Days Gone, like its protagonist Deacon St. John, does not want to let you know what's going on underneath the surface. It's content to close whole parts of itself off from you for much of the game. Instead, you have to fight, trudge, and cajole Days Gone to show you the goods. It's an odd choice, one that feels potentially correct thematically, but not right for players.
Days Gone is the story of a world fallen in disrepair and chaos. A viral outbreak turned humanity into monsters, with those infected with the virus turning into Freakers. (Yes, they're zombies, but that's the name they want you to use, so let's go with it.) Deacon St. John—Deke to his friends, enemies, and really anyone within earshot for some reason—was a member of a biker gang who lost his girlfriend Sarah in the anarchy of the initial outbreak. Now he's a hard-driven' sonofagun, willing to do whatever he can for the highest bidder. He needs money and supplies so he and his friend Boozer can ride North, leaving the past behind.
Smells Like Zombies to Me
The post-apocalypse after a zombie outbreak isn't particularly fresh ground to cover. It's the focus of The Walking Dead, a particularly popular multimedia franchise with several games. The recently-released World War Z was a co-op experience fighting hordes of zombies. Even Bend Studio parent company Sony Interactive Entertainment has published the acclaimed The Last of Us. Whereas that game was a fairly linear adventure with a heavy focus on stealth, Days Gone seeks to differentiate itself by being an open-world affair.
Days Gone separates its overall tale into various storylines: collections of missions with the same theme. These storylines pull Deacon in different directions, whether that's helping out one of the various camps, like the Truther survivalist camp of Copeland or civilized commute of Lost Lakes to the south, taking on bounties, or finding out what secretive government agency NERO is up to. The overall thrust of Days Gone is both about why Deacon is such a survivor, but also the soul he's lost in the process.
Which is to say, Deacon is a bit of a dick. I honestly didn't enjoy him for a large part of the game. That's not a problem with the acting by Sam Witwer (Starkiller in The Force Unleashed, also Smallville, Being Human, and Supergirl), but more how he's presented. Deacon continually throws his weight around, and it's acknowledged by several supporting cast members that his actions are poorly thought out at best and getting people killed at worst. Days Gone frequently jumps back to before the outbreak, highlighting a more humane and charismatic Deacon, while his Sarah-less counterpart is myopic and brusque. He's a man lost, lacking charisma or even a stronger presence to set him alongside Kratos or The Last of Us' Joel.
There are a few twists to the tale which are telegraphed pretty early, but you've seen these stories of people surviving in the post-apocalypse. Days Gone doesn't surprise in that respect. There are some particularly effective scenes though, like Deacon trying to get his friend Boozer to a doctor, or... the end of the adventure. But the highlights aren't the norm for Days Gone's nearly 30-hour critical path.
Oregon, Only Slightly Exaggerated
The countryside of Oregon stretches out in front of Deacon. Bend Studios might have been relegated to portable PlayStation platforms for the past 13 years, but this is the studio stepping up to show off what they can do on PlayStation 4. The game is set pretty much in their own backyard; "Bend" in the studio's name refers to the city of Bend, Oregon, where it's located.
Given that hometown pride and the help of other Sony studios, Days Gone can be a stunning game, but it doesn't always shows its best face. Rural Oregon, even after an undead outbreak, doesn't have a ton of visual variety. Once you've seen the spread of majestic mountains, a sea of fir trees, wildflowers, and picturesque lakes, marred by burnt cars, shattered homes, and impromptu camps, everything can start to look somewhat the same.
Where Days Gone shows off its visual muscle is in the dynamic weather system. The sun is fine, but the game improves when the fog rolls in, on the rain and snow pelt you from above. I thought I had seen all the weather system had to offer, then snow began to fall and coat the roads. The weather not only stands as an impressive visual marker, but it also changes handling conditions. Deacon's bike will skid on snow-covered concrete, in a slightly different manner to how it slides on muddy roads after a rainstorm.
