Fair is fair. When I finished the main campaign of Dying Light, I felt that I had a fun experience. The idea of mixing first-person Assassin’s Creed-ish climbing with a Dead Island setting appealed to me. I especially appreciated the arrival of the grappling hook at just the right moment. A new city after the one you had just conquered, with the emphasis on staying off the streets as much as possible. After enduring a brief maneuvering problem for one quest, being handed that tool of ultimate aerial freedom was a gift that seemed perfectly timed. When The Following hit release, I went in blind, hoping for nothing else but a good time.
At first it would seem that The Following ‘expansion’ attempts to yet again break its own mold. Upon the start, you’ll find yourself in a cave that you need to escape, only to be greeted by a vast landscape. When climbing down the face of a nondescript mountain, you may wonder how on earth they would make traversing this landscape less painful.
The logical answer is also the correct one. After a quest or two, you’ll become the owner of a customizable buggy. This vehicle can be modded to improve its performance and gain new traits, and can also visually be made to look different including paint jobs and bobbleheads for you to find and adorn your buggy with.
The first problem arose during the Gaining Credence quest that followed soon after. You’ve cleaned out a bandit post and are now tasked to drive next to a water pipe line. Everything’s fine until the night sets in ‘coincidentally’ and Volatiles are added again to the roster of angry monsters that want to violently murder you. A fun challenge, one might think, until I realized not only that these Volatiles were capable of damaging your buggy quite quickly, but that this damage carried through failures. And so, after having been killed ten times, I was stuck with a buggy that’s slower than when I would run on foot and made me a sitting duck for Volatiles. Add to it that this stage of the quest has a timer on it of mere minutes, and you can see how my first impression of The Following is already steering towards a negative one.
Eventually, I found that I had no other option than to go back to the main menu and restart. While there’s a feature that lets you restart from a specific quest, in this case I had to return to the very beginning. Once I had reattained my buggy, I saw that the damage to it had been retained as well. At least now I was in a better position to repair it, once I found the resources for that.
Armed with that experience, I managed to get through that painful barrier and the world was finally ready for me to explore. Although I’ve found that experience to be painful as well, at least at first. Let’s start with travel by buggy.
Your buggy is very customizable, but also fragile in its own way. It has five parts that can receive damage, be it from attacks or crashing into something (or someone). Every part has levels that are reminiscent of the game’s rarity levels for weaponry and such, ranging from gray and green all the way to orange. These parts can be bought, found, or made if you have unlocked that capability through your Driver skill, which brings us to the next problem.
Leveling your Driving skill is not done through skillful driving, but by crashing into zombies. This wouldn’t pose such a large problem if it weren’t for the quickly degrading parts, as well as the fact that even hitting a mere few zombies will alert ‘Viral‘ infected. You may remember these zombies are the ‘recently’ turned type that are vastly quicker and insanely more aggressive. With these alerted, your buggy will quickly fall under attack by these zombies. A problem, as all it requires for them to hit your buggy (and your own health) is to simply leap at you. Their speed is significant enough to keep up with you, so often you’ll find yourself defenseless and taking random turns to shake them off. A difficult feat in this plain landscape.
But the truly infuriating part to the buggy comes at night. Using it at night is the same as condemning yourself to death and countless moments of sheer irritation. It’s incredibly hard to predict when a Volatile will be in your way ahead of time (your survivor sense has a limited range) and a vehicle like that tends to quickly draw their attention. If Virals already have no trouble keeping up with you, imagine the speed of Volatiles. As I’ve described further above, nighttime racing is a bad idea.
The alternative is to go by foot. Something that is, funnily enough, not very punished by the game besides the long time you’ll waste traveling this way. Unless you’ve maxed out your agility, your stamina will drain too often to make sprinting an enjoyable method of transportation. Despite this I quickly opted for this method to travel to my destinations. Safehouses become vastly more important this way, which I will talk about later.
