Dying Light 2 preview and interview – a series of unexpected decisions

The sequel to open world zombie parkour game Dying Light is finally nearing completion and it’s a significant upgrade from the original.

It’s always awkward when you meet the makers of a game you never really liked. Not that developer Techland need worry, given that Dead Island and spiritual sequel Dying Light were huge financial successes, but we really weren’t looking forward to seeing Dying Light 2 all that much. So imagine our surprise when it turned out to be one of the most ambitious sequels at E3 2019.

It has been a long time since the first Dying Light, whether you were anticipating the sequel or not, with the first game originally coming out way back in 2015. Although compared to the indefinite delays surrounding Dead Island 2, which Techland skipped in order to work on their own self-published games, that’s nothing.

The E3 demo for Dying Light 2 wasn’t hands-on but it was lengthy and extremely illuminating, with several surprising features. The set-up is essentially the same as the last game though, with a zombie apocalypse having broken out, where the undead are relatively passive during the day – unless you manage to stumble upon one of their lairs – but are much more active and aggressive during the night.

None of the night-time gameplay has been shown yet and instead the demo starts off with your character, Aiden Caldwell, discussing an upcoming meeting with a rival gang, with the two leaders of your settlement differing wildly on how they think it should be handled. The problem is that the other gang controls a set of water pumps which not only limit access to fresh water but if opened will reveal a whole section of the city which is currently underwater.

The leader of the other gang, ‘The Colonel’, is described as a butcher and within a few minutes of the meeting starting a fight breaks out and the more pacifist leader lies dying from a bullet wound. There’s something immediately suspicious about this though, given you never see exactly how it happens and the one trying to paint the Colonel as a bad guy is right on the scene.

Nevertheless, you’re given the choice of how you want to handle things and can either stay put and try and help out with medical aid or chase after the van with the remaining gang members. The decision in the demo is to go after the van, which ends up with an extended sequence of parkour through largely abandoned skyscrapers and a decidedly not-abandoned basement full of zombies, who are only put off by flashing a UV torch at them (whether that trick would work at night is unclear).

Eventually you catch up with the van and are given a choice as to how to handle the driver, who seems harmless enough and is later revealed to know the secret code needed to lower the gates and enter the enemy camp. So if you’d killed him straight away you’d have had a much more difficult job ahead of you. Entering the large, castle-like building reveals what seems to be nothing but perfectly normal people, with no sign that the Colonel is the butcher you’ve been led to believe.

For the sake of the demo Caldwell persists, with your contact back at camp trying to assure you that you are in fact doing the right thing, as you infiltrate the base and confront the Colonel – who suggests a peaceful solution to the conflict and advises you absolutely not to turn on the water pumps. Even though it’s pretty obvious he’s telling the truth, and that it’s the guy back at camp that’s lying to you, the demo has you ignore him and fight a boss battle. This ends with you turning on all the pumps and de-flooding the city.

Apart from the slightly comical Tom Cruise style running animation for your first person character all the action looks very impressive, but it’s the decisions that we find most interesting. Speaking to game director Marc Albinet afterwards we discover that you could’ve gone the whole game without removing the water from that section of the city, with other decisions implied to be just as long-standing and irreversible. To the point where you can join other people’s games for online co-op and see that their version of the game world is completely different.

What also impressed us is that while the original game’s storytelling and dialogue was pretty awful Techland has acknowledged the failing and brought on respected video game writer Chris Avellone, who’s worked on everything from the early Fallout games to 2017’s Prey, to help with the story. Unlike many games, Dying Light 2 seems willing to acknowledge the faults of the original, even if they were tolerated at the time, and create a sequel that not only makes good on the original’s potential but adds to it too.

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Techland
Developer: Techland
Release Date: First half 2020

GC: It seems we’ve been waiting a very long time for this sequel; did anything go wrong or are you on schedule from your point of view?

MA: No, no. It’s the fact that we have developed a new engine, a brand-new engine which is much more powerful. It allows us to make a lot of additions – you’ve seen the demo, so you’ve seen the amount of detail and the amount of possible interactions and the increased quality of the parkour. So all that stuff took us a long time.

