Days Gone By, Still I Think of You
As a first party Sony title, Days Gone has huge shoes to fill. Really, you’d be hard pressed to find loftier expectations than those placed on PlayStation’s lineup of exclusives. 2018 was defined by God of War and Spider-Man. 2017 had Persona 5 and Horizon Zero Dawn. 2016 had Uncharted 4 and … well, you get the idea. The stream of hits has been nearly constant, and Bend Studio’s Days Gone is tasked with keeping consoles warm for Death Stranding and The Last of Us 2. With very little fanfare, Bend Studio has delivered a fun open world and mostly compelling story with Days Gone, even if the subject matter has been done to death.
I was initially concerned that Days Gone is yet another zombie game in a world where The Walking Dead has gone from critical darling to cringe-inducing. It definitely has zombies, but by the end, I stopped feeling like it’s just another zombie game.
The high desert of Oregon is a big part of those feelings. Where other open worlds can feel constructed or handcrafted, Days Gone feels wild. Untamed. Big chunks of the map are devoid of human influence, with only burned out cars to remind you they were once there. At a glance, there’s not much to see or do, but as the hours stacked up the care and attention that went into building the map became more apparent. Features that are purposefully designed don’t feel that way, making traversal feel organic. The emptiness and loneliness help create a sense of place while giving main character Deacon St. John a blinding spotlight.
*I’m going to talk about the story here, but I won’t spoil anything that doesn’t happen in the first few minutes*
Deacon is not unlike the environment he finds himself in. A simple biker out for himself on the surface, but much more nuanced underneath. He’s dedicated and principled, but bending the rules comes easily. He’s frantic and chaotic, teetering on the edge of insanity moment to moment while muttering to himself nearly constantly. Days Gone is an interesting hybrid of a story, focused mostly on Deacon’s personal tale, while peeling the shell off of the more global story enough to keep forward momentum.
It’s not perfect, and the fluid storytelling of Spider-Man isn’t present here. Cutscenes trigger after short loads, breaking up the action and occasionally interrupting tension. The scenes themselves are of high quality if a bit overacted, and I was pretty invested in seeing how things progressed after a few hours. Early on I had a hard time connecting to the characters, so players might need to persevere a bit to decide they want to hear the whole tale.
Take a character like Copeland – a walking stereotype who’s into guns, doomsday prep, and doing whatever it takes. My eventual take on the writing was “intentionally hyperbolic” – I think players will enjoy it more with that mindset – though it does bring in more political and personally affecting topics over the course of the story. I found myself feeling for Deacon often, but getting pulled out of the experience when story beats didn’t follow logically or it felt like there was context missing. While the overarching story is more or less effective, the edges of the tale could’ve used a coat of polish to keep up with the likes of God of War.
What is close to perfect is Days Gone’s dynamic environment. Hordes of freakers are one thing (and I’ll get to them), but I was immediately struck by the incredible weather system. Howling winds and torrential rain look amazing, obscuring your vision and reacting believably with objects and light sources. The trees and foliage look particularly great while they’re blowing around, so much so that I got completely lost in it. Repeatedly. Higher elevations show off a dynamic snow system that accumulates realistically. Better yet, the weather affects the gameplay. Deacon’s bike handles differently in the rain, snow, and the aftermath of both, while flashlights and headlights become nearly useless in driving rain.
Speaking of the motorcycle, there’s a bit of a learning curve on it. For the first hour or so, I was atrocious (check the video evidence). The control is floaty, and making small directional adjustments isn’t easy. Once it clicked though, I found riding through the woods to be thoroughly enjoyable. Landing a jump at the perfect angle feels great, and once you get a few upgrades under your belt, the bike sounds bad as hell.
The loop in Days Gone revolves around your relationship with the bike. It’s the mode of transport, obviously, but it’s also the source of many of Days Gone’s survival mechanics. Motorcycles consume gas, clearly, and break down as you use them, so planning your adventures is important before setting out. In lots of cases, I got sidetracked exploring a location thinking I’d have sufficient fuel. I didn’t. What followed was often a tense struggle against the freaker hordes while searching for a gas can, or beer bottles, or rags. Typically I find those mechanics insufferable, but that wasn’t the case here. The variety of ingredients is restrained enough that they can be found relatively easily. It’s the unpredictable nature of hordes that made sure no broken down bike situation was ever routine.
Fast travel does become an option, but even then careful planning remains important. You can only fast travel on roads that have been cleared of infestation nests, and you’ll still consume fuel. Choose a destination you can’t actually reach? Well, you’ll reload somewhere in the middle of the trip. Riding between points was my preferred method, even when the world is mostly empty (seriously though, there weren’t many people in the region even before the disaster).
A lot has been said about the freakers in previews and interviews, but I think they’ve missed how mechanically interesting the tech driving the freakers is. The hordes go where they go, and sometimes it gets hairy for Deacon. I won’t say the AI of each individual is groundbreaking, far from it (ditto for humans, who give up looking for you mighty easy), but as a group, it’s fascinating to watch the freaks go to work. Once discovered, a plan is absolutely necessary for survival. Having your bike cleverly positioned is a good one, setting a bunch of traps is another, but just running away ain’t gonna cut it. The freakers flow over and around objects much like a river might, meaning paths are predictable, but also that they might overwhelm your expectations. I’m thrilled to see that post-launch challenges are on the DLC docket for this game, as dealing with hordes or trying out stupid schemes is great fun.
Crafted For Survival
While you’re on the run from the horde, crafting becomes super important. The crafting wheel gives access to any recipes you’ve unlocked, and is surprisingly manageable even when there are several options in each category. I’m a big fan of the Storylines section of the menu, which gives a peek at the things you’ll unlock for hitting various milestones while being more visually engaging than a quest log.
The hordes scared me. Their sheer numbers can be incredible, and I went with a stealthy approach more often than not. Bushes render Deacon invisible, allowing for sneaky avoidance and well timed takedowns. That play style also guided my approach to the Days Gone skill tree, which branches into melee, ranged, and survival. Where too many games have skill ‘trees’, Days Gone lets you mold Deacon towards one or two of the trees for longer periods of the game. For me, I aimed for repair and hand to hand skills early on, but could easily have honed my ability to pull off focus shots instead.
I didn’t do that because the shooting mechanics are sluggish and heavy feeling. I get the sense that’s intentional, since bullets are scarce and shooting tends to draw in the zombies. That said, it becomes familiar over time and pulling off a focus headshot from a huge distance is damn satisfying. Especially with the excellent sound design on the guns.
It has rough patches, but Days Gone is a good time. Ripping across the vast wilderness looking for hordes to wipe out is undoubtedly fun, and Deacon’s sort of comic book story is competent. Is it an excellent open world game? Not quite. Is it worth playing? Oh yeah. The gorgeous and well-built environment is a treat, and the mechanical twists on the Sony’s first party formula make Days Gone a nice spring surprise.
***PS4 code provided by the publisher***
- Gorgeous environment
- Handling the hordes
- Fun to explore
- Sloppy gunplay
- Unpolished storytelling