24 April 2022

Post Thoughts: Dying Light 2

Somehow, they will work the entire title (with the exception of the "2") into the final speech by the bad guy at the end...

I've sunk hundreds of hours into Techland's zombie series. Somehow, they have single-handedly defined (and effectively carved out) The first person, physical combat, zombie-killing genre... starting with Dead island and DI: Riptide, and culminating with their refinement of the genre in the release of Dying Light where they added the parkour mechanics that really took the genre to the next level. 

Spoiling the conclusion of my thoughts after playing the game, up-front: Dying Light 2 is what Dead Island: Riptide was to the first game.

So, let's see what I think about the game. As usual: there WILL be spoilers ahead...

Story and Worldbuilding:

That's a beautiful render...

I'm not going to go all-in and explain the story step-by-step. Summarising the plot, though - it's been fifteen years since "the fall" when a mutated version of the zombie virus that featured in the original game escaped from a lab and decimated the world. This virus strain can't be treated with the old stuff we had access to in Dying Light 1 but it can be held at bay by exposing the infected person to ultraviolet light - which feeds into some of the game's mechanics.

Villedor (a European city in this game's universe) is one of the few actual cities left. People live in isolated communities and there are loners who venture out between these islands of civilisation called "Pilgrims" who are used to carry news and letters/items or to get certain things.

The protagonist, Aiden, comes to Villedor as a pilgrim, and then throughout the game must suffer this "outsiderness"* and perform favours to gain the trust of the people and inhabitants of the various areas of the city in order to get what he wants - data from the GRE computers (the organisation that was fighting the virus spread) to find out where his sister might be, whom he remembers mostly in flashbacks from his childhood of being experimented on by a rogue GRE doctor.
*Because inhabitants are fearful and mistrusting of the pilgrms...
I mean, I understand that Techland had to come up with something to explain why Aiden isn't from this place and the setup of the world as it is but it just doesn't work for me.

First off, the use of the word pilgrim here makes no sense. You wouldn't have this word in a European setting - we don't use it like the Americans do. Aiden isn't going to some sacred place on a pilgrimage of religious devotion. Also, he is literally from the area where he's running around... so he's actually a local of sorts, not wandering around in a foreign place (as we find out later in the game - which brings up a whole host of questions about how he escaped the city and why he doesn't have one of the biomarkers that all residents do*.

It just doesn't work.
*The game is very inconsistent about application of biomarkers, but I'll get onto that later. 

I really wanted to spend more time outside the city in the wilderness and am a little disappointed that we never got to go back there... (Also, this is a cool little easter egg for the Dead Island logo)

Secondly, the very idea of pilgrims doesn't work either. This is a world without contact between communities. There wouldn't be letters or items or trade between settlements when there's this zombie horde roaming around the wilderness. But let's say there is, for a moment, and allow this fiction in order to analyse it better... 

In this scenario, people would be happy and excited to see pilgrims - they would be bringers of things that people wanted - they would be welcomed by the inhabitants of the various settlements! Just like bringers of news and other travellers were in older times. Humans are naturally curious and this fear of an individual person makes no sense in a game where settlements are isolated from each other.

Lastly, the thing that gets me about this setup is that the science is SO BAD that it actually hurts.

While I get that the developers used the whole UV aspect to introduce a gameplay mechanic of, essentially, "diving" underwater when in dark places, any time I was forced to think about it I was taken out of the game. It makes no sense. It is nonsense.

First off, ignoring the fact that your skin blocks/absorbs most UV light and that strong UV light is bad for your eyes/sight, what could these wavelengths of light possibly do to stop someone from turning into a zombie? The change happens inside the body - where the light doesn't penetrate - and the body doesn't "produce" anything from exposure to UV light (at least not enough of anything over a short timegrame that isn't already present inside the body) that could actually affect the progression of an infection.

