Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
Every now and then a game will come along that you can’t stop thinking about when you’re not playing it. A game that is constantly pulling you towards it and beckoning for your time through its alluring gameplay and fully-realized world. But then there are those games that, while playing them, you can’t stop thinking of all the other games you could be playing instead. The games that don’t seem to respect your time or make you care about the digital landscape around you.
After spending the last couple of weeks riding Deacon’s bike around the Oregon post-apocalypse and fighting countless freakers, it seems that Days Gone is the kind of game that bounces back and forth between the two descriptions without ever fully finding its own identity. On the one hand it has a ton going for it that is vying for your attention to make it much more than just another zombie game, but then on the other hand the majority of what you’re asked to do is just plain boring.
Open World Of Potential
Days Gone takes place in Oregon after an apocalyptic-style event infects the majority of the population and turns them into “freakers” which look and act a lot like zombies, but are not technically referred to as such. You play as Deacon St. John, a rough, gritty, and cocky biker dude that must wrestle with personal struggles, relationships, and his reputation across the region. From there it’s basically your typical AAA open world adventure game full of missions with a mixture of stealth and combat.
This being the apocalypse, Days Gone goes out of its way to emphasize that life is dark and difficult now to a degree that feels often heavy-handed and sometimes comically blatant. The game is at its best when you’re trying to figure out how to approach an area without alerting a massive horde of hundreds of freakers or experiencing an emotional flashback to Deacon’s past before the world was ending and he became an insufferable tough guy.
A large chunk of your time is spent solidifying relationships with a variety of camps by bringing in bounties for killing freakers or hunting animals and bartering your loyalty and reputation in exchange for gear and bike upgrades. There are multiple camps and each one tends to specialize in one type of economy over others. I appreciate the nuance and attempt at injecting some personality into the locations, but having the gun salesman and bike customization mechanic and so on all at different camps on opposite sides of the map is mostly just a huge annoyance.
Fast travel exists, but it’s far from convenient. Not only does it still cost fuel to fast travel, but you have to make sure the entire path there, on roads, is clear of any infestations or blockages before you can fast travel -- even if you’ve been to the location before. And with how long load times are sometimes, even on the PS4 Pro, you might not even be actually saving time (or gas) compared to just driving there.
The fact that your bike burns gas so quickly but all of the gas canisters are infinite (albeit few and far between) is counter-intuitive and undermines the entire premise of managing your resources in the first place. You’ve got to repair your bike too as it takes damage while riding or running over freakers, all of which compounds the frustration over the course of the game.
Having played my fair share of open world action adventure games over the last six or so years, the genre has certainly evolved over that time. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is rich with things to do in its physics-based sandbox and both Horizon Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are overflowing with missions, beautiful locales, and engaging stories to discover.
Days Gone has been in development for pretty much this entire console generation and it feels like the team at Bend Studio were so heads down in its creation they failed to really take stock of how the genre has evolved. There are multiple plot threads you can pull on, but you’ve still got to complete missions in a very linear way and it takes too long to uncover anything interesting to push you along.
Lots of missions follow the exact same template of stealth until things go wrong and all hell breaks loose, so they start to seem repetitive once you’re through the first few hours. The best way to describe things is that there are just too many inconveniences getting in the way of the fun.
Mixed Bag of Bones
Bend Studio’s depiction of their home state, Oregon, is beautiful. It may often be covered in rain, blood, and mud, but the attention to detail, weather effects, and visual fidelity is fantastic. It’s one of the best looking PS4 games for sure and really sells the horrible violence of the world. Unfortunately the same can’t quite be said for the sound design. Not only did my game suffer from frequent sound cut out bugs but some of the voice acting performances felt phoned in as well.
The worst moments were when the audio track for sound effects would cut out in the middle of a stealth section. Not being able to hear things like my own footprints or the sounds of freakers nearby (and whether or not they were coming at me) was brutal. I also heard reports of other players hitting game-breaking bugs at some late-game points. Days Gone also crashed for me three times, but those all happened during the first week of review and not since.
Actually playing Days Gone is mostly what you’d expect. There’s a weapon wheel where you can also craft items like bandages and molotov cocktails using scraps and junk you find in the world -- a lot like the way The Last of Us handles it. All that can be done on the fly without fully pausing the game.
The guns feel powerful and varied, for the most part, but I found myself gravitating towards single shot items like repeaters, pistols, and shotguns rather than the spray and pray variety due to how limited ammo is. It’s fun and freakers definitely pose a challenge due to their speed. The same can’t be said for bandits and rippers, which mostly suffer from poor AI making them sitting ducks a lot of the time.
There are three skill trees split between melee, guns, and survival. It takes a long time to level up and actually get deep into any of the trees and since they’re all pretty small, relatively speaking, you end up spending a lot of points on skills you don’t even want early on just to unlock the later tiers with things you do want. Hours and hours of skill unlocks for things you don’t consider useful is the opposite of good design. A more free form advancement system would have allowed for more immediate upgrades and a better sense of consistent progression and pacing.
Victim Of Ambition
Days Gone has all of the trappings you’d expect from a AAA open world game, but comes up short in terms of innovation. Rather than honing in on a handful of features, doing them super well, and trying some new things it comes off as more like they just tried to throw as many ideas in there as possible and see what sticks.
The problem with that approach is that the game is so utterly massive, but largely devoid of interesting things to do between structured missions, that you spend a ton of time trying to get to where you want to go but constantly hitting roadblocks. Sometimes it’s literal roadblocks in tunnels and ambush points, or other times you get tackled off your bike by animals and freakers, forced to clear an infestation, or run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
I understand that the apocalypse is a miserable place to exist -- at least it’s common sense to assume so -- but it’s possible to turn that scenario into a compelling gameplay experience. I hate to make comparisons to The Last of Us again (Game Director Jeff Ross wasn’t a fan either it seemed in our interview with him) but it’s hard not to. That’s a game that takes a nearly identical setting, but conveys it with such emotion and visceral impact that even though it’s heart wrenching and brutal, you can’t put the controller down. The linearity helps a lot with that.
In Days Gone the most interesting parts of the story for me (of which there actually are quite a few!) had to do with the personal interactions Deacon has at camps with Tucker and Copeland or the flashbacks he has to moments with Sarah or even conflicts with the shady NERO organization. All of the rest of it that pads out the 40+ hours was pure tedium and it makes the game suffer as a whole. I have a feeling that Days Gone would have been better as a linear game with large, explorable levels rather than an actual open world as it actually exists.