When Days Gone was first announced, most people brushed it off as just another generic zombie shooter. Since then, both Bend Studios and Sony have done their best in convincing gamers to give the game a chance. With Death Stranding delayed, and Last Of Us 2 coming in September of 2019, even the corporate gods conspired to give Days Gone a PS4 exclusive of the summer slot. It almost felt like the people behind the game were more hyped for it than the people who wanted to play it. So is Days Gone an underdog or an expected disappointment let’s find out?
Story & Narrative
Days Gone follows Deacon St. John, as he lives his day as a drifter post a zombie outbreak. Along with his biker mate Boozer, they leverage their biker skills and run bounties for the few survival camps in Oregon. Deacon like many others around him and many others before him that have starred in a zombie event have lost his loved one to the outbreak, namely Sarah his wife. And just like any other protagonist worth his salt, Deacon partly blames himself for it and is haunted by her memory. Also, like almost every other anti-hero out there, Deacon has a rough exterior but a heart of gold and ends up helping more people than he originally planned too. As far as character goes, Deacon is pretty from the book.
What I did enjoy about Deacon St. John though was his mumblings. These conversations he had with himself, as he took down a Freaker’s nest (that’s what Zombies are called in Days Gone), or when he was running a mission for one of the camps, not only shed light on the world of Days Gone, but also allowed a peek into the character of Deacon himself. These monologues, which carry the undertone of an aggressive, broken, bi-polar psychopath add depth to Deacon as a flawed yet relatable personality. Its especially contrasting to hear Deacon speak to and speak of various other people that he meets in the game. While he is reasonably polite and calm with people when faced with them directly or over the radio, all bets are off when the radio is off, and you often get to hear what he really think of them, as soon as he gets out of earshot. Another facet that makes Deacon deeper and relatable as a character.
These characters that Deacon meet are varied. There is a strict almost communist-like society, run by a former Jail Warden juxtaposed against a disgruntled American veteran who believes that the outbreak is a chance for the Stronger to survive. Amidst these 2 leaders, are various smaller characters like the aforementioned Boozer, who is like a brother to Deacon, and the closest thing to a confidant he has in the world. There is also a teenage girl, who reminds him of his little sister-in-law. The scientists who is inextricably linked with his wife’s fate. All of them are interesting enough to pursue and unravel as you move from road to road, mission to mission, storyline to storyline.
Gameplay & Mechanics
And that’s something you will be doing a lot. Because everything in Days Gone is a storyline. They are not objectives and quest markers, to be cleared owing to your completionist compulsion, rather they are tied into various narrative strings which help provide context to what you are doing. Clearing Freaker, Upgrading Bike, Helping Out The Camp, Solving Mysteries, Completing Bounties, everything is a separate narrative thread, that sometimes interlinks into each other. They are not just objectives listed under a bullet-point, they are stuff that you can do which will reveal more about the world of Days Gone.
What I also liked about this system is how these storylines progress from mission to mission. It’s not always reported to NPC, and bam the next objective in the storyline is available, but instead, there is a significant delay between the end of one mission and the beginning of another. Sometimes, you would be a mission and a half into another story-line, when the next step for an older story-line that you had exhausted will open up. Not only does it feel natural, but it also keeps the pace steady and the experience varied. Though it does annoy me sometimes when I am not able to follow up on a story I was invested in immediately.
Zombies, Outlaws, Cultists
There are a few core gameplay loops that Days Gone revolve around to further those storylines (see what I did there, loop, revolve, further, lines…no? ok). The primary of which is fighting Zombie, to which effect Deacon can take them down with stealth, using weapons, or the trappings that his surroundings provide. Of course, zombies are not the only threats, there are other outlaws, who would set up traps and imprison you. There are rippers, who are bald sadist cult people. And then there is the wildlife, ranging from Wolves to Bears who would sometimes even knock you down from your bike for no damn reason.
The melee controls feel responsive and weighty, but the shooting can be refined, I missed more than I hit, and the cover mechanic is touch and go. Plus, since the ammo for guns is very limited, most of my times were spent swinging a barbed baseball at my enemies. Which was alright for the first hour or so, but soon I was running into hordes which were 100 strong. Which meant that I found myself fleeing more often than fighting, which leads us to the next core gameplay loop, The Bike.
The Drifter’s Bike
For one, you need it to run away from Freakers. There will be times when you will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of freakers that besiege you and your bike would be your ticket out from there. Then there would be times when you will be chasing bounties, which would entail chase sequences which would have your bike run through some rough terrain. Finally, you will also need your bike to travel to and from locations, but that’s what fast travel is for I hear you say. Well, fast travel between 2 locations only unlocks when there are no freaker nests between them, so for the most part of the game, you will be dependent on your bike to take you places.
