I am pleased to report that in Dying Light: The Following, you can still dropkick a zombie off a cliff and into the sea. You also get to drive a car.
I liked last year’s Dying Light, so I was predisposed to like The Following. And I do like The Following; I like it even more than I was expecting to. It’s just what an expansion should be: more of the game I already liked, with a number of refinements and small, interesting tweaks. In one respect it’s altogether different: You have an car now, and an enormous new explorable area that requires the use of it.
The original Dying Light, released a year ago, was a video game for people who like video games typical of video games. Everything in it was familiar, but the game was no less fun for that. The developers at the Polish studio Techland mixed the first-person melee combat of Shadow Warrior, the sidequest-spattered open map of Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, the persistent autosaving and progress-sapping deaths of Dark Souls, the randomised, colour-coded loot chase of Diablo, the crafting and item degradation of their own Dead Island, the first-person parkour of Mirror’s Edge, the special super-zombies and asymmetrical multiplayer of Left 4 Dead, and the “great sidequests, forgettable main quest” backbone of so many recent Ubisoft games. Phew.
Those comparisons are all well and good, but at its heart, Dying Light was and remains a game about doing this:
In The Following, you’re still playing as Dying Light protagonist Kyle Crane, a dull slice of clench-cake who might as well be any other boring action game protagonist from the last 10 years. Following the events of Dying Light, Crane has been sent by his friends in the zombie-overrun city of Harran to the nearby countryside to investigate rumours of a zombie cure. He arrives and quickly falls in with a cult-like religious group that seems to have a way to keep themselves from being infected. This is also when he gets the car.
The story may revolve around discovering a cure for the plague, but the car is the thing, man. Crane’s nifty little dune buggy wouldn’t look out of place in a Far Cry game and allows The Following to move at a markedly different tempo than Dying Light proper. That’s largely because the car-friendly new region is, by Dying Light standards, humongous.
The Harran outback, while never explicitly assigned a geographic location, appears to exist somewhere in western Turkey, just off the Mediterranean. Most missions will send you careering from one side of the map to the other, bouncing through hay fields, ramping over train tracks, skimming across river crossings and ploughing through undead hordes.
The sheer size of the map and the constant availability of vehicular transport remixes Dying Light’s formula without pushing things too far from the core of what was appealing about the main game. There’s still that sense of constant, gnawing peril; every pause to hunt for loot or repair your gear is fraught with the feeling that something has noticed you and is shambling (or in some cases, sprinting) your way. There’s still the feeling that you’re never fully in control, as the ever-ticking clock and the lack of fast-travel threaten to leave you marooned in the wilderness after dark. And nighttime is still a disaster; black as pitch and full of deadly “volatile” zombies who are unimpressed by your new wheels.
The buggy itself is a hoot. It’s fast out of the gate and handles very well, and it only gets tougher and more spritely as you level up your new driving skill-tree and unlock better upgrades. My buggy can now lay mines and act as a noise-making distraction. It’s got a cool blue paint job and a zombie-wrecking plough on the front. Eventually, it’ll be able to blast UV light from its headlights, electrocute zombies who get near, and — of course — melt anything in its path with a hood-mounted flamethrower.
Missions in The Following are fairly spread out, and I’d often finish one and groan as I saw the next one’s starting point, kilometres away. What grumpiness I might have felt about the lack of a fast-travel option often evaporated soon after I started driving, however. With its sun-kissed Mediterranean backdrops, strong sense of speed and frequent off-road detours through grassy fields, The Following’s driving reminds me of nothing so much as Turn 10’s fantastic Forza Horizon 2. With zombies.
The Following accompanies the new “enhanced edition” of Dying Light, which adds a laundry list of small tweaks and additions to the core game. You can quickly load out of The Following and back into Dying Light at any time, carrying your gear, skills, and XP between the two. It’s an unusually slick integration that helps The Following feel like an organic part of a greater whole.
Because of all those enhanced edition tweaks, I have a hard time reconciling my recent time with the game with the 30-ish hours I spent playing the original last year. Does it control better now, or was it always like this? Is the melee combat a bit tighter, the dodging a bit smoother, or am I misremembering? I suppose it doesn’t matter. I had even more fun with Dying Light this time around than I did the first time, and I had a lot of fun that first time.
As with the base game, the character motivations and overarching plot of The Following are a snooze. The cast consists mostly of sweaty, interchangeable dudes, and I had a hard time caring who wanted what, or what Kyle Crane seemed to think of any of them. The grand finale goes all-in on the loopy B-movie weirdness the game hints at throughout, but things could’ve stood to get a lot weirder a lot faster.
The moment-to-moment writing remains sturdy and plentiful, however, particularly in more out-of-the-way places like item descriptions, journal entries, and sidequest dialogue. Upon investigating the town’s abandoned post office, I found a number of long-lost letters that I could deliver to far-flung townspeople. Each time I delivered a letter I got a little story, my favourite being the guy who excitedly opened his letter only to realise I’d given him his old power bill. A great deal of thought and care has gone into some aspects of The Following’s script; I only wish the characters were more interesting.
Happily, unlike with the base game, none of the story missions or setpiece battles achieve truly unfortunate badness. It actually helps that there’s no proper villain this time; no capering madman at the fringes, challenging Kyle Crane to a duel or whatever. There’s just the hunt for the cure and all the bandits, zombies and other assorted hazards that get the way.
The flow faltered anytime I was forced to pull out a gun and fight through an outpost of human enemies, but the majority of the story missions were just more of the same cool climbin’, runnin’, explorin’ and evadin’ that I’d already been doing. Several of Crane’s most reliable tricks find new application in the more spread-out setting: The empowering grappling hook from the base game serves a different but no less crucial role in wide-open spaces, and the fields and roadways make it much easier to stretch out and explore Crane’s array of melee grapples, dodges, and tackles.
While often gorgeous at a cursory glance, The Following feels janky and in need of extra tuning from time to time. Some of that could’ve been the pre-release PC build I played, though much of it lines up with what I remember from last year’s game. Things would pop into view as I’d drive around; the game crashed on me a few times; bladed weapons still outperform other types by too great a margin; enemies clip and behave in improbable ways; optional endgame bosses can be easily cheesed simply by standing at a distance and shooting them until they keel over; human enemies are dumber than a bag of golf balls. None of that was too bothersome, in the end. While Dying Light may be more careless than some of the games it emulates, it is also often more carefree.
That playfulness comes across most strongly in the built-in co-op multiplayer, which lets up to four players tear around in one player’s game (and even ride shotgun in one another’s buggies). You can team up to complete story missions, sidequests, or anything else you’d like. I played a couple of hours of co-op with my colleague Nathan Grayson and we had a hell of a time. The familiar sense of lonesome peril was quickly replaced by goofy one-upmanship, as we lined up to see who could boot a zombie farther.
A built-in “competition” detector adds some structure to the mayhem, occasionally letting you set up sanctioned competitions with your teammates at the press of a button. Who can kill the most zombies the fastest? Who can drive faster, and who can reach the supply drop first? All that and I’ve yet to try out the newly expanded zombies vs. humans PvP mode. I certainly plan to once more people are playing.
After more than 20 hours with The Following, I’m impressed by how much I have left to do. There are corners of the map that I’ve left unexplored, sidequests I’ve left incomplete, missing persons I’ve all but abandoned, and hidden loot I’ve left undiscovered. I’m just as impressed that, after so many hours, I still want to go do all that. What do you know: I’ve grown fonder of a game that I already liked a great deal.