I was prepared for Dying Light 2's sequel-sized scope. I was prepared for its first-in-class moment-to-moment gameplay. But what I was not prepared for, perhaps to my shame, was its consistent capacity to scare me senseless. I'm not just talking about the immediate fright of its I Am Legend style zombies, either, most of whom huddle together in dingy, blackened buildings known as Dark Zones during the day and surface only once the sun's down to stalk the open world at night.
No, Dying Light 2's main course on the horror menu is the ominous, gulp-inducing kind of fear that worms its way permanently into the limbic system and under the skin. And, like all the best apocalypse stories, that horror stems not from the walking dead, but from the humans seeking to survive in spite of them.
Our hands off demo for Techland's open world sequel to 2015's Dying Light takes us to The City, the fictional Eastern European metropolis that plays the stage to a bloody tug of war between various competing factions, most of whom are still breathing and none of whom are particularly pleasant. Set 15 years after the events of the first game, Dying Light 2 turns to the question of who gets to rebuild the new world from the ashes of the old one, and our playable protagonist, Aiden Caldwell, will - for reasons yet to be fully revealed - be crucial to providing those answers.
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On The Radar: Dying Light 2 – An exclusive look at one of the most anticipated action games of the generation
The E3 2019 demo begins in The Fish Eye, a seedy tavern led by a guy named Frank, who's about to make a deal with a faction called The Renegades to bring water back to his district. Aiden is there to keep the peace during negotiations, but it's not long before a fight breaks out, Frank is shot, and the Renegades speed off back to their castle base. Dying Light 2's cutscenes still play out from an in-game, first-person perspective, but these are now imbued with far more interactivity, as players will be forced to make quick decisions on the fly during key moments to determine the direction of their branching story, very much in the same vein as a Telltale narrative adventure game.
With Frank bleeding out, for example, we're faced with the choice to either pursue The Renegades or stay with our fallen friend. In this instance, Aiden takes flight, leaving Frank in precarious conditions to instead seek vengeance against his attacker. These player driven moments arrive hard and fast throughout the demo, and all of them leave a determinable impact on Dying Light 2's gameplay, story, and world (spoilers: if you leave Frank, he bleeds out and dies, whereas Techland confirmed the prognosis could have been better if Aiden had decided to stay and help him recover).
As a result, Techland says a single playthrough of Dying Light 2's campaign will offer up just half of the content available in the game proper, and they're not just talking about the story either. For instance, upon finding and infiltrating Renegade HQ, we eventually come face to face with their leader, the Colonel. We can either renegotiate some kind of deal to get his monopolized water pumps running again, or attack him head on, and turn on the taps for ourselves.
We watch as Aiden goes with the latter option, eventually bringing the pumps back on and draining the castle's surrounding floodplain in the process, revealing an entire new urban region that can now be explored. Had we opted for a different tact with the Colonel, the pumps would remain offline and that region would have stayed submerged forever, explorable only in small bursts through free-diving excursions. This is Techland's vision of its narrative sandbox in action; where the very world of Dying Light reacts to players' decisions as much its splintering plot line.
But for those more interested in how Dying Light 2 plays as a game than as an interactive story, you need not worry. It's still looking as fabulous as ever. As we watch Aiden navigate The City, it quickly becomes very clear that, in this world, every crevice is navigable, every platform scalable, and every non-playable character, dead or otherwise, is just as useful as a means to ascending or descending the terrain as they are a punching bag for Dying Light 2's unique brand of first-person pugilism.
Aiden's got an impressive arsenal of freerun abetting tools to help him out now too, in a smart expansion of equipment to accompany the fan favourite grappling hook of the original game. While pursuing the Renegades, we see Aiden deploy a paraglider to hover from one rooftop to the next, use rope to swing between teetering platforms and, yes, grapple onto ledges with the returning projectile hook, which can now also be used to get the vertical advantage on foes like some sort of DIY Spider-Man.
He's far more agile that Dying Light's Kyle Crane, too, capable of wall runs, underbars, and Olympic style long jumps to cover great distances in seconds. Watching it in action is as breathtaking as the game's melee focused combat is brutal, and solidifies Techland's status as the undisputed king of video game parkour (sorry, Mirror's Edge).
Having now seen so much of Dying Light 2, I'm still desperate to a) experience how the game plays for myself and b) learn whether Techland's ambitious narrative sandbox actually works when put through the paces of someone outside the studio. The game has just seen a delay from 2019 to Spring 2020, which hopefully gives Techland all the time it needs to polish Dying Light 2 from soup to nuts. That said, if the demo I saw is an authentic simulacrum of the final product, then we have something very, very special on our hands indeed.
Check out all the other E3 2019 games that have just been announced on the way, or watch the video below for a quick, 90 second guide to Dying Light 2.