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Hands On: Dying Light - The Following

Hit the road

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I’m the resident cheerleader for Dying Light [official site] round these parts. Techland’s zombies ‘n’ parkour urban playground was one of my favourite action games of 2015, and a few hours with enormous expansion The Following have convinced me that the entire game is far smarter than the surface suggests. Rather than distracting from the free-running and scavenging, the addition of a vehicle and rural map bring out the best in the existing systems.

Dying Light is a game of overlapping systems. At its most basic, it’s a zombie-killing simulation. They break into pieces and react to different kinds of attack – flame, blade, blunt, electric – and that is satisfying, as far as these things go. They also have interesting behaviours, those zombies, from the confused stumblings of the mobs that just seem so tired of unlife, to the disruptive melee and ranged assaults of special viral types.

The day/night cycle muddies the waters. At night, there are horrible creatures, Volatiles, that hunt for you. They appear on your minimap, with vision cones, which tips you off that there’s a stealth game slathered on top of the parkour and pulverising game you were playing during the daylight hours. And then there’s scavenging for resources, which encourages diversions and ill-fated trips into abandoned pharmacies and restaurants. There are ridiculously powerful weapons to craft for the dedicated and determined, and there are safehouses to secure, random events to respond to, and human enemies to fight.

It all comes back to those zombies though. If they didn’t work, the whole game would fall apart. Safehouses wouldn’t matter if the threat of the coming night wasn’t so effective and if you couldn’t draw hordes of the undead toward troublesome bandits, the world would feel like discrete packets of combat and other interactions rather than a giant stage for improvised mayhem.

Considering that hammering zombies into mulch is a key part of the experience, it might seem odd to say that Dying Light is delicately poised. It is though. All of those different systems feed into one another and adding a vehicle to the mix threatens to cut the free-running mechanic off at the knees. When moving through the world on foot is such a fundamental part of your game, why add wheels?

The buggy is as ramshackle and unreliable as the human body. Everything that it does well comes with a downside, whether that’s the slight loss of control and speed as you churn through a crowd of flesh, or the need to refuel after a long journey into the unknown. Importantly, refueling is a meaningful activity and draws your attention back to the details of the world. To find petrol, you’ll have to park up and search abandoned vehicles, and in the brief time I played, I had a couple of memorable close encounters while hunting for precious car-nectar.

It’s a proper part of the world, the buggy, and there’s no obvious transition as you jump in and out of the driver’s seat. Corpses crammed in the works are still hanging there and I had a zombie with an explosive canister strapped to his back land flush on the bonnet at one point. The impact of the bumper cracked the canister and he lodged into place, then blew up, sending the buggy cartwheeling down the road while I sprawled in the gutter, having rolled to safety.

The car is distraction as well as weapon. It’s entirely possible to lure an enormous horde away from your chosen scavenging spot by gunning the engine and roaring past, leading them a couple of hundred metres away and then circling back round and scrabbling for supplies before they return. As you work your way through its upgrades, you’ll have to make choices as to whether you want to plump for speed and control or flamethrowers and mine-dispensers. The upgrade tree is presented in the same fashion as the three skill trees for the character in the main game, but there are also individual parts that can be replaced, repaired and upgraded.

No matter how badly you treat the buggy, it’ll never stop running. Even if every part is in critical condition, you can limp back to a safe house and buy the parts needed to play mechanic and get your ride back up to speed. You can even recall the car using specific radios at fixed points in the world, summoning it back to a place of relative safety if you’ve managed to leave it in a particularly hazardous area.

I’d avoid that if possible. The new map deserves to be seen on foot as well as through the rattling cage of the buggy. It’s far more visually appealing than the dust and dirt of the city, with picturesque farms and a small coastal village that I’d actually quite like to visit for a weekend break one day. Obviously, there are stinking corpses all over the place but maybe that would bring down the rental costs?

Early attempts to explore its limits suggest the map combines wide open spaces that really bring out the swarming hordes with densely packed settlements, facilities and farms that allow for some old-fashioned clambering and creeping. The missions I’ve seen play on the new scenery as well, with an early example having you follow a water supply to its source, driving offroad alongside a pipe that is bursting due to a malfunction at the pumping station. There’s always a pumping station.

There’s a story as well, of course. Shortly after you arrive in the new area, which you can enter at any point during your playthrough by following an associated mission marker, you meet a cult of survivors who seem to be immune to zombification. They reckon that’s all thanks to a mysterious Mother figure, who you’ll have to do plenty of good deeds to gain an audience with – and that’s the expansion’s excuse to set you on a trail of repairing things, finding missing people and doing other odd jobs around the place.

I’m intrigued, for the first time when it comes to a Dying Light plot thread. The possibility of supernatural conspiracies seems slim but the group do put their immunity down to their prayers. No need for vitamins. This isn’t Hulkamania.

As expansions go, this is an enormous undertaking. The new map isn’t just a copy-paste of the old style, it’s a new kind of map, and the buggy rewrites the rules of the base game. On top of all the new stuff mentioned above, there are all sorts of extensions to the levelling process, new high-level items to craft and discover, and a reworked Be The Zombie mode for The Following. There’s also cooperative, as in the original, but now with buggies. I tried a few competitive races as well and it turns out I’m absolutely crap because I can’t help but be distracted by the zombies.

Would I go so far as to say you should give The Following a shot even if you didn’t like Dying Light? Not quite. Although the answer depends somewhat on your specific reaction to Dying Light. If you gave up because the tutorial seemed to go on forever and convinced you that the day/night cycles and dynamic chases wouldn’t be permitted to lead into extravagant emergent farce and terror, you should definitely take another look. If you simply didn’t enjoy dropkicking zombies off rooftops or sprint-sneaking across the city as the sun dips below the horizon, and fighting for control of safehouses in the midst of night’s horrors, then the buggy might not be enough.

This is still Dying Light. What’s surprising and pleasing is that the buggy, and the open expanse and coastal lines of the new map aren’t a side attraction. The vehicle and its various abilities and requirements are an extension of the base game’s systems, and the refueling and repairing bring out the best of the game’s close quarters scuffles and panicked looting.

More reasons to lead the cheers.

Dying Light: The Following is out February 9th.

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