Aiden is a pilgrim, a nomadic survivor who wanders the zombie wastelands of Dying Light 2, taking goods from one settlement to another like some sort of post-apocalyptic Deliveroo rider. The search for his long-lost sibling has led him to a sprawling city somewhere in Europe. Here, three warring tribes endlessly fight for resources, using a familiar combination of melee combat and unconvincing dialogue. You take on missions for various shouting sociopaths, all competing to either save the world or blow it up, or some unfeasible combination of the two. Sound familiar? If you’ve played a zombie game in the past decade, it certainly should.
The various territories of the city are all teeming with the undead, and also side-quests. Everywhere you go there are hidden weapon caches, bandit camps and train stations to unlock for fast travel, and windmills that must be powered up to create safe houses – a game design trope instantly recognisable to anyone who’s played an open-world adventure since 2012’s Far Cry 3. Indeed, Dying Light 2 feels like a B-movie undead reskin of Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed – rather like Days Gone.
Where that game’s unique selling point was its swarms of AI monsters, Dying Light 2 has parkour. Aiden is much safer if he stays on the rooftops, leaping from building to building, using architectural features, ropes and ladders to maintain verticality. This was a hallmark of the first title, of course, and it’s just as well implemented here. It never feels quite as good as, say, Insomniac’s ludicrously instinctual Spider-Man, but navigating this intricate playground provides the game’s strongest moments. It is fun to stand atop a tenement block, surveying the ruined skyscrapers, bubbling chemical wastelands and devastated evacuation centres, working out how to cross distances without hitting street level. As you run, the air is always full of shouts and screams and the staccato drum roll of gunfire, making you feel like the city is full of little tragedies. Getting better at parkour makes navigating the environment a constantly evolving dexterity challenge.
This is a graphically impressive, professionally constructed world that desperately wants to give you stuff to do. So it’s a pity that the narrative core of the experience is as dead as its stumbling zombie hordes. Structurally it adheres so slavishly to the hero’s journey concept that Joseph Campbell should really get a writing credit. Every time Aiden feels he’s closer to his sister, some other obstacle pops up – usually in the form of a fetch quest or raid delivered by one of many identikit ruthless survivors. Every encounter provides either a facilitator or a nemesis on the mythic quest flow chart.
There are dozens of cinematic scenes containing loss, grief and betrayal, but they don’t hit. Nothing hits. There is nothing like the devastating, destructive obsession between Ellie and Abby, none of the subtle, poignant interdependence of Geralt and Yennefer or the multilayered friendship of Max and Chloe. The characters and story threads are all tattered stereotypes of apocalyptic lore: we get the deranged general cut off from military order, the libertarian dudebro flourishing amid the chaos, the would-be messiah who imagines a socialist utopia rising from the ashes. But all their depth is delivered in a barrage of backstory and expository dialogue that tells us all about societal and emotional collapse – but shows us almost nothing. There’s a reason why The Last of Us makes most of its flashbacks interactive: it immerses the player in the past.
I finished the game less than an hour ago and I can’t remember most of the characters’ names, let alone what they were fighting over. The one exception is stealthy assassin Lawan, who brings charm, mystery and humour and really should have been the protagonist.
In its quest to go bigger, to be vast, to be endless, Dying Light 2 forgets that size doesn’t matter when it comes to affecting entertainment. The tweets that came out of developer Techland in the run up to the release of the game are so telling in this respect. 500 hours of gameplay! More words than War and Peace! But it’s not the length of Tolstoy’s novel that makes it a classic.
If all you want is a gigantic zombie-filled Skinner box crammed with loot and repetitive, incremental violence, Dying Light 2 absolutely works. Honestly, you’ll love it. You can explore and level up and get into fights using increasingly powerful weapons, and the interlocking compulsion loops do their job of settling you into that grind. But oh for a moment of genuine surprise, a truly memorable line of dialogue, a spark of mechanical invention.
The best apocalyptic fiction works in the pauses between horrors; it shocks us with unexpected tenderness. This is why Cormac McCarthy’s The Road ends not with an image of a wrecked city, but with the memory of brook trout swimming in rivers that wound through mountain glens, “where all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery”. The pandemic has given a lot of us firsthand experience of how weird and intimate a global calamity can be. Dying Light 2 hums not with mystery but with lethargy. I think maybe I’m done with the end of the world.