Finally, all these people are running around with several layers of clothes on - meaning that their actual exposure to any natural or artificial UV light sources is minimal at best! To be honest, I didn't really like this as a mechanic, either. The game world is hostile enough in the dark without having to add this extra, artificial layer on top of things. The first game made it clear - "be afraid of the dark". The second game doesn't change this and ramps up the challenge in the night and in dark areas... so the addition of an air gauge in order to dive into its depths isn't adding anything that was missing.

The biomarkers are a plot device that makes little sense...

The biomarkers, that the player is forced to obtain in order to be accepted by the inhabitants of Villedor, are also another aspect which makes little sense. Sure, they detect and indicate when a person is about to turn but their batteries would not be working after 15 years... also, apparently, they are "genetically linked" to the first person who puts them on, meaning that another person couldn't take one from the dead.... both of which are nonsense conceits.

The expense to mass produce a magical technology like locking a wrist-worn device to a person's DNA during an epidemic is just unfathomable - you'd want them to be as cheap and interchangeable as posisble. Not complex and limited in function.

Also, aside from no battery technology managing to last for 15 years, the children in this game all have biomarkers too - which means that they, somehow, magically have a supply of them many years* after the fall, depending on how old you think the children are. This means that any new children wouldn't have access to them. Sure, we don't see any younger children but that's a limitation of development, not a comment on the world that there are no children being born.
*Maybe up to 5 to 8 years...
Not only this, but anyone from outside of Villedor wouldn't have a biomarker either... Plus, the fact that everyone can just stay in sunlight or UV lamp light indefinitely, without turning means that the "requirement" to have a biomarker would very likely be dropped after a couple of years and fear of people without biomarkers would very likely not exist in a modern population 15 years after the fall.

In fact, you see this logic inconsistently applied throughout the game - Dr Waltz doesn't have a biomarker and is fully accepted by many factions; also the pilgrim friend Aiden has at the beginning of the game, Spike, doesn't appear to need a biomarker to enter the city and interact with its denizens... and Aiden is never asked to show his biomarker again throughout the game after obtaining it. I feel like it was an unnecessary inclusion as well.

The are of old Villedor is really enjoyable to move around and explore. In contrast, the city hub is more frustrating, in general...

Since I already noted that the batteries would all be dead, the UV lamps would also mostly be gone by this stage as well. Aside from the fact that UV bulbs typically have a lifetime of less than 3 years, that 3 year lifespan actually includes a gradually decreasing amount of UV radiation. Meaning that, whatever magical protection granted by the lamps would run out in less time than those three years would indicate.

All of this would ultimately result in a world where there are no UV lamps and anyone infected would immediately turn the first night they experience. So, again, I understand that Techland wanted to make a safezone mechanic and UV anti-infection system but what that would look like without the UV lamps, I don't know. So, I can forgive them for keeping these anachronisms around.

Finally, instead of nitpicking the world itself, I'll get to nitpicking the story.

I didn't like Dying Light 2's story. The interplay between the factions was too simplistic and the choices the character made were overly restrictive based on my perception of their real impact. In my game, the Survivors controlled most of the water, power and various areas but I made one decision to give the peacekeepers control of a radio tower, like I promised them I would in exchange for information they said they would provide me. Then I sided with the survivors and killed the peacekeeper leader when he attacked me.

Somehow, at the end of the game, during the epilogue of "events after the game", the peacekeepers became this authoritarian regime that wantonly killed people and was in full control - which just didn't reflect the world I left behind - though my ending was different* from those described in this article.
*My story had Jack Matt attack me after saving the Colonel, Frank dying, Juan being hung, Lawan sacrificing herself, Haakon saving Lawan and I from the attack in X13 but then not saving her from the blast... With Colonel Williams (or maybe Meyer? I was a bit fuzzy on that because it happened so quickly) controlling The Peacekeepers and the city becoming an authoritarian state under their control.
I also didn't like that decision about who to assign control of the radio tower to. It came out of left-field, with zero setup in the moment you were about to put the "control unit" in. Okay, there was a request to renege on the promise to the peacekeepers just before the mission, if my memory serves, but it was not clear that this one decision would essentially affect the outcome of the future of the city like it did... and quite frankly, the role I was playing was a fairly honest one. I did deals - you give me something, I give you something in return. Exactly how I imagine such a society would work...