Kill a Man With a Tin Can
Deacon is a do-it-yourself kind of guy, so Days Gone leans heavily on his ability to survive alone in the wilderness. You're always grabbing resources like bottles, cans, kerosene, scrap, and plants that can be crafted into useful items. Stamina and Focus tonics and Motolovs are your more frequently used craftables, especially given that the latter is useful in clearing out Freaker nests. Deacon can also use scrap to repair his melee weapons and bike. Finished storylines unlock further recipes for crafting, allowing you to eventually make more powerful weapons and items, the wicked buzzsaw axe or alternate arrows for your crossbow. I wish there was a bit more to the crafting: more weapons, more unique tonics, and perhaps bike upgrades that played up the do-it-yourself vibe.
Upgrades for the bike and your own weapons generally come from the camps. As you complete tasks for them, sell them food or Freaker parts, or clear out Freaker nests and Ambush camps, each camp will begin to trust you. As they trust you, they'll open up their wares, letting you buy better ranged weapons or bike parts. I recommend getting those bike parts, as having a larger fuel tank is key to making the somewhat tedious fast-travel system work.
Days Gone is primarily a stealth game early on. Ammo isn't super-scarce—you can refill it at any camp for some credits—but it is somewhat limited and the sounds of gunshots will likely call Freakers onto your position. During the day time, Freakers are an occasional problem or annoyance, but at night, they come out in larger numbers and you're more likely to run into a horde, the masses of zombies.
There's next to nothing you can do against a horde early on; you don't have the weapons and resources to take them on. Instead, stumbling upon one, or accidentally summoning them by destroying a nest or improperly opening a NERO base (sirens are bad), turns Days Gone into a Benny Hill-style endless run if you're not near a bike. You can't kill them, but you also don't move fast enough to completely get away either. They'll just chase you until you die, or you find enough space to get to your bike and peel out. In fact, I generally avoided going out at night, because there's no risk/reward to doing so, like in fellow zombie game Dying Light.
Which leaves you with some standard open-world action for many hours of play. Go here, stealth-kill everyone, grab the thing. There are a few missions that break that up, but that's most of the early half of Days Gone. The horde is right there, the first thing shown in the first E3 teaser; let me tackle that at least once early on.
It took me nine hours—nine hours!—to be given the tools to fight a horde. That's how long you wait for Traps to be unlocked as a gameplay option. And that's partially when taking on horde becomes fun. I understand the idea of growth and progression, but every rung on the ladder needs to be a great experience. As I said, Days Gone is slow to open up, in terms of the weather system, in terms of gameplay options, and even in terms of the environment. There's a whole section of the game that's saved far too late for my tastes. It almost feels like downloadable content.
And sometimes things just don't work. As a stealth game, one of the tools of distraction is throwing rocks. There are instant-fail stealth sections that rely on the ability to misdirect enemies. And at one point, in one of the key missions, the rock selection just stopped working. I could choose other weapons and tools, but not the rock. Likewise, one key door for a major story mission wouldn't open, despite having the key. Or the occasional prompt for a stealth kill won't work. I'm sure these will get patched, and I'm okay with the normal open-world bugs-teleporting enemies, odd AI pathing, and physics issues-but these were big roadblocks when they happened. Generally, I had to save and close the application to fix the errors.
Days Gone is a weird game for me. Our guides writer, Jake Green, said he enjoyed it, but it didn't click until 30 hours in. I'm not sure it entirely clicked with me. Days Gone isn't a bad game, and I enjoyed my time with it. But there was always a wall. The stealth wasn't as precise as I would've liked, the open world isn't as vibrant or inventive given the setting, the storytelling relied heavily on stories I'd seen before, and I wish mechanics like crafting and hunting were more robust. At a certain point, Days Gone gave me all the tools and truly opened up its world and I thought to myself, "You should have given me that earlier." And I had that thought a few times while playing it. I understand progression, but you should put your best foot forward.
There is craft and intent here, and I can see the ideas beginning to tie themselves together, even if the whole doesn't fully coalesce here. I don't want Bend Studio to be relegated to portable spin-offs of larger Sony franchises. Days Gone, in and of itself, is a solid foundation for something better, and I hope that Bend has the chance to explore that in a sequel.
The zombie apocalypse is well-trodden territory and the open-world spin of Days Gone can only differentiate it so much. There's a strong narrative focus, but Deacon St. John doesn't carry that weight as deftly as he could. There are highlights and fun tools available within, but the game doesn't push those forward initially, leaving the players to deal with some tedium first. Days Gone is a great foundation for something better though, so hopefully Bend gets the chance to improve upon it.