Daylight travel by foot is still inadvisable in its own way. The countryside seems littered with uncommon infected that are ready to make your travel a pain. Demolishers seemingly show up at random, forcing you to deviate in a direction with a wall so it can land its charge on it, giving you a moment to escape. Toads (those spitting bastards) sometimes show up in packs of two or three and seem to be very capable of hitting you, even while strafing. With cover scarce in the countryside, you’ll find yourself forced to aggressively deviate from your travel to take them out as quickly as possible before they pulverize your health points. Which does not take them very long to do, I assure you.
What’s left is nighttime travel by foot. Surprisingly, this is the least cumbersome method of all as most uncommon infected disappear while Volatiles appear instead. The challenge is to sprint as fast as you can to the nearest safehouse on the way towards your next goal, spamming Survivor Instinct to keep an eye on any nearby Volatiles, then use your own quick-thinking to determine a plan of action if they directly stand in your way. Through this, I’ve learned that you can literally sprint behind a Volatile if their back is turned to you, and they’ll be none the wiser. But if they spot you? Oh boy…
When spotted, all bets are off if you are further than 200m away from the nearest safehouse. In this open field, getting spotted by one Volatile means you’ll often immediately have two more joining the chase. In the main game, you’d stand a chance through intelligent maneuvering and hiding somewhere in a home. In this countryside, you’ll need a serious dose of luck to happen upon a place you can duck inside and pray the Volatile AI is too stupid to figure out your location. Even then, if you’ve evaded the pursuit, spamming Survivor Sense will show that all they’ll do instead is wait around the location, looking for you.
The grappling hook itself is less of a viable method of transportation, largely in part due the scenery not interacting with it that well. I’ve encountered many situations where rocky edges simply refused to be latched onto, and other moments where I perfectly landed my grappling hook, only for it to result in the climbing animation failing for no explicable reason, causing me to fall to my death.
Let’s talk about the story. In The Following, you are tasked with gaining the trust of a cult who hold a secret that might lead to a cure of the zombie virus. These rural people get bitten, yet don’t ever turn. The main story is actually so hollow, it’s baffling. This is because, instead of proceeding through story progress, you are now presented a meter that shows your ‘trust progress’. You fill this meter by doing side quests for all the people in the land, which in turn pleases ‘The Children of The Mother’. The Mother being the Matriarch (or some such) that spearheads this cult. This comes across as a cheap measure of progress, as opposed to story and setting, which you actually get much less of when put in perspective. Not to mention that, most of the time, the characters seem kind of throwaway and will do very little for you beyond your first interaction with them. At least Roger Craig Smith resumes his role as the protagonist, providing the stern but good-natured voice of Crane, and seems to have voiced plentiful lines for The Following.
With every rank of ‘trust’, you’ll unlock a main quest mission that has you investigating or doing specific tasks for the cult. More often than not, the trek to the quest locations will be more memorable than the quest itself. It’s not rare that I felt like a rat who was being led around with cheese on a string. Not to mention that, yes, there’s a lot of ‘going from A to B’ involved that plagues many sandbox games. Dying Light largely alleviated this with interesting and challenging surroundings that tested your parkour skills, but The Following dumbs this down to stressful travel by foot or vehicle.
The combat is the same as always, although with players very much at a disadvantage due to the open areas. There are a few new weapons, including a revolver that can be found when completing a ‘treasure trail’-ish quest. There are also bows, both regular ones that can be bought from shops and a crossbow that can be earned and upgraded through the main quest, each with various ammo types available. Most of the weapons you’ll find are of the same grade as you’re used to, though you might find a few straight upgrades to your firearms in the shops if you’re lucky. The bandits still tote the same grade of firearms you’re used to pawning off by now.