Furthermore, once that decision was made, it locked-in the control of all other radio towers the player can unlock throughout the rest of the city as well. So, I couldn't assign the other towers to the survivors instead of the peacekeepers, for example. I thought this was very shallow, from a story perspective.

The character models in this game are actually really nice and blend in well with the art style of the game...

Aside from this gripe, my other main problem was with the ending of the game and Waltz's motivations, alongside the logic behind the reasons for everything happening.

The macguffin that everyone wants, the GRE access key, is a thing of duality. It doesn't allow control, as one would normally expect of something SO powerful, it only allows "yes" or "no" situations. You either have access, or you don't. It's either on, or off...

This is really my biggest complaint about the story.

Forget fictional inventions, forget poor character design and lack of character arcs (in general - which we will get to in the next section). Everything boils down to "the X13 facility launches the missiles that will destroy the city* if the facility is powered on... and cannot be stopped, even with the magical GRE key. OR access to this military facility would enable the good doctor to attempt to cure his daughter, Mia, from the virus... y'know... with all of its advanced medical equipment.
*Despite the fact that logically it would be improbable and impossible that such a facility, with launch capabilities could be built in the 1-4 years from the initial virus detection... or would be so close to a large metropolitan centre.
Dying Light 1 had a simple story that worked that didn't overly work against the suspension of disbelief of its consumers. Dying Light 2 has layers upon layers of convoluted logic that work against only the briefest of glances into their internal structure. 

This is its downfall...


Do I know you... ?

Non-linear videogames have an awful tendency to introduce a character for five minutes and then refer to them heavily several hours later with overtones of concern and implied importance to the protagonist/player character. It's a general flaw of the design, though (IMO) you can work around it with 'hub' quest designs, always coming back to the same few characters.

Dying Light 2 exhibits two faux pas in this general scheme:
  1. They have too many returning side/main characters but they all have very little screen time relative to the length of the campaign if played "straight".
  2. None of the characters actually have any sort of arc - not even the protagonist.
Okay, let me caveat that: Jack Matt has a lot of screen time late in the game - and it's basically all quest giving. The other factions have mixed quest givers that can come and go with the wind. But he doesn't go through any sort of arc or progression. In fact, I'm pretty sure his highly insinuated illness is never addressed at all...

Lawan never stops hating those on her kill list and learn to let go. Frank never got over or began to address his failure. Jack didn't ever mellow or see how destructive his actions were or could be. Juan didn't get his comeuppance because of his character flaws but because of... well, I'm actually unclear as to why he was hung. Haakon, well... I have no idea what the fuck Haakon's deal was other than he had a relationship with Lawan that sparked back into life (briefly) during the endgame. Aitor doesn't evolve or become challenged by being thrust into a leadership position. Sophie and Barney are linked but both pretty poor, one-note characters that do nothing other than cause the player problems which are then solved and forgiven within the space of a few breaths (and Hermann's death).

In comparison with this, I felt like most of the main characters in Dying Light 1 get proper character arcs - even the very side-characers like the twins.

Further to this failure, Dying Light 2 has another HUGE problem: it is too verbose.

Seriously, I'm normally a person who loves diving into codexes and learning more about worlds but I think for the first time in my entire life Dying Light 2 had me holding the button to skip dialogue. 

The vast majority of dialogue in DL2 is empty and meaningless and this applies especially to most of the side-quests once you're in the main city. At least those in old Villador felt tighter and less rambling. Worse still, DL2 likes to randomly throw in important questions in the middle of dialogue sometimes, meaning that if you skipped, you're SOL (actually I had to google a few conversations in quests because of this).

Characters speak slowly, aimlessly and are often uninteresting in the information they are presenting. It's a terrible shame and it detracted immensely from my enjoyment of the game.

In summary, many of the characters are meaningless and the game would not be negatively affected if they just weren't there at all.

