It's easy to look at Days Gone and dismiss it as "just another zombie game". On the surface level, it features a seemingly generic male protagonist and appears to borrow heavily from many of its contemporaries in both gaming and pop culture. While early comparisons to The Walking Dead, The Last of Us and others don't feel entirely unfounded, once you peel back the layers and spend some time in the world Bend Studios has created, you'll find a lovingly if shoddily crafted game filled with human characters and enjoyable gameplay. With a grounded story built on love, loss, staying true to one's morals and seeing just how far we'll push our limits for those we care for, Days Gone is an enjoyable experience and sets the foundations in place for what could be a strong IP for Sony if some changes are made for the inevitable sequel.
During one of my most memorable early moments, ominous grey clouds closed in as night began to fall. I'm 2 kilometres away from the nearest survivor camp, my bike is on its last legs, and I only have a quarter a tank of gas left. My ammo supplies are running low, and I've run out of scrap to repair my bike. I spot enemies battling freakers in the distance and cut the throttle. I turn off my headlight and slowly coast downhill towards the sound of screams and gunfire. I quickly pull up next to some bushes just out of earshot and hop off my bike to hide in the foliage. Enemies scamper in and out of cover, wildly shooting at a small horde of eight freakers. Bullets zip over my head as freakers run in front of my hiding spot and as the enemies fire at them, a few stray bullets somehow find their way to my already damaged bike. Uh oh.
As the small horde overruns the last of the enemy forces, I decide to take out the last few stragglers quickly. I fire my silenced gun at the first two and then as my suppressor breaks a loud shot rings out as I kill the last straggler. I quickly run through the camp and rummage through the downed enemies for vital supplies. In the distance, an eardrum piercing scream penetrates the still evening air, and I spot another group of alerted freakers making a beeline for the area. I quickly turn heel and scamper for my bike. I hop on and hit the gas only to discover that those stray bullets were the final bit of damage my bike could handle.
The engine won't start, and the freakers are gaining on me. I desperately push forward, trying to pick up momentum to coast down the hill. It's not good enough as I get swiped off my bike by one of the freakers. I spy a gas station in the distance and quickly sprint towards the fuel and refuge it will offer as I try to regroup and find enough ammo to wipe out my pursuers. I pick up a handful of rifle ammo and proceed to pop off a series of deftly placed headshots. I grab the nearest gas can and head back up the road to my bike. I quickly refuel and continue my journey to camp with a fraction of health remaining and a handful of bullets in reserve. That was far too close for comfort.
All of the above happened in the space of about ten minutes. Days Gone is full of thrilling emergent situations just like this. Unfortunately, a lack of significant set-pieces means most of the fun you draw from the game will be mostly dependent on how creative you get with the tools provided. It's entirely possible to approach almost every encounter the same way, but that would just be doing yourself a massive disservice.
When we first saw Days Gone, I admit I dismissed Deacon as a character, thinking "I've seen this guys story a hundred times before". At a glance, he came across as a one dimensional, stereotypical macho dude-bro. Having spent the better part of forty hours with him, I now know those initial impressions were entirely off-base. Sure, Deacon's a 'One-Percenter' (bikers that don't abide by the law) and is a merciless and efficient killer, but he's also willing to put his life on the line for those closest to him. Thanks to some fantastic performances by the voice cast, and some solid, if at times cliched writing, Deacon's story kept me invested throughout. It can at times feel a bit predictable, but I still found it so compelling that I barely tackled any side-activities until after the main credits rolled. Seeing Deacon grow through the story events made me feel connected to him and his driving motivations. Bend Studios paid attention to early feedback and softened his tone and made him a bit more relatable in doing so. As Deacon's back story is revealed through flashbacks and conversations, his past relationship with his wife Sarah is fleshed out and becomes that much sadder. Being recently married it's hard not to feel for Deacon as he tries to cope with loss while moving forward as the world around him descends into chaos. I was genuinely surprised by how invested I got in seeing Deacons story through to the end.
