A lot of games are preoccupied with being “fun.” They give you the tools to have fun and just throw you into their world, whether that means stomping turtles or orchestrating elaborate assassinations or connecting four lines of blocks. Other games withhold a big hook, either to make sure you’re not overwhelmed with mechanics, or to create a cathartic payoff. All of those approaches require a careful balance, since giving a player too much can take away an incentive to keep playing, while giving them too little can have the same effect for the opposite reasons.
Even 20 hours into Dying Light 2 Stay Human (no colon, like Star Trek Into Darkness), it’s not clear which of those it is. It’s definitely not a “go have fun!” game. So the question is whether or not it’s justified in holding things back from the player. Is it carefully ramping up to the most fun you can have while killing zombies with parkour, or is it artificially holding that fun back so that it can justify the enormous amount of time that the developers at Techland (which also made the slightly zanier Dead Island games a decade ago) want you to spend in this apocalyptic world?
It’s hard to talk about Dying Light 2 without talking about Techland’s suggestion that it would take “500 hours” to complete, not because that soundbite swallowed up a lot of the pre-release discussions but because there are aspects of the game that feel like the developers went in with “500 hours” as a goal, and neglected to actually make every single one of those hours feel compelling.
Dying Light 2, like its predecessor from 2015, puts you in the shoes of a free-running savant in a zombie apocalypse, with nearly every moment of the game based around either doing parkour to avoid zombies/collect supplies or using hand-to-hand weapons like fire-breathing axes or electrified table legs to beat up zombies and collect supplies from their twice-dead corpses.
It primarily takes place in a walled city that is somehow both safe from the zombie hordes, and a breeding ground for zombie hordes, a few decades after the fall of civilization. As players of the original will know, this isn’t just a world dealing with a zombie virus, it’s a world dealing with a zombie virus that got much worse because of the greed and idiocy of the people in power—a plot point that resonates a lot more these days.
The core gameplay loop in the first game involved leveling up your parkour abilities by doing parkour stuff and leveling up your combat abilities by fighting bad guys—with the added wrinkle that you got significantly more points for anything you did at night, because more powerful zombies would roam the map when the sun went down. As you leveled up, you’d unlock new abilities in either the parkour or combat tree that would give you new options while running or fighting (like the ability to get extra height by chaining jumps, or learning new moves like an always-hilarious dropkick that sends zombies flying).
The sequel retains all of that, but the amount of time it takes to bump your parkour or combat level up higher feels dramatically longer, which means it’s harder to get new moves to spice up the gameplay. Leveling up seems more dependent on completing quests, which are usually of the “go there and get a thing and come back” variety, rather than letting you grind your way to a new ability you want—like an utterly bat-shit physics-defying 180 degree jump that is as awesome as it is impractical, or new modifications to the much-appreciated block ability added in this game—by actively doing stuff.
Things taking longer to get fun or interesting isn’t automatically a problem. The issue is that the effort it takes to progress through these systems feels arbitrarily difficult, like you’re fighting against the game, rather than actually engaging with what it wants you to do—or what you want to do, for that matter.
Dying Light 2 is a blast when you get into a flow, whether you’re gliding across rooftops like somebody from Assassin’s Creed or dodging and parrying attacks from enemies like a fencing master (who happens to be using a baseball bat covered in poison nails). But you can’t do any of those cool, fun things without a substantial time investment of less-cool, less-fun play.
When you have put in that time, it’s a cool way to kill zombies and decide the fate of one of the last-remaining strongholds of human civilization. (There’s a whole “moral” choice system, but like a lot of video games, you’re often choosing between jerks and different jerks). Until you put in that time, though, it’s a game about awkwardly stumbling to your death and getting ripped apart by zombies. Which is not super fun.