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Days Gone review

Gone wrong

Days Gone effectively defines itself before you even take control of the game’s one-percenter hero, Deacon St. John. In the opening cutscene, Deacon—Deek to his friends—finds himself on a rooftop as zombie-like Freakers unleash hell on the city below. With him are Sarah, his gravely injured wife, and Boozer, a longtime friend and fellow member of the Mongrels Motorcycle Club, sporting a relatively minor leg injury. The trio has made their way up in the hopes of hitching a ride on an evacuation helicopter, but there’s one problem: The helo is near its weight limit, and there’s only room for two more survivors.

One spot goes to Sarah, of course—she needs immediate medical attention to have any hope of surviving. But who should get the other seat? Should Deek stay with his wife, given that the world is ending, she’s on the brink of death, and, you know, they’ve pledged their lives to each other? Or should he make the noble sacrifice and give that final spot to Boozer, who might not survive the encroaching horde with a bum leg? It’s a tense setup that signals the harshness of the world you’re entering. Tough choices will need to be made, and not everyone will make it out alive.

That is, until Deek chooses option three: abandon his wife and have Boozer stay on the ground with him, letting the helicopter take off under capacity for no discernible reason. The outcome is necessary for the story Bend Studio wants to tell—biker buds Deek and Boozer surviving together in a harsh world, looking for any reason to hope that Sarah might still be alive somewhere—but it didn’t have to take the stupidest path to get there. Why not say there’s just a single seat left on the helicopter? Even the most contrived dilemmas can be an effective way to illustrate a character’s personality, but what are we learning about Deacon? That he’s a bad husband? A moronic tactician? That he crumbles under pressure? The rest of the story hinges on none of those things being true, yet here we are.

Over and over again, Days Gone builds up opportunities to say something interesting with its characters and world. Over and over again, it squanders them by choosing the dumbest possible option. This is not a game that explores its post-apocalyptic setting with gritty realism or plausible humanity. This is a game in which every beat is telegraphed, in which coincidence reigns, in which every significant event or character somehow has a personal connection to a single biker. Deacon St. John is just Forrest Gump with tattoos and an even less plausible name.

This failure is surprising in light of the strong writing in so many of Sony’s recent first-party efforts. The Last of UsUncharted 4, and God of War may have their flaws, but they’re proof that thoughtful storytelling can elevate a game just as much as great gameplay. Given how much of its running time is dedicated to cutscenes, Days Gone desperately wants to join that club, but it just doesn’t have the chops. I felt more pathos toward a golden retriever than I did any human character in the entire game. Deek—and I cannot stress this point enough—wears a backward baseball cap to his own wedding, and we’re supposed to be rooting for him.

But maybe you, unlike me, have long since inoculated yourself against bad video game narratives. Maybe you’re only interested in Days Gone for the gameplay fantasy of surviving in a harsh open-world filled with zombies—er, Freakers. And, to give Bend its due, the gameplay does fare better than the story, albeit with a few major asterisks appended to that statement.

You’ll spend most of your time in the game riding across the world on Deek’s motorcycle. The map itself does a fine job showcasing the variety of the Oregon high desert that inspired it, with forests, badlands, snow-capped mountains, and a few novel takes on real-world landmarks. Perhaps the biggest success of the open world is its ability to keep you on your toes, at least in the early stages. Impromptu blockades of abandoned cars and fallen trees will force you to route offroad, while encounters with Freakers, infected animals, and marauders can violently remove you from your bike if you’re not careful. You’ll eventually learn all the tricks to breezing by these obstacles, but in the early going these touches do add a bit of welcome uncertainty to any trip from A to B.

The bike itself, though much touted, isn’t much to write home about. You can upgrade it throughout the game in dribs and drabs to make it slightly faster or sturdier, but the progression is gradual enough that you won’t really feel the improvements much as you’re unlocking them. Going back to the default parts will, however, make it clear just how much you’ve improved it by the endgame. For the most part, riding feels natural but not particularly special compared to what you’ve seen in other open-world games.