Although the game is open-world, it still maintains a strong focus on the story and doesn't see you taking on too much in the way of mundane side quests of no importance. The majority of side-activities will see you tasked with making the world around you safer for Deacon and the other survivors. You'll have to clear out bandit camps and burn freaker nests in particularly hostile infected zones to make travel safer. While travelling, you'll also occasionally encounter one of forty freaker hordes. If you want to take advantage of the games fast travel, you'll have to clear the route of any of these hot spots before you can do so. On top of ensuring the road is safe, you'll need to have enough fuel to make the journey. Deacon needs to be close to his bike, and open up the map to travel to any clear encampments. I only ended up using fast travel a handful of times, because it was just too much fun to ride around the game's world and explore.
Along the way, Deacons drifter nature will put him in contact with friendly camps. These are your main point of contact for missions and upgrades. When visiting these camps, you can trade bounties (ears cut off freakers) to get camp credit and increase trust, unlocking more weapons and cosmetic and performance-based bike upgrades. You'll also encounter survivors in the wild that you can send back to one of the camps, depending on which weapons/upgrades you have your sights on. Doing so is crucial as the bike in its most basic form is a bit slow and prone to running out of petrol fast. The motorbike plays an integral role in Days Gone, and you quickly learn that surviving or travelling without it is a suicide mission. Initially, riding the bike feels a bit sluggish and almost like you're driving through invisible syrup, but by the time you've installed a few upgrades, the bike becomes a force to be reckoned with as it tears across the countryside like a wild beast.
Spotting my first big horde, the pucker-factor was strong, as leading up to that moment, I could count the number of freakers I'd encountered at once on two hands. I was grossly under-levelled and had little in the way of effective weapons, but curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to stick my head in the hornet's nest for a quick peek. What followed was a minute of me trying thin the heard with a handgun and a grizzly death for poor Deacon. That one encounter left me terrified of hordes and had me avoiding them at all cost for the better part of fifteen hours.
It wasn't until I had some essential skills unlocked and some military grade guns that I would face one with a positive outcome. Doing so required me to take full advantage of my inventory by placing remote explosives at strategic choke-points around the horde before engaging. It's essential to get a lay of your surroundings before you take them on, as you'll be doing a lot of sprinting and fast shooting to use environmental hazards and traps to take down large chunks of the horde. Fighting hundreds of freakers at once is an exhilarating and frenzied experience that I still haven't tired of while working my way through all of them post-story.
Days Gone shines when you experiment and plan your excursions into the harsh wilds of Oregon. Not paying attention to inventory and fuel levels will more often than not lead to death. It's a cruel world filled with things that are out to kill you. Wolves, Bears and cougars roam the forests along with the different types of freakers and human enemies. Each of these requires different tactics and thankfully Days Gone's gameplay is satisfying both in combat and stealth situations.
Deacon has a variety of skills and tools at his disposal, with skill points being spent in three different areas; Ranged combat, Melee and Survival. Each of these skills, from reducing stamina cooldown to Deacons shots piercing multiple freakers has a noticeable effect on gameplay and your efficiency in any given situation. Improving your stats leads to Deacon eventually feeling like a mostly unstoppable killing machine (the horde is always dangerous). It provides an excellent contrast to the early hours of the journey. At the start Deacon feels underpowered and runs out of breath quickly or struggles with recoil, but as you kill more freakers and finish more missions, his prowess continues to improve.
As Deacon's skillset grows, some fights can feel a bit on the easy side. This combined with one of the most unflinchingly powerful dodge rolls I've ever seen lead to most small encounters feeling devoid of any threat. Fights with something as scary as the games freaker bears, devolve into a leisurely game of dodge roll, shoot, run, rinse and repeat. I encountered at least ten bears/freaker bears in my playthrough and the only one to lay a paw on me was the very first I came across. The same can be said for most small skirmishes.
By late-game, if you play it smart and take out stragglers with stealth kills, you'll clear most encampments without taking more than one or two hits. When Deacon encounters human enemies, many will taunt him with peace and supply offerings. Deacon is an aggressive guy, and it comes through in these battles. He'll scream things like "Oh you like killing drifters huh? How do you like it now?" as he blows a mans head off with a well-placed shotgun blast and proceeds to cave his buddies skull in with a sledgehammer. While you will hear Deacon repeat the same phrases on occasion, the angry way in which they are delivered always made me smile. On a side note, throwing molotovs and pipe bombs at unaware enemies huddled around a campfire never gets old. I regularly used misdirection and Deacon's last known whereabouts to flank and eliminate enemies and found myself regularly cycling through all of my arsenal. Deacon takes cover when near but never sticks to it, which is welcome when so many shooters still can't quite get taking cover right. The variety in combat in both stealth and head-on feels good, and it's clear that the developers spent a great deal of time getting it right. I only have one minor quarrel with the combat and Days Gone isn't the first game I've encountered it in. On numerous occasions I lost sight of my white aiming reticle as it blends in with the surroundings and with no real options to tweak the HUD, it lead to my undeserved death multiple times.