The safehouses return as a feature, but even then it feels like it has been dumbed-down as well. Gone seem the days where you arrived at a suitable place, had to do the work of closing/barricading the doors, fixing or enabling the electricity system and killing all infected present inside. Most safehouses tend to have few infected inside and just require the closing of a gate. Sometimes, a distress call will sound from one of these beforehand, urging you to clear them sooner than you might have planned. The satisfaction of unlocking safehouses wasn’t nearly as strongly present.
A dominant impression I was starting to have was that nothing in this game was really balanced to be placed in such a flat landscape. Ranging from enemies to optimal gameplay, the area simply seems too out of place. For example, Demolishers require you to think fast, as the player needs to lead them into a wall while they are charging (often several times in a row) in order to stun them and leave them open for attacks. The problem with big open landscapes? Not that many walls to be found. In the rare occasion that I had to fight one in a warehouse, the pathing seemed so sloppily done that the Demolisher frequently didn’t register obstructions as a ‘wall’, meaning he’d glitch-slide by them. Suffice to say, I had a hard time beating him when I could rarely get him in a stunned state.
The same goes with Volatiles. As creatures of the night, they stalk the area just as you’d expect them to. To avoid them you are required to stay out of their sight or, when spotted, to quickly cut a few corners and hide somewhere random. Again, with big open fields, there’s not a lot of hiding spots to be found, and the aforementioned incident should have made clear that your buggy isn’t a reliable option to traverse these areas. In fact, I’ve encountered a few Demolishers in broad daylight and both of them took only one second to kill me from full health while I was in my buggy…while leaving my buggy relatively unharmed, oddly enough.
The Following has stumbled into a pitfall that I’ve seen developers fall into before. The content highlights the weaknesses in the game’s mechanics or gameplay in favor of trying to innovate. The enemies and game mechanics are simply not balanced for this type of area. On top of that, we mustn’t forget that every death you endure during the day is punished with the loss of Survivor Exp, a harsh punishment when endured constantly. In Harran (the Main Campaign’s area) such a punishment is acceptable, as you often have a multitude of options to get out of hairy situations.
But in The Following, you’ll find yourself unnecessarily punished for minor mistakes that the game was often incapable of properly warning you about. Oh, and if you die, your buggy stays in the location you last left it. Meaning you are faced with the decision to either risk dying a few more times to recover it from the hazard you put it in, or having a boring trek through the landscape to the nearest safehouse if you had the misfortune of spawning at a Hunting Tower (which serve no purpose other than being spawn points) in order to recall it.
All in all, I have to conclude that I didn’t enjoy my time here as much as I did with the main game. I’ve always found Dying Light to be a game where both wits and agility, with a dash of quick-thinking, are key to survival in the game and are appropriately rewarded. A story of a man torn between good intent and his secret mission. The Following largely does away with that in favor of assigning a vehicle to you that will turn out to be more of a bother to take care of than its advantage in long-distance travel is worth, all while telling a story about how Kyle Crane is a gullible guy who’ll do any amount of favors to get in good standing with a vague cult. The binary choice at the end of the game I also find lacking, giving that feeling of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.
Had The Following been an expansion of the same size but turn out to be ‘more of the same’ in terms of content, it probably would have benefited more from it. The original Dying Light formula is one of complete freedom in traversing the landscape while using that freedom as a significant advantage in your hostile encounters. A game where a mixture of your preparation and ability to react fast, with a dash of situational awareness, rewards you with the sense that you are fighting to remain the most stubborn prey these predators will face. The Following fails to return that feeling largely because the new area’s design is unfit to emphasize these strengths, while the majority of the same enemies are not balanced to compensate for it either.
And that’s too bad, because I still really like Dying Light. Give me a second Harran, Techland. I’ll be much happier with it than the countryside.
Dying Light: The Following was reviewed on PC using a copy provided by the developer.
The Following is full of potential that is hampered by a painful lack of in-depth balancing and polish. The expansion highlights its own weaknesses and fails to promote its own strengths in the transition towards a more vast sandbox.