GC: You’re doing two very difficult things here, in the fact that first person melee combat and first person platforming are really hard to get right. How have you have tackled the issues they bring up?

MA: It is true that there is some difficulty in making these aspects work well, but from our side we can make them easier for the player. For example, the parkour… hopefully it looked very fluid and reactive in the demo, with a lot of choices at every moment as to what you can do, but we do try and make the navigation as easy as possible. We use a snapping system that helps you move around and keep the flow of movement. Really, you just have to look where you want to go and then jump.

GC: I did get that impression, that there was a lot of what was essentially auto-aim.

MA: Yes, yes. Exactly.

GC: Because the big problem with first person platforming, and combat come to that, is judging distance. So it sounds like the game is helping out with that to some degree?

MA: Yes. In fact, you can snap almost everywhere you want. But what we want to ensure is that for normal to advance play we offer different possibilities as well. So if you want to explore every inch of the city things will be a little more difficult but still you will be able to keep up a good flow.

GC: I did feel the first game was a bit rough around the edges, a little unrefined. Was that something you’d accept and what do you feel you learnt most from the original?

MA: We definitely had plenty we wanted to improve on for the sequel, we wanted to see major advances on all the gameplay pillars and provide an experience that is better than the first one. The DNA of the original is there but we are trying to take everything much further, in terms of the gameplay and the technology.

GC: The storytelling was especially weak in the original, but I noticed the dialogue in the demo was pretty good. Have you got new people in to work on that?

MA: Yes, definitely. It’s one side where we knew in the first one it was not the best, so we wanted to improve it a lot and so we hired a lot of new writers – some coming from The Witcher 3 – and Chris Avellone as well.

GC: Really? I didn’t know that, that’s very interesting. So you obviously identified the writing as an issue and found a good way to address that.

MA: Yeah, yes.

GC: In terms of the decision-making if you’d decided not to turn on the pumps would that mean you never get access to that submerged area of the city?

MA: That’s right. If you don’t take that decision at the moment you won’t open that area. But you have a lot of other possibilities for exploration in the game so your opposite decision will also create unique opportunities.

GC: That’s quite extreme, I can’t think of many other games that would dare to lock you out of a whole section like that.

MA: Absolutely.

GC: So you’re… encouraging replays or I think you said that you could go in and see other player’s worlds and the decisions they made?

MA: Exactly, both. In fact, if you play one – I’m gonna call it a campaign – you’re only going to see half of what is available. You really have a lot of possibilities, we have so many branches on the narration that it’s very hard to play the same way as someone else. But also, there are smaller decisions. If you decide to attack a group of AI in the world then they’ll belong to a specific faction and so killing them will potentially change the gameplay in that region. Everything is organic.

GC: So with a big decision, like with the Colonel at the end, will there be more information to base your choice on in the final game or are do you just have to go with your gut?

MA: What we want the player to do is make your decision as in real life: play what you think is the correct way to play and take your chances. Play your own game and you will see the consequences of your choices and work out how to deal with them.

GC: How much of a pacifist can you be? Is that even possible in such an inherently violent game?

MA: Being a pacifist is difficult but you can certainly play in the mindset of helping other people and survivors.

GC: Do you get a reputation for that?

MA: Yes, we have systems… we do not show them to the player but if you help people then they’re gonna help you too. And helping people, that’s gonna give you allies in the world that will make fighting easier. So you don’t just have to get stronger in yourself, as a character, you can rely on others and be stronger that way. It depends how you play.

GC: So how does the co-op work, is it similar to the first game?

MA: It’s still two to four-player.

GC: And they come into your map or you choose to go into theirs?

MA: Yes, exactly. And what happens is that you keep your own character but you can see the results of all the decisions that other players have made in their world, which may inspire you when you get back to yours.

GC: And what about the day/night cycle, which you didn’t show here?

MA: We still have the day and night cycle, which is something that’s really important, the principle being that day is for humans and night is for zombies. During the day the zombies stay in the dark, inside the buildings, because they don’t react well to UV light, but during the night they exit. But then, having less zombies inside the buildings that is something you can take advantage of.

GC: Okay, that’s great. I was very impressed.

MA: Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.

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