The basic freakers are accompanied by Screamers and Breakers who force you to react differently. Screamers will alert nearby freakers, and if you're close enough to them at the time, the scream will hurt Deacon along with disorienting him. Breakers can take multiple clips of ammo to bring down, so it's helpful to get them with some fire damage first. Perhaps the most shocking enemies though are the game's Newts. Newts are child freakers who group in packs and nest in rooftops. They won't attack you unless they sense weakness or if you invade their space. Fighting a group of Newts for the first time made me feel super uneasy as the bloody brutality in taking them out with a baseball bat is jarring. It was a bold move of Bend to include child-like enemies that players will have to kill on numerous occasions.
Getting through these small encounters doesn't take away from the fun I had with the game, but I do wish there were a few more massively deadly threats in the world, outside of the enormous hordes. Some story missions will see you forced to take enemies in a front-on approach, which always leads to a fun action packed shootout. The game's world is beautiful with plenty of interesting places for looting. The Oregon forests are filled with life (for you to hunt and harvest) and provide a stunning backdrop to the dark and at times gruesome story.
Also of note is the games audio design and score — gunshots and explosions blast with unhinged ferocity. Freaker screams pierce the still night and the world around you is bristling with the sound of plants rustling in the wind and insects chattering in trees. The score holds its own as it ebbs and flows during any given moment. The sound of the bike's engine rumbling furthers the tension felt while travelling exposed at night and the sound of a storm is both a blessing and a curse as the sound of thunder makes it harder for enemies to spot you but makes it that much harder for you to locate them. I did on two occasions notice an audio bug that leads to my bikes engine not making any sound, but this was easily remedied by hopping off and then back on.
Any motorbike is only as reliable as its engine, and this is where Days Gone struggles. On a launch model PS4, the game is plagued with technical issues and numerous lengthy load times (expect about 5 or so minutes when first booting up the game). There are loads before every cut scene and character interaction and load screens after every one of those to get back into the game. On top of this, the frame rate is about as stable as my emotions at 4 AM after a bottle of whisky. Frames regularly dip into slideshow numbers, sometimes freezing for a split second altogether. Pop in runs rife, both with objects and textures. On many occasions, cut scenes had a strange almost cartoon look, like none of the top layer detail textures on characters or the environment loaded. It's sometimes so bad that Deacons tattoos look like low-resolution oil smudges on his arms.
I also encountered several areas where the models didn't seem to load at all. One part of the map had cars suspended in midair where a bridge was clearly meant to be supporting them. The whole surrounding area appeared to only half load until I reloaded my save. I also found it strange how Deacon shouts when talking to passengers on his bike. I get that you need to speak a bit louder but he more often than not sounds furious while just having a conversation. Being an open-world title, the typical bugs are also present. From the occasional enemy that flies into the sky when killed to a character gliding across the floor during a cutscene, it feels like Days Gone could have done with a few more months of polishing and refining.
There's so much going on in Days Gone that I've not even managed to cover everything here. It's unfortunate that the game suffers from so many technical issues as they hinder what would otherwise be a fun, if a bit repetiitive game. I can't comment on PS4 Pro performance, but it seems like Days Gone is just pushing the aging hardware of the launch PS4 a bit too hard. I sincerely hope Bend can make headway in patching the most egregious offenders because when the game is firing on all cylinders and rumbling along smoothly, it's fun to play and can look jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
Days Gone feels like it has almost every feature in triple-A gaming right now. From crafting to its combat, there's nothing that we haven't seen before. You can feel and see the influences of other games in every aspect. The old adage, "Jack of all trades, master of none" rings very true with Days Gone. I felt comfortable while playing Days Gone, and it shows that you don't always have to push boundaries and reinvent the wheel to make an entertaining game. While it can get a bit repetitive at times and struggles under the weight, I still found myself enjoying the vast majority of my time with the game. It's definitely not going to be for everyone, but being a huge zombie fan will help.