Which means taking care of your bike is paramount. Since the bike is your main mode of transportation in Days Gone; In classic video game fashion, your high-level bike gets trashed in the first 15 minutes, and then the rest of the game has you bringing it up to the mark again. You want to keep it well repaired since if it breaks down during a chase, not only will you lose your target, but will also have to scavenge for parts so you can repair your bike. You also have to keep its fuel topped up, because if it runs out, you would again have to abandon it and look for fuel on foot, which is way more dangerous than it sounds. And you can’t just GTA your way out of it, you can hijack other bikes, but YOUR BIKE IS YOUR BIKE. It’s your save-point and checkpoint, so even if you abandon it in the middle of the jungle or at the bottom of a lake, sooner or later you need to go back to it.
Keeping Things Together
To handle all of this escalating danger around you, Days Gone employs the classic RPG leveling formula. You earn experience by running missions, exploring locations, killing zombies, and doing what your average bounty hunter would do. As you level up, you unlock skills that make you stronger, faster and better. Doing jobs for survivor camps will earn their trusts, which would unlock access to new weapons, and new upgrades to your bike. Killing zombies and skinning animals will earn you resources, which can be used to craft various weapons and tools. Clearing checkpoints will grant you stamina or health upgrades while clearing nests will open new crafting recipes to you. The world in Days Gone maybe dangerous, but it also provides you a fair chance.
Among all the things that keep on breaking in Days Gone, however, is your knife and your crossbow. Since both of them will never break, you always have at least one melee weapon and 1 range weapon to fall back on (the crossbow does need bolts to be crafted though). Both of them weaker but decent weapons especially in early game missions. Crafting should become second nature while playing Days Gone, since the crafting/weapon selection wheel allows you to do it fairly quickly and intuitively.
Graphics Sound & Performance
But all of this sounds very run of the mill, very traditional, very orthodox. You would be right in thinking that Days Gone doesn’t do a lot to re-invent the wheel at least mechanically. But there is traction to be had in familiarity. I was able to pick up the basic Days Gone mechanics the first time they were introduced to me, hell I was crouching way before the game asked me to crouch. And while the innovation might not lie in how the game is played, there is plenty of innovation when it comes to how the game is made.
And that innovation is on display, the first time you run into a freaker’s horde. It had started like any other incursion, and I was quietly plucking off zombies collecting their ears so I can exchange them for credits later at a camp. Suddenly I see a swarm of zombies, approaching me. I count roughly 20 of them. Tough but manageable I tell myself. So I decided to implement the old “Running around in circles and killing one or of them at a time” trick. BIG MISTAKE. Turns out, the longer it takes to put down a group of freakers, the more freakers from the surrounding areas join in. And they are like magnets, which would actively look for you instead of being set into an alerted state. So 5 minutes in and I am now being tailed by at least a 100 zombies. Finally, I give up, and high tail out of there. I later find out that these swarms can go up to 500, and while at the beginning these zombies are a hive mind, they become individuals as they come close to the players. Something that Bend Studios did to work within the constraints of the PS4, without compromising on the vision of it. Mind=Blown.
Then there is the Unreal Engine. Did you know that Unreal Engine does not allow for Bikes? So Deacon’s bike is actually a really narrow car, with 2 invisible non-colliding wheels. This is a story of innovative development that excites the software developer inside me. And just adds another layer of appreciation when I play the game, and enjoy how the bike feels and moves like a bike, even when technically its not one.
It also kind of surprised me how good the Unreal Engine could look. Especially the light effects really blew me away. As is common practice in games today, Days Gone comes with a photo mode, but there are times when the sun is coming over the mountains, and the rays fill up the valley scattered through trees creating amazing looking vistas.
Having said that, all that workaround does come back to haunt Days Gone, the longer game goes on. After long hours of play (6-8 hours) I noticed stuttering and tessellation setting in, finally reaching a point where the game actually froze for a few seconds while Deacon was mid-air. While such issues are expected in most open-world games and are very few and far between they do stand out because the rest of the game is so decent.
[signoff icon=”icon-info-circled”]Days Gone streamlines a lot of traditional mechanics and gameplay elements to make them the most fun. The dense, dangerous open world of Days Gone is exciting to traverse, explore and challenge. If you have a PS4, there is no better game to tide you over until Last Of Us 2 arrives later this year. The only reason not to buy it is that you don’t like open world games.[/signoff]