Review: Days Gone has a story as solid as its gameplay
For gamers who love long, emotional road trips, Days Gone might just be a perfect match. Bend Studios’ latest is an open-world masterpiece for an impressive myriad of reasons, and one of them is that it really makes you think.
I don’t mean tactical decision-making like a RTS game, although it does have its fair share of those. Rather, Days Gone makes you think about you. Open-ended moral questions like “What am I fighting for?” and “What would I have done?” will definitely pop into your head as you progress through the story. That being said, Days Gone is a journey that everyone will perceive differently, so feel free to take that with a pinch of salt.
If you just want some good old-fashioned zombie butt-kicking, then this has plenty of that too. Now let’s get that drifter bike revved up!
It’s not as simple as it seems
Days Gone is set in the Pacific Northwest region of Oregon, USA, several years after a global pandemic. The virus killed off most of the world’s population, turning the remaining infected into cannibalistic, zombie-like creatures called Freakers. As civilisation crumbled from the bottom up, the uninfected humans banded together to survive… with most turning to banditry.
You play as Deacon St. John, a former biker-turned-mercenary plying the roads with his best friend, Boozer. Scraping together a living as bounty hunters for the local survivor camps, they’ve managed to make ends meet without too much trouble for a few years. However, they’ve always entertained the thought of leaving everything behind and riding north in search of greener pastures.
While the first few sequences focus on providing context for Deacon’s situation, it also does a fantastic job of setting the stage for one of Days Gone‘s central themes: brotherhood. The bond between Deacon and Boozer is one of the most inspiring I’ve seen in any video game to date, and it plays a huge part in many of Deacon’s decisions. For example, after Boozer is injured by some bandits, Deacon finally gives in to his friend’s urging, agreeing to ride north after the former recuperates.
But as fate would have it, things quickly spiral out of control, catapulting Deacon into a conspiracy-filled adventure.
Let’s talk themes!
Before I continue, I know it’s only natural to compare Days Gone to similar zombie titles. The obvious candidate would be fellow PS4 exclusive The Last of Us, since both are roughly similar in setting and gameplay. But Days Gone is different in one, very distinct way: perspective.
Simply put, The Last of Us aims to depict the darkness of a destroyed world, and it does a spectacular job. You might think Days Gone follows that formula, but I feel it leans to the opposite side of the spectrum. The game doesn’t explicitly mention it, but the idea of “riding north” can be seen as an encapsulation of “hope for a better future”. Essentially, it’s much more optimistic than The Last of Us.
Anyway, themes are best discussed after the game has been out and we’ve had time to digest. Instead, let’s move on to what it’s actually like playing Days Gone.
A day in the the life of a bounty hunter
If it’s a zombie game, you’re more or less guaranteed some crafting mechanics. Holding R1 brings up a wheel that lets you create consumables, equip weapons, and perform other tasks. Crafting materials such as beer bottles and rags can be found lying around while you explore. At first, you only know basic recipes such as Molotovs and Bandages, but more useful stuff will be unlocked as you tackle certain missions.
There’s a lot to do in Days Gone apart from riding around and looking cool. Outside of the story quests, there are two aspects that make up Deacon’s livelihood. The first is bounty hunting. Targets are provided by Camp Leaders over the radio, but you’ll have to speak to them personally to start hunting. Completing a Bounty earns you Trust in that respective camp, unlocking new weapons and parts for purchase.
The second aspect involves Freakers. These missions often require Deacon to clear out infestations, and here only a Molotov will work; throw it at a nest’s entrance and watch the angry hive charging out. Deacon doesn’t have to turn in nor accept these missions from a particular NPC (he can do them as long as he’s in the area), although some still award Trust points with certain factions.
Freaking out with Freakers
Time to get dirty. Ranged combat is pretty straightforward, but melee combat is a bit more complex. Fortunately, it’s rather forgiving. Deacon has some invincibility time that lets you breathe for a few seconds, but you’ll need to earn it. Stealth kills count, and so does scoring a melee critical hit. If you have no choice but to engage in close quarters, I suggest going for one to two boot knife hits, rolling (R1) and repeating — that should handle the majority of fights.
Deacon’s skills cover three aspects: Melee, Ranged and Survival. The first two provide bonuses and little quirks to their respective categories, while Survival offers quality of life improvements. You can just add points based on your preferred playstyle, although I do recommend putting a point in the Focus ability under the Ranged tree.
Hitting the road
When you’re not killing or looting, Deacon gets around on his trusty drifter bike. Unfortunately, his original bike runs into “problems” early in the game, so most of the time you’re stuck with a replacement. However, you can purchase upgrades from camp mechanics, assuming you have the required level of Trust.
The Pacific Northwest is enormous, so fast-travelling to various checkpoints is often the most efficient way to get around. At least, it would seem so. In Days Gone, you actually need to have Deacon’s bike nearby, have enough fuel, and a cleared path between point A and B. Have a Freaker infestation site you missed? Tough luck, buddy — craft that Molotov and ride over.