For instance, if Aitor had just been with you from start to finish as the face of the Peacekeepers, would it have been worse than not having Meyer present?


It's ELECTRIFYING! And then a step to the right...

This is where the game still shines and, as far as I can tell, there's very little changed for the positive in this sequel. Melee still feels impactful and the player, and enemies alike, stagger and lurch with the physical exertion you'd expect from this sort of messy combat.

However, there are two new alterations which are questionable to my mind. First off, Techland have removed the ability to throw melee weapons at enemies. I found that I used this a lot in the past games and felt myself reaching for it in this game -especially when you wanted that hugely powerful first attack in a combat situation. There really was nothing to replace that with. The throwing knives were pretty weak, in general - even when fully upgraded - and unfortunately, due to the level scaling, most areas never let you feel like you had advanced, power-wise. 

Many enemies had you hitting them like piñatas until they just fell on the floor - including, unfortunately, the final boss.

The second alteration was the addition of the parkour combat which, I felt was not helpful. Launching the player into the air, often meant that you lost situational and combat awareness and, worse than that, you forfeit dealing damage to the target in front of you for the chance of dealing more damage to one behind... but often there was not an ideal target behind the one you were fighting that wouldn't put you into the midst of a group of enemies which, again due to the level scaling, you don't want to do because you can only defend against attacks from one direction in this game.

Seriously, every time I found myself in the middle of a group of assailants, it was certain death unless I retreated and got myself to the outskirts of the group.

The parkour combat might sound like a nifty addition to the skillset the player has access to but in reality, none of the skills you can upgrade in the skill tree actually help mitigate the weaknesses that this combat style leads you into - you get no better area control abilities from jumping around on people, you get no way to deal damage to the enemy you just jumped upon, it's just an acrobatic way to waste time in combat.

Contrast this with the skills that let you intercept assailants as they dive towards you, grapple them, and cause slow-downs when you dodge their attacks - none of which are linked to the parkour combat.

After experimenting a little with the parkour combat, I gave up on it because it was basically never useful and certainly never practical in the often claustrophobic encounters you find yourself in within Villador and its various interiors... and certainly not within the more important one-on-one combats within the game.

Picked-up weapons often don't scale with the player level, meaning that you get a lot of "last tier" items that you either sell or discard...

Aside from the now-typical melee combat for the series, the player has access to weapon modifications which are used to increase weapon health as well as slightly increase damage as well as provide modified damage types, replacing the weapon repair mechanic found in the prior games from Techland.

I also felt like this was a step backward. For one, I found that weapons often did not last very long in Dying Light 2 and new weapons could be purchased quite cheaply from vendors without issue or easily found within the game world, organically. I often had to sell weapons and occasionally discard them in the field because I didn't have enough carrying capacity to haul them around with me.

This brought two issues to the fore - first is that I was never short of weapons. Second is that I was very rarely impressed by the weapons I was picking up. Although there is a class system for weapons based on colour (the pseudo-stereotypical World Of Warcraft rarity colours) these weapons are often not useful based on their rarity. Often, legendary or rare items are not level-scaled to the player*, meaning that they are throw-away items once they are obtained or worse still, the player is still picking up trash grey items that are also worthless. What's the point?
*At least, this is how it appeared to me when I was playing - I'd often get a gold coloured item but find that blue coloured items would deal more damage, for example.
If it were me, I'd say - if we're level scaling enemies and weapons, do it for everything, even the trash. If not, don't. Don't have a halfway system that leaves the player dissatified with their drops, especially when limiting player carrying capacity. And if the player isn't being impressed by the weapons they pick up and modify then what is the point of having the level scaling system, the drop system, the durability system and the carrying capacity system?

When all the weapons are nondescript in mechanics, just give the player a weapon and have it last with them for the whole game.

This situation was highlighted to me from my experiences in Dead Island and Dying Light 1, where I had situations where I'd save the best weapon for the fights with the most at stake, I'd metagame by throwing that weapon (for huge initial damage) but saving it from degrading (because thrown weapons didn't degrade). I had weapons I'd remember and miss throughout the game.

