The Following is an enormous expansion, adding a huge new map and all manner of vehicular carnage to Techland's open world zombie-smasher Dying Light [official site]. But does a game about urban exploration and claustrophobic limb-lopping really need to stretch its legs in the great outdoors? And how does a buggy fit into a world of parkour and pummelling? Is carkour even possible?
Here's wot I think.
The Following could so easily have been a terrible expansion. Techland spent a huge part of the development cycle for the original Dying Light trying to perfect the player character's movement. The breakthrough came when one designer figured out how to make the character's movement reactive, adjusting possibilities to the architecture of the level rather than having to tag every climbable edge and accessible surface.
That allowed the studio to build a city and then drop the character into it for playtesting, rather than custom-crafting every pathway that led up, across, inside and out. I see so many people complaining about the obvious markings that guide players to the active spots in most games that have any parkour-like movement, and I always want to thrust a copy of Dying Light into their faces. PROPER SYSTEMIC FREE-RUNNING AND CLIMBING AND JUMPING AND FALLING AND STUMBLING.
Techland made an engine that allows player and enemies alike to climb and jump anywhere that their bodies could feasibly reach. There are no magical markers to identify the few hand-holds and access points. If you've ever complained about waist-high walls blocking a path or invisible barriers preventing progress, Dying Light will liberate you.
Arduous opening aside, it's a splendid game built around that wonderful movement system and smart use of dumb enemies. My main criticism is that the setting and characters are a little bland (OK, the characters are a LOT bland), but I tend to invent my own games within the game so that doesn't particularly bother me.
The Following risks pissing all of the good things away by putting a vehicle centre stage. This entire game, built on a remarkable feat of design that allows for the best first-person free movement I've ever seen, is now about driving a buggy. Imagine putting a car in QWOP. It'd cut the game off at the legs.
And yet, The Following feels like a perfectly natural extension of The Following. In fact, playing it over the last week has made me appreciate the original game in ways that I hadn't thought about previously. The buggy itself handles just as you'd want it to, bouncing across the terrain and creaking and jostling as its workings become gummed up with gristle and guts, but it's the way that all of the existing systems overlap with the vehicular mayhem and maintenance that holds the entire expansion together.
Before I dig into that though, here's the simple wrap-up. The Following's map is massive, more varied than the city in the original, and more attractive. There's a coastal settlement that I'd have happily lived in if it wasn't crawling with the undead. Away from the claustrophobic confines of the city streets, Dying Light flexes its exposed muscles and shows the beauty of the post-life world. It's striking to see the difference between the ruined urban environment and the barely noticeable scars of the more rural setting.
Dying Light's world isn't quite post-life, of course. You're still running around, along with quest-givers and gangs of horrid bandits. You'll meet a new group in The Following, a religious cult who reckon they can fight off infection through devotion and prayer.
They're instantly more appealing than the gruff angry-folk of the base game, even though the missions they give you feel like domestic busywork at times, and the big dollop of mystery that the idea of a spiritual cure introduces did more to keep my interest than any of the villainous machinations I'd endured while trapped in the city. The Following doesn't have the best plot you're going to see this year but it did at least tickle my curiosity. Touching on the origins of or cures for zombie infections can be disastrous – I prefer my potentially-apocalyptic events to be unknowable – but there's just about enough here to open up new possibilities without wrapping everything up so neatly that there's a too-definite resolution.
The wide open spaces of The Following, which are plugged onto the side of the city and accessed via a new mission chain that opens the map, change the flow of the game. Crucially, they don't throw out the good qualities of the original to do that. You'll still be climbing, clambering and panicking as the hordes close in on you, but you'll have a life raft to dive into when the going gets tough. And that, crucially, is what the buggy serves as – a life raft.
It's a weapon as well and as you level it up, it becomes a very effective weapon, but it's also rickety and ramshackle. It breaks down. Parts stutter and fail. But no matter how battered it is, it'll keep on crawling toward safety, toward the shore, and it's a beautiful bubble of safety in a world gone mad.
When I was considering how to express my love of this gory and glorious game all over again, a brief conversation with Jim was enlightening. I didn't have to ascend to a mountaintop to hear his wise words, I happened to be on a Skype call with him.
“I hear you like Dying Light?” I said. “The Following is good stuff.”
“The whole 'the floor is lava' idea is so simple and it works so well...”
I stopped listening at that point. Of course Dying Light is 'the floor is lava' game. Of course it is.
We all played at that as kids, right? You pretend the floor is deadly and you can either stay on your bed, safe and stationary, or try to make your way across the room, using furniture and windowsills, maybe even throwing things onto the floor to act as stepping stones.
That's Dying Light and the buggy doesn't interrupt or obscure the essential playfulness at the game's core. Wider spaces require transport and the buggy is the pillow that you chuck on the floor and then scooch across the room little by little using the soles of your feet.
It's that pillow, except faster and more robust. Eventually you'll be able to strap an electrified cage and a flamethrower to it. Just think – a metal safety pillow with a flamethrower attached to the front, ploughing through zombies.
As I mentioned when I first played the expansion, the balance of the buggy seems just right. You're forced to leave it when it becomes too damaged or needs fuel, and that takes you back to the panicked exploration and crafting of the original game. 'Panic' is the key word. The Following's world feels more dangerous than the city streets, partly thanks to the roaming Freaks of Nature, superpowered undead that act as minibosses and will happily turn your buggy on its roof and then chase you into the woods.
The buggy, like the rooftops, is a temporary form of safety. All of the enhancements in the latest edition – new loot, new levels, new end-game excess – are icing on the cake. Dying Light is about creating moments of safety, empowerment and comedic triumph in a world that wants nothing more than to tear you down, and The Following is a perfect expansion of that central tenet.
Dying Light: The Following is out now. I haven't had a chance to try the returning Be a Zombie mode but coop is as splendid as ever.