Most of my favorite video games are what I call “7/10” games. To be clear, “7/10” isn’t a literal score. (We don’t do scores at Polygon anymore, thank the heavens.) No, “7/10” represents a creative philosophy shared by a small, but precious collection of video games. The open-world zombie basher Dying Light 2 is my latest “7/10” game — and I love it for that.
“7/10”s tend to be mechanically ambitious but financially prohibited. Their creators might try to alchemize some fresh way to play, or they might attempt to do a little bit of everything all at once. There’s something magnetic about these games — Earth Defense Force, Driver: San Francisco, and Death Stranding — that have the confidence to take risks, and not just fail, but fail spectacularly.
Eloquently explaining why or how “7/10” works is a headache unto itself because this method of game design is akin to YouTube creators who specialize in trick-shot videos. They don’t throw a basketball off a building and into the hoop because they’re uniquely better at basketball than everyone else; they hit the shot because they’re committed to putting in the time and failing a lot along the way.
Dying Light 2 falls in the “jack of all trades, master of none” camp. Its story spans about 20-30 hours, but its world could entertain you for 500. That’s not a hyperbolic number: It’s the literal amount of time the developers at Techland said players would need to see everything in the game. I spent my first 12 hours hurtling through the game’s town, only to learn – to my surprise and intimidation — that a much larger metropolis, replete with skyscrapers, had been casting a literal shadow over my disguised prologue of an adventure.
500 hours sounds like a lot, but it’s nothing when you consider that 20 years of AAA video game design has been crammed into a single game. Dying Light 2 has fort raids, multiple skill trees, looting and crafting systems, and a day-and-night cycle that dictates which missions are available.
This video game meat is paired with a salad buffet of upgradable skills from numerous iconic series. So far, I’ve mastered the parkour of Mirror’s Edge, the wall runs of Titanfall, and the glider of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Every few hours I think to myself, “OK, I get what this game wants to be,” and at that exact moment, the game violently flips the table and says, “You don’t know me! You can’t define me!” like a teenager that wants love but doesn’t yet know how to receive it.
How could it receive love when it has so many feelings! Such feelings! The story pits a fascist paramilitary group against an uneasy federation of freedom-fighters. But like some outdated echo of the BioShock series, characters make illogical decisions to reverse course again and again, to show the player that all sides are, in fact, pretty bad. I hope you like angst.
You play as Aidan, an early contender for Most Generic Video Game Protagonist of the 2020s. He’s voiced by Jonah Scott, who is great as Legoshi in the Netflix anime Beastars, but is handcuffed here by a script that traps his voice, Ursula-style, in what I can only describe as “the Nolan North Realm.” The result is like a soup composed of Nathan Drake, Commander Shepherd, and the myriad “I’m sorry sir, I forget your name” leads of Call of Duty.
Very little of this works on its own, because as you might guess, it’s difficult to do any one of the above things well, let alone all of them and all at once. But of course, there’s the twist: it works. I mean, if we just totally ignore the story, then yes, this game works.
Dying Light 2’s creators try to do so much that, as if by the rule of percentages, it has to work eventually. At least once a play session in this sprawling world, everything clicks into place. It’s nighttime and I’m filching cigarette cartons from a bodega when suddenly I’m spotted by a jackass ghoul who alerts its brainless friends that a midnight snack will be served. I cleave it with a flaming battle ax that sends its blazing head soaring over the cash register. In seconds, I’m on the roof, weaving between the undead, racing to a safe house a few hundred meters in the distance.
I am a gosh dang superhero with the speed of a bullet and the grace of a ballerina.
Those twenty years of video game experiences – the parkour, the wall runs, the zombie hunting, the crafting, hell, even a tacit sense of time management and spatial problem solving – are propelling me closer and closer to my goal. There’s no story at this point. The only dialogue is between me and my love of games.
And that rush, that je ne sais quoi, is when I know a game is “7/10.” Dying Light 2 is all rough edges, but now and then, I comfortably get my arms around it and give it a big ol’ hug. I can feel that this was made by people who love this shit just as much as I do. That they care. And in return, so do I.
Is it worth all the headaches? Definitely. I like trick shots, even though it took countless airballs to finally nail that sweet, sweet swish.