In Dying Light 2, much like the various characters, it didn't matter what weapon I was holding. They were interchangeable - even the modifications... lightning or fire, what was the reason to choose either? Or even double up or have two effects on a weapon?

There was none because nothing made any individual weapon special to use.

You're missing the part where everyone needs to be naked for the UV light to have any effect...

Then there's the movement mechanics. The parkour things they brought over from Dying Light 1 worked well and they even improved these with wall running and movement boosts based on the parkour upgrades in the skill tree. That was fine and dandy. The paraglider was also really nice but the grappling hook was given to the player quite late in the game and, as such, in a movement context, it was mostly useful in a puzzle sense. i.e. "I couldn't make this jump before but now I see a grapple point."

In combat, the grappling hook was one of the more useful mechanics in the game, allowing the player to pull and instantly make prone any low-level enemy, allowing the player to instakill them through the judicial use of the all-powerful headstomp (which Techland thankfully didn't remove from this game).

Finally, there are the exploration mechanics which hinge upon the aforementioned UV lights. You have limited ability to resist the infection in the darkness, increasing this time limit per skill tree unlock you gain. Additionally, at night there are more dangerous and varied zombie enemies to face, allowing you to collect the useful upgrade materials from their bodies.

There is also the conceit that the infected occupy important buildings with valuable resources inside them and then vacate them at night. Basically, if you enter them in the day, they can be almost impossible to clear - especially the GRE facilities where you gather the inhibitors you require to level up your skill tree. Entering these in the day is almost guaranteed instadeath as the volatiles from the first game are present there in droves.

Strangely, the volatiles don't really make an appearance during the night outside in the city. I'm not sure if I was just lucky or if that was intended. However, the chase sequences with the virals made up for the chases with the volatiles from the first game, even if the avoidance mechanics were less interesting to my mind.

Back to those materials/resources, aside from inhibitors, I never found myself actually needing to go into any other buildings at night. Their inclusion, and thus the mechanic, was a waste of time because I was swimming in resources and money from doing very few of them - much like I was in the first game. If you do any sort of exploration within the game, you'll never want for resources, so there's no reason to venture into these "resource rich" environments.

Another pointless inclusion.

Catch me if you can...

And then, when you think you've encountered everything this game has to offer, the ending throws one more wrench into the works. The "boss fight" mechanics are terrible.

What's really frustrating is that Techland showed what a good boss encounter looks like earlier in the game. There are at least two occasions where Waltz chases the player and you must evade him by using your parkouring skills. That's great and tense gameplay... This was not that. The final boss encounter has you pounding on the piñata that is SuperWaltz, whilst SuperAiden randomly powers up to cause massive damage. Worse still, "beating" Waltz just leads to another segment of the fight. 

"Knocked my health to near zero? Oops, that was just a phase! I'm okay now and you have to do it again, only slightly differently..."

There was a slight glimmer of hope where I thought Waltz would lead me on a chase to capture him in the third phase but, no... it was minimal platforming before resuming the interminable bashing on the piñata. Additionally, there was also the threat of looming near-instadeath if you dropped down to the ground floor and succumbed to the chemicals... which proved to be harmless mere moments later in the fourth stage when Waltz jumped back down again from the platforms.

Just terrible design.

What's really sad is that, in these last few segments, you get a glimmer of new combat design whereby SuperAiden is able to become a sort of pseudo volatile able to charge and swipe with immense power. But the player never gets the chance to explore these new abilities in this short timeframe and the attacks feel weightless and lacking in physical connections with their targets, unlike the well-developed melee system.

Bugs and Technical Issues:

Sit down a while and listen...

The game was fairly okay on a technical front. Yes, I found this funny situation were an NPC was incorrectly placed with respect to the chair but for the most part the game was error free. What was a big annoyance for me were the frequent disconnects during the game for the EPIC games store version. This, seemingly, occurred because the game did not remember that it was logged into an account (as far as I could tell). If I changed certain settings in the options, I would be kicked to a browser window and asked to log into the EPIC games account again, despite the fact that I was logged in on the application. During gameplay, this would manifest as the error, "You have been returned to the Title Screen because the profile in use has changed." 

