Dying Light was a breakout hit that bucked the trend of zombie games over the last few generations. With bigger and bigger hordes of the undead they had become less scary and intimidating over time, but Dying Light made them terrifying again, a big part of why it’s one of my favourite games. Dying Light 2 didn’t give me the willies anywhere near as much, but why?
The difference between day and night in Dying Light was night and day. When the sun’s up, you can be safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing you can’t handle or at least escape from, but when the sun sets and takes its soothing UV light with it, the Volatiles come out to play. These are highly mutated zombies; they’re big, fast, deadly, and strong. Your only real options are running or maybe fighting one off with heavy use of UV lights whilst screaming in terror, if you’re lucky enough not to attract a group.
With Volatiles roaming at night and with your reduced visibility, it made Dying Light really, really scary, to the point where you might just avoid going out at night all together when possible. But those missions that must be done at night or in a dark zone are incredibly memorable and distinctive – I can still recall the image of when you encounter one these jacked up zombies for the first time.
Putting aside the fact that Dying Light 2 isn’t as polished as the first game is right now, it also introduces some major changes that simply make it less scary. Its predecessor focused on the zombies. It had a story of course, but most of the bigger moments are specifically based around the zombies, whether it’s trying to take down a Volatile nest (again, petrifying) or a character becoming infected. The story in the sequel, however, is focused on warring human factions. Like The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, or basically any other zombie-based media these days, the zombie apocalypse is more of a backdrop for human drama. It turns out the real monsters are… us!
You can see this throughout the game, starting with Volatiles not really coming out at night anymore. Instead there are Howlers, which cry out when they see you and trigger a chase with faster zombies, called Virals. These chases are rather easy to escape, so they rarely develop long enough for Volatiles to get involved, unless you deliberately drag these gameplay sequences out.
Specials are generally held back as well. Rather than stumbling onto more powerful zombies as you wander around, you’re more likely to find a bunch of humans. Some special zombies, such as the exploding ones, seem to be limited to specific story missions that take place in one particular building. At least one zombie from the original game – the Screamer, a zombified child that screams and attracts zombies – seems to have been dropped in favour of the less horrific Howlers already mentioned.
There is a bit towards the end of Dying Light where you can see a bunch of Volatiles in a room seemingly communicating, hinting at them evolving even further. In The Following expansion, there is a talking Volatile. The hopes that implanted in my head of organised Volatiles terrorising you at night as they hunt you down, or even directing lesser zombies, were dashed by the sequel.
For me, the best parts of Dying Light 2 are when it’s most like the original, where you’re scurrying around in the dark terrified of zombies, but a shift in focus towards human drama means there’s much less of that. Clearly, Techland wanted show off their narrative chops by weaving more intimate, relatable storylines into the sequel. Not only do they fall short of the mark, they’ve somehow gotten further away from the horror element that made Dying Light such a treat to begin with.