Frantic hordes of zombies are exciting, but the world and repetition aren’t
Days Gone kicks off relatively simply: you play as a biker riding through an open-world zombie post-apocalypse, seeking answers around his dead wife and smashing enemy faces in with crunchy, weighty melee weapons. Sometimes, there are spectacular hordes of them. So far, so straightforward. Yet through its 60-odd-hour ride, Days Gone loses its focus with repetitive missions, a meandering and thematically unsatisfying storyline, and an excess of bugs and busywork. When you slow down for a minute or two, these issues combine with a dreary, uninteresting open world and add up to an uneven and mostly toothless zombie experience.
For a gruff biker dude traveling through a zombie-infested (okay, they’re technically virus-infected humans called Freakers, but functionally the same thing) Oregon, Deacon St. John is an endearingly gentle and sweet-natured protagonist. His gruff charm and unassuming ‘I ain’t no leader’ demeanor is mostly well voiced by Sam Witwer (AKA Darth Maul on Star Wars: The Clone Wars), aside from moments where he inexplicably yells during stealth missions and an occasional tendency to over-act in more frantic sequences.
His bike is your constant companion, and it handles well and feels great to ride – especially after several damage-absorbing upgrades and the addition of power-boosting nitrous. Drifting around a tight corner is a lot of fun, as is sailing over a break in the road. For a game that’s so centered on riding, I’m glad that developer Sony Bend nailed that fundamental mechanic.
Sadly, Deacon’s charisma and bitchin’ bike aren’t enough to carry Days Gone story, which is clumsily handled. Days Gone insists on tedious, barely interactive flashbacks of Deacon and his wife Sarah which play out like bad high school drama – her demand that he “promise to ride me as much as you ride your bike” at their wedding is a line that sticks in the mind – and repeating missions which begin and end with a stationary Deacon spouting overly-long monologues about their love.
For the first half, this storyline at least forms a consistent emotional throughline and motivation for Deacon beyond simply staying alive, but it loses its direction in the second, where the focus shifts toward new characters and changing relationships with old ones, and I was left confused as to why I was meant to care. Of course, one cutscene played out for me entirely in slow motion, without audio, so maybe I missed it.
Story missions are wrapped in dramatic importance that they don’t earn.
It doesn’t help that Days Gone takes itself almost religiously seriously, and story missions are wrapped in dramatic importance that they don’t earn. Its desire to elicit emotion is also constantly at odds with the decision to structure even non-interactive story delivery as missions: there were a couple of times I had an extremely brief conversation with another character that would net me XP. It’s hard to be invested when its drama is so tied up in cold, numerical achievement.
Mixed in with the crowd are some enjoyable supporting characters. Deacon’s primary relationship with his best buddy Boozer (aka “Booze-Man”), is heartfelt, and their bro dynamic is one of the more affecting in Days Gone. There’s also some flavor to the world-weariness of the older survivors Deacon encounters, particularly the former prison guard Tucker and all-around hard-ass Iron Mike.
The human antagonists, on the other hand, are as interesting as cardboard cutouts: they’re virtually all roughly sketched bad guys who are bad for bad’s sake. One, who is introduced in the later stages, feels particularly redundant, and is there purely to cause conflict rather than exist as a fully realized character in his own right.
Still, human marauders and feral Freaker-wannabees, called Rippers, who occupy camps (aka outposts), are fun to rumble with, even if they present a somewhat easy challenge because of a very forgiving style of stealth gameplay. While long grass and plenty of cover help, run-ins with human enemies are made easier by the fact that enemy AI is rarely clustered together. Though you can’t hide bodies in Days Gone, enemies are spread out enough that you can stealth kill one and often leave a body in broad daylight without it being noticed. As long as they’re not facing you, they’ll rarely become aware of your presence.
Even so, I found compulsory stealth-only story missions the least welcome variety in Days Gone. To unlock much of its central mystery, Deacon must snoop on the comings and goings of the National Emergency Response Organization, aka NERO, as they research the freaker outbreak. This involves a several-mission-thread of sneaking into NERO-occupied areas and eavesdropping on them from behind obstacles or within long grass as they explain world lore, which is not particularly interesting and annoyingly repetitive if you fail (and I did, by rushing through in sheer exasperation at having to do the same mission-type over and over.)
If it does end up in an all-out gunfight, there’s more fun to be had. Guns and crossbows in Days Gone feel mostly good to use, and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained by clearing out clusters of enemies – zombies and humans alike – with giant napalm molotovs. Deacon can also unlock a focused shot ability from his skill tree early on in the game, which allows him to slow down time in battle. It’s a somewhat inexplicable skill for a regular guy (that he served in the military is the somewhat shaky rationale), but it’s nice to have a way to relieve the pressure for a moment if you get overwhelmed.
Melee, in particular, is a weighty and bloody blast. The crafting system in Days Gone is based on found objects being combined with other found objects, and there’s crunchy satisfaction to be found with combining together a baseball bat with a saw blade and killing an enemy in a single hit. I found myself more invested in crafting the right weapon to swing over finding one to shoot.
Melee, in particular, is a weighty and bloody blast.
Of course, Days Gone’s humans aren’t the only threat. Its world is peppered with Freakers who come in a range of sizes and speeds, but you’ll mostly encounter the garden variety zombie that can be swiftly dealt with by a headshot or thwack of an axe if split from a pack. Hordes, however, are a different story, and fighting these create most of the thrilling moments in Days Gone. Usually found in squared off, elaborate geographical areas, these huge, hundreds-strong writhing masses of gnashing teeth and grasping limbs are easily Sony Bend’s biggest technical achievement. Operating consistently as a single-minded entity as they relentlessly pursue you, they have to be taken out with a degree of strategy and employing familiarity with your surroundings. Every single horde encounter was a sprint for survival.