Which, of course, it had not.

This was quite annoying and sometimes led to loss of recent quest progress.

Another issue I found, which I could not verify was a bug or not, was that I could not pick up any of the red ducks from their safe locations. It could be I didn't activate the correct quest but it seems from searching through Google, players were saying that they could before a certain update.

The last issue is not a bug but a technical issue.

As a PC player, I am well accustomed to spending the first 10-15 minutes playing around with the settings in the game to get performance and quality to where I want it. What I am not accustomed to is reaching a new level/location in the game and finding that I need to repeat this process, interrupting an important sequence in the story and mechanics introduction in the process.

The settings I chose and had no issue with for the introduction and Old Villador had to be reconfigured to work in the main city, during the portion where I'm learning to use the paraglider. I was very disappointed to be confronted with, essentially, a slide show because I was using raytracing for the first third of the game and forced to work out what was causing the issue at the beginning of the second third of the game during a sequence that I needed to actually concentrate on.

Developers really need to ask themselves, "How are players going to be able to choose the correct settings for the game? Can they accurately do this in the first 5 minutes of the game? Do they have a benchmarking facility to help them do this before starting this story-driven game?"

It is a big problem with many PC titles and it appears to be hugely overlooked by many developers...


I give up, this time... Honest.

After spending around 115 hrs playing Dying Light 2 I'm not unhappy that I did but the game really dragged towards the end. I found myself skipping the inane, pointless dialogue more and more, just to get moving again. And, as I said, I was severely disappointed with the ending.

Combining this with the uneven performance between the first and second areas in the game, forcing me to sit and play around with settings for a second time when I was deep into the game and essentially ruining the first flights when being introduced to the paraglider and Lawan.

Would I recommend Dying Light 2?

If I'm honest, if you played and liked the first game, I'd say wait for a slight discount - you're not missing anything seminal. If you never played that first game, I personally think that's the better game - get that instead.

I know I've been quite negative in this review but it's specifically upon review that the problems I've outlined herein begin to snowball. During the game, they were minor annoyances that I mostly ignored once they had passed... or between play sessions. However, when I cast my mind back to the game as a whole, every issue starts to worm its way out of the woodwork and it's clear to me that I am not really fond of this game like I was Dying Light 1 or Dead Island.

Backseat Designing:

I may be writing this in vain...

There were a lot of rumours and hints of a troubled development process for this game and that may be true from what I've seen of the finished product. It feels less than it could have been and should have been based on the first game's design.

There are many things I'd love to explore changing in this game but there are two primary design choices that I'd make to "improve" the currently designed game as far as I see it:

1) Brevity is the soul of wit...

Seriously, tone things way back. Get rid of the cruft in side quest NPCs, get to the point! Stop wasting the player's time on things which are unfunny and way too often meaningless. At least the twins in the first game are playing off of each other and they have an interesting arc and the player gets to see them advance through that arc if they do the side quests. 

Most side quests in this game are one-and-done style affairs. Either make them more succinct or get rid of them.

2) Be as good as you'll ever be...

Level scaling was never necessary in these games and its implementation in Dying Light 2 is about the same level of annoying as it is in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. It detracts from the joy of getting and using new weapons and abilities and there are relatively few times the player is requested to ever backtrack to old locations where the enemies might be* lower level, showing how much you've gained in power.
*Actually, there are many places even in Old Villador where the enemies scale with the player power, resulting in weird sequences were you can be one-hitting zombies, only to run into areas where they are now level-appropriate.
If you removed the level scaling, you enable the player to feel more powerful through their use of skill upgrades, allowing more ways to control the ebb and flow of combat. Plus, you reduce the pain of finding lower powered weapons and more powerful weapons actually make a positive difference in combat, as opposed to just bringing the player on par with whatever they're facing...

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