Days Gone evokes the likes of The Last Of Us in ways I didn’t expect going in. Naughty Dog’s critical darling elegantly sidestepped the ‘z-word’ like Bend has with their biker melodrama and it serves us a sorrowful world where hope seldom flickers and even when it does, it’s quickly extinguished by an avalanche of stark misfortune. It borrows a few other tricks from Neil Druckmann’s trick bag and applies them to the dense and dangerous open-world of Oregon. Out of all of the games originally slated for a February release, Days Gone is the one I had the least faith in; and that, amazingly, includes Crackdown. While it has its share of missteps, Days Gone proves that there’s still space in our medium for well-crafted open-worlds and those nasty z-words.
One of the similarities Days Gone shares with The Last Of Us is not in the quality of the narrative, though it’d be impossible to expect it to ever match a standard as high as that. Instead, we’re treated to a serviceable soap-drama with writing that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kurt Sutter series. It isn’t Shakespeare but it gets the job done. The game follows Deacon St. John—great name, we know—as he tries to rectify his past choices while surviving humanity’s descent as madness and sickness take hold across America’s northwest. The pacing suffers early on while the story skips around in an attempt to establish itself and its characters, but once it settles into a rhythm, Days Gone is as solid as most other open-world games out there. Though Deacon himself can come across as abrasive and dickish, the other major players in the game are sympathetic and well thought out and Bend respects them by dividing your time between them.
Days Gone does an exceptional job of doling out its missions which all, in one way or another, weave seamlessly into the overarching narrative as they’re layered, multi-step and interlace in way that makes the world and Deacon’s actions always seem really organic without disturbing the pacing and urgency of the plot. Like all open-world games, even the best ones, there’s a certain monotony that sets in once you begin eating up the side-quests. Oregon has problems with infestations, both from infected and marauders, so you’ll spend time clearing camps and hunting bounties to line your pockets with credits to spend at the game’s few camps, which each have individual kitties you keep. Money earned doing Tucker’s work cannot be spent at Copeland’s camp, for example.
There’s not anything necessarily different or unique about the means of earning each of the currencies, though it’s a nice little piece of world-building because of course after the fall of civilisation these camps would likely contain and manage their micro-economies. It’s a nice touch that makes adds a touch of authenticity to this particular ‘fall of man’.
At its heart, Days Gone is a pretty run of the mill third-person cover shooter with middling hit detection and gun feel for the most part, though this is thanks in large part to the inclusion of one of gaming’s most tired mechanics and that’s weapon quality. Of course, a ‘poor’ graded handgun is going to hit like a spud gun, but if it takes more than one headshot (or even up to two clips worth of torso shots at range) to kill somebody, undead or not, then the gunplay is rendered unsatisfying and largely frustrating for the player. That said, there’s still a gritty realism to the game’s combat where I opted for hand-to-hand where I could. Whether I was sticking someone’s throat with my boot knife or stoving in someone’s head with a hammer, Days Gone makes going toe-to-toe a brutal and confronting act. It doesn’t shy away from gore, though I wouldn’t say it fetishises it either. It does, however, make it the most appealing option for defending yourself when the shit does hit the fan.
To borrow a phrase from Bon Jovi and whoever he stole it off, Days Gone places you on a horse not made of flesh and bone, but steel. Though it felt a little sluggish at first, I soon settled into Deacon’s bike and now it’s as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. Though riding comes off as a by-product of Deacon’s character rather than a design choice central to the game, there are certainly worse ways to get around Oregon as there’s a challenge to handling the bike as it handles heavily and yet seems to whisk easily through the grand cedars that litter the northwestern hillsides. I expected an arcade feel though was pleasantly surprised when there was a semi-