One such event saw me taking out half the horde from a balcony with molotovs and grenades before leaping down into the remaining fray and scrambling to find resources to build more, all while they nipped at my heels. It’s frantic stuff, and if you get overwhelmed it sends you back to the beginning of what can be an hour -long encounter: I regularly enjoyed the sense of real stakes, which ratcheted up the tension. On the other hand, once a horde simply disappeared three-quarters of the way through clearing it – I lost a couple of hours looking for remaining stragglers before dying, which resolved the bug upon restart.
On The Road Again
Even with strong combat, things get boring after a while because Days Gone’s missions suffer from repetition across the board. As Deacon explores Oregon he stumbles across a number of survivor camps, each which has a leader with their own to-do list of various jobs you have to do in order to build enough trust and credits to unlock new weapons and bike upgrades. These jobs tend to be variations on tracking down a traitor or rescuing a hostage or clearing out a camp, and all tend to play out in a similar fashion. A few dozen of hours of this same mission structure took its toll on me.
This extends to the plentiful missions found in the world, as well. Tracking down NERO checkpoints in order to earn vital upgrades to your various stats – health, stamina, and focus – is laborious, as they always required power to properly infiltrate. That means scouring the area to find a gas tank to fill a generator, occasionally replace a busted fuse, then rinse and repeat. It’s never a good sign when you hear your character remark on the repetition of a game mechanic – it suggests the designers are well aware that they’ve played a card too many times – and at several points, Deacon is heard to remark: “Okay lemme guess: outta fuel, of course.” “Hilarious!” I thought, as I went through the same routine for the eighth time.
Elsewhere, dozens of Freaker nests scattered throughout Oregon, which Days Gone urges you to attack by blocking off fast travel access on certain infested routes until they’re cleared. These are satisfying at first – it’s a relief to drive down a Freaker-less highway – but eventually the sheer number of them without any real sense of variety from nest to nest made me lose interest. At a certain point it’s faster to just ride past the nests than to fight through them and then warp.
Its repetition and excess are exacerbated by Days Gone’s fragile bike, which suffers severe damage from contact with just about any object, including, sadly, Freakers themselves. While I don’t mind the sense of vulnerability and urgency this mechanic brought to the table, especially during moments of frantic escape when my bike was on low fuel or ‘health’ and I needed to find parts to repair it, it becomes more of a drag when you simply want to get from A to B to complete a task without the fuss of uncompromising physics. There’s a reason cars in GTA V, for example, can take unrealistic amounts of damage before they catch fire and explode; now imagine the drudgery of not being able to simply grab another one when yours breaks down and you have someplace to be. There’s something ill-fitting about requiring a badass biker with a sweet bike to ride slowly and carefully to avoid scratching the paint.
There are also notable framerate dips while playing on a PS4 Pro at 1080p, and constant instances of objects (or whole areas) popping in and out. The former issue is most troubling when you’re riding at speed on your motorcycle and Days Gone momentarily freezes as if struggling to keep up. It’s nothing game-breaking, but it was a constant reminder that things aren’t as smooth as they should be.
There are also notable framerate dips while playing on a PS4 Pro at 1080p.
There are also dynamic events that play out through the world for you to discover. Though these aren’t as interesting as say, Red Dead Redemption 2’s encounters that were the basis for countless water-cooler conversations, I did appreciate the occasional unexpected hostage rescue situation or trap to escape from. You’re generally free to simply hop on your bike and ride away if you don’t want to bother with them, but they go some way to fleshing out the otherwise sterile world.
Life is a Highway
Days Gone’s world certainly needs all the character it can get. While it’s pretty enough and full of dense forest, winding roads, and snow-capped mountains, if you look closer it’s also relatively sparse, with little world-building to differentiate one area from another and not a lot of surprises to be found in its sprawling land mass. Its gutted buildings are particularly dull, shells to house resources without much sense of history. Who lived here, and what happened to them? They left no trace, save the rare collectible note here or there.
It is, in a word, dreary. A series of abandoned cars, tunnels, empty houses against a dull, slate-gray sky. I understand this is a post-apocalyptic setting and don’t expect cheeriness and rainbows, but a general lack of environmental storytelling left me wanting more out of it. This was a world that was once lived in, we’re told, but its uninspired interiors and barren exteriors certainly don’t feel like it.
Even areas populated by humans, like camps, feel curiously characterless. When an NPC in a camp does utter an incidental line, it’s likely one that you’ve heard multiple times before, and though there are optional conversations to be had with a camp’s various mechanics/cooks/bounty collectors, I found very few compelling enough to stick around and listen to. Again, part of the problem here is a self-seriousness – a little humor or sense of weirdness (this is the zombie apocalypse, after all) could have gone a long way.
Its world is also inconsistent. During missions, your bike’s fuel and damage gauges – normally vital things to keep an eye on – will often disappear as if suddenly unimportant, as will NERO-soldiers in a research area you’ve just finished scouting. These are small complaints, but they break the rules of survival that Days Gone otherwise doggedly lives by, and with them the spell of a cohesive, lived-in world.
I can’t help but wish there was a more rock-focused soundtrack to really complete the biker vibe. Instead, what Deacon does have to listen to is a sort of paranoid, boot-leg radio station featuring the rants of a camp leader who has the unfortunate tendency to repeat himself, as do radio calls from your friends that often come well after you’d expect their in-game cues. In its current state, Days Gone also has a number of audio issues that range from instances like this to complete dialogue dropouts to audio syncing problems.