One some level, that speaks to the most successful aspect of Days Gone: its ability to translate familiar systems into one cohesive experience in a way that speaks to its central fantasy. Particularly early on, there’s a real sense that you’re picking over the ruins of a recently collapsed civilization, trying to find anything you can to allow you to take on the dangerous threats of Freakers and hostile survivors. Gunplay feels quite polished and does an effective job of demanding you make every shot count. You’re even encouraged to close the distance to your targets—and therefore expose yourself to more risk—to guarantee you can line up the all-important headshot.

Less remarkable are the game’s melee combat options. You’re always able to take on enemies with your unbreakable knife, but the fights are painfully slow and lacking in variety. You’ll jam R2 a dozen times, occasionally breaking to roll out of the way of an attack. You can speed things up by scavenging (or crafting) a melee weapon, but it won’t last for more than a handful of enemies. What’s more, melee is really only a viable option when you’re fighting off small groups of Freakers. This isn’t Dead Rising, where you can chop through a crowd with ease. If you’re using melee, it’s either as a last resort or a conscious decision to save ammo—and there’s nothing wrong with that, even if it is a bit shallow.

Equally perfunctory is the game’s stealth. You can stealth kill most standard enemies by sneaking up behind them, throw rocks to distract people, set traps, hide in bushes, and so on. You can take the fact there’s nothing much to say on the subject as a testament to its success—at least outside of the mandatory, instant fail stealth missions, which occasionally annoy. Still, stealth mostly does what it needs to do, and it’ll usually be your first approach to any given encounter.

As I said before, though, all of that should sound a little familiar. You’ve likely experienced Days Gone’s major gameplay concepts before, executed better than they are here. This is a transparently designed game, one that does little to disguise its many influences. You can almost imagine the pitch meeting as you’re playing.

The mix of stealth, melee combat, and ammo-scrounging gunplay against infected and hostile humans is largely borrowed from The Last of Us, though the transition to a fully open world means encounters feel much looser (and often jankier) here than in the game’s more linear cousin.

From Left 4 Dead (and countless other zombie shooters), Days Gone borrows the idea of special infected with names that most frequently end in “er.” The Screamer, for instance, is a female Freaker with long hair who can screech to summon a swarm of enemies, both visually and mechanically calling to mind Left 4 Dead’s Witch. In general, these enemies don’t feel very inspired and do little to mix up encounters. (One showcases a design so terrible I can only describe it as “Canadian werewolf.”)

The remainder of Days Gone’s formula feels cribbed from the Red Dead games. Rockstar certainly doesn’t have exclusive license on open worlds these days, but the lone rider exploring an untamed wilderness, flitting in and out of settlements to pick up missions, collect on bounties, encounter emergent events, and hunt wildlife reflects a very specific vision of the genre. Plus, your motorcycle directly calls to mind the relationship between horse and rider in Red Dead Redemption 2. Rather than feeding, brushing, and overly medicating a horse, you’re scrounging for fuel cans and repairing the engine with scrap, but the contours are much the same.

The timing of the two games means much of this should be chalked up to independent invention, of course, but the familiarity remains hard to ignore. Plus, it’s more difficult to make excuses for the fact that, in Days Gone, you ride south to a new region while an original song plays. Twice. It ain’t Mexico and José González, but it’s not far off.

And at the heart of it all is Deacon, a motorcycle-riding, crossbow-wielding survivor who seems to owe an awful lot to The Walking Dead’s Daryl Dixon. The parallels to the show go much further, in fact, but to explore them fully would veer too far into spoiler territory.

Originality aside, the game is also a technical mess—frankly inexcusable for a development team that had the full backing and know-how of Sony at its disposal. I’ve played at length on both a launch-model PlayStation 4 and a PS4 Pro, before and after two different patches, and I’ve encountered serious graphical and gameplay bugs throughout. I’ve fallen through the world many, many times. I’ve endured crashes that corrupted my most recent save. More than once, the game decided to stop loading all high-resolution textures and desync all cutscene audio until I quit out and restarted. AI is frequently bad to the point of hilarity. In one supposedly emotional, climactic cutscene, the facial hair of a man in the background popped in and out of focus like some kind of quantum goatee. The frame rate is never great, but on a standard PlayStation 4, the choppiness and hitches while riding across the map I experienced were downright embarrassing—and sometimes even nauseating.

