then it should establish a new benchmark for ambitious, intelligent and labyrinthine zombie games.