I don’t appreciate that last requirement. After all, the whole point of fast travel is convenience, and if I have to clear out every single infestation en route to my destination, I might as well have made the trip manually to begin with. Granted, you only have to clear the sites once, but it can get annoying and I often didn’t have the patience (nor the ammo) for it. I guess you could say I’m a little spoiled in that regard, but hey, it’s just my two cents worth.
Bad weather isn’t always bad
Days Gone, like most top-shelf games nowadays, puts plenty of effort in its environments. Did you know that Bend Studios actually scouted real-life locations in Oregon for inspiration? They’ve done a remarkable job of recreating that landscape in a post-apocalyptic setting, but what’s really praiseworthy is their dynamic weather system. Sunny days can change to torrential downpours or raging blizzards within seconds, and it isn’t merely aesthetic.
Freakers are fundamentally animals, so they rely heavily on sight, smell and sound to hunt. So when it’s raining, the noise and intensity of the downpour actually makes it harder for them to detect movement! Of course, Deacon himself is also subject to the rules [of nature], and moves noticeably slower in rain or snow.
Weather positively shapes how you tactically approach missions. If it’s raining, a stealth approach might be more ideal than a head-on assault, and vice versa. Point being: it adds a fun, under-explored side of realism to the game that most people might not give it credit for.
You’re not the only one with a gun
Freakers aren’ the only threat in Days Gone. Bandits ravage the Pacific Northwest, though they’re fortunately pretty easy to handle (if a little annoying); there isn’t much that a few one-twos with the boot knife or a 2×4 won’t solve. Granted, some bandits have guns, but a little bit of skill and ingenuity is all you need to get past.
The only human targets you need to be wary of are the National Emergency Response Organisation (NERO) agents. You might find that NERO resembles Resident Evil‘s Umbrella Corporation, and there are no prizes for guessing why. The organisation pops up here and there in the earlier parts of the game, but they play a bigger role as the story unfolds.
That said, the Freakers are probably the most complex of the lot. They come in various species like the zombies of Left 4 Dead 2, except “Freakers” also includes infected animals like bears, wolves and ravens. Here’s a little primer for all you would-be players.
Swarmers are your run-of-the-mill zombies, and what they lack in strength they make up for in sheer numbers. Don’t take on too many or they’ll quickly overwhelm you.
Newts are basically infected children. They aren’t as durable so they’re opportunists, attacking only when Deacon trespasses on their turf or is heavily injured. Be sure to keep an eye above you.
Hordes are large group of Swarmers that act as a single entity. If one sees you, ALL of them do, so avoiding them is usually the best course of action. Fortunately, you mostly encounter Hordes along the roads so it should be easy to outpace them. Don’t mess around with them without adequate preparation.
Screamers are living alarms. They can stun Deacon with a high-pitched cry, or worse still, notify any surrounding infected of your presence. Deal with these quickly or risk facing a private army’s worth of Freakers.
Breakers are hulking masses of Freaker muscle that can both soak up and deal a ton of damage. Make sure you’re well prepared before engaging one.
Rager Bears are one of many reasons not to get on Mother Nature’s bad side. The Freaker virus increases the bear’s natural strength and durability, making this one of the more formidable enemies. Molotovs, explosive barrels and other combustibles are often your best bet at dealing with them.
Runners are wolves and, trust me, you won’t outrun them even on your bike. Get off, put a few bullets in them, and carry on.
Ravens are a general pain in the nether regions, swooping down on Deacon on sight. Shotguns and other spread weapons are highly recommended, since their relatively small hitbox makes them the flying equivalent of a Newt.
And so, this drifter bike rolls to a halt
In summary, I guess you could say that Days Gone is not only an emotional rollercoaster, but a very solid one at that. I haven’t come across many games that can stick to its guns without collapsing the moment a wrench is thrown into the plot; it’s even rarer to see one that actually uses that wrench to bolster its character development. So, if you’re keen on a great story, look no further.
Objectively, Days Gone looks, plays and feels rather satisfying, to say the least. Dynamic weather systems that have tactical impacts, intuitive controls, and generally fluid gameplay make for a very engaging experience. Combat is smooth, isn’t overly punishing, and often rewards a player’s creativity. After all, there’s always more than one way to skin a cat (figuratively speaking).
On the other hand, juggling the various storylines, coupled with the somewhat inefficient fast-travel system, does generally slow down progression. But Days Gone isn’t a title meant to be rushed under tight review deadlines, so enjoy that journey. Besides, having more storylines doesn’t just help flesh out the world, it makes for a more diverse experience too.
In short: Give Bend Studios a pat on the back, and Days Gone a spot on your AAA shelf.
Days Gone releases on 26 Apr exclusively for PlayStation 4.
Developed by Bend Studios. Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
A pre-release copy was provided for review.