All this is after a blatant concession to the technical problems: the dated way the open world is stitched together. To ride between different regions, you need to weave through tunnels jammed with cars or narrow, twisted canyons—clearly slowing you down to give the game time to properly load what’s ahead. This is the sort of trick developers had to rely on a decade ago on vastly inferior hardware. To see it in 2019, in a game of this scope, is frankly stunning.

Without playing through the entire game again, I can’t say for certain exactly how many of the issues I encountered have been patched out, but I can safely state many serious bugs still remain after the most recent update.

Even if everything worked exactly as intended, I still think the gameplay would suffer from one fatal flaw: There’s just not enough substance to keep things interesting for the full running time of the game. The mission structure is repetitive, and the excellent tension of the game’s earliest moments, when you feel like you barely have the resources you need to survive an encounter, melts away as new skills and stat upgrades shift the balance of power heavily in your favor. In particular, once you’ve maxed out your Focus meter, which lets you slow down time and aim guns more accurately, you feel a lot less like Joel and a lot more like John Wick. Challenge increasingly gives way to tedium, and the biggest impediment to your progress becomes whether you’re willing to go out of your way to get more gas for your bike, ammo for your weapons, or materials for crafting. If you die near the end of the game, it’s probably because you were just too bored to stock up properly.

That’s not to say that Days Gone doesn’t try to escalate its threats over time in an attempt to match Deek’s newly superhuman abilities. As the story progresses, those new Freaker types will start to populate the world with increasing frequency, and you’ll encounter other new challenges as well. But the pacing of this build-up is painfully slow. You’ll wade through dozens of hours of samey missions before you see the full shape of what the game has to offer. You’re only meant to face one of the game’s biggest selling points—the hordes made up of dozens to hundreds of Freakers—in the final hours. (You can try to take them on sooner if you like, but you’ll be going in blind, with no indication of where they’re located or how close you’ve come to finishing the job.) It’s a shame, too, because fighting hordes is the closest the gameplay ever comes to anything truly memorable.

In all fairness, the first time you tackle a horde in the course of the story, everything clicks the way it should. It’s all tension and improvisation. You’re flying by the seat of your pants, weaving through holes in fences and between cars to open up some space and pick off a few Freakers at a time. But the thrill, like so many others in Days Gone, doesn’t last. By the time I was eradicating my final horde, I had the exercise down to a painfully dull science. Plant a few traps, throw an explosive into the crowd, run away, turn around to shoot, repeat, repeat, win. Hordes vary wildly in size, too, and only a few come anywhere near the jaw-dropping numbers on display in the original E3 2016 demo.

That brings us to the thorniest part of this review. This isn’t the proper place to speculate on any development troubles, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention just how much of Days Gone has been downgraded from prerelease demos. Take a look at the earlier videos and the finished game side by side, and it’s obvious Bend made some serious cuts for the sake of getting something out the door on schedule. Lighting and environmental interactivity have seen clear cutbacks from the initial reveal. Features are on display in pretty much every demo that I didn’t spot anywhere in my playthrough. Just 11 months ago, a gameplay video showed off a choice system that only appears in the final game in two minor contexts, and even then in an extremely neutered form.

We may never learn exactly why the game changed so dramatically, but it’s obvious to anyone who’s been following closely that we’re not playing the Days Gone Bend Studio intended to make even a year ago. We’re playing a lesser version, a remnant darkened by the looming shadow of what’s gone. Deacon St. John explores the ruins of Oregon, and we explore the ruins of a better, more ambitious game. If Days Gone had anything interesting to say about broken dreams or the sacrifices people make to survive, that harmony might almost be poetic. Almost.

★★☆☆☆

Derivative and beset by astounding technical problems, Days Gone is a rare misfire among Sony’s first-party efforts. While the core fantasy of surviving in a world overrun with infected occasionally shines through, Bend Studio doesn’t deliver nearly enough compelling moments to justify the long slog it takes to see this mediocre story through to its end.

Developer
Bend Studio
Publisher
Sony Interactive Entertainment
ESRB
M - Mature
Release Date
4.24.19
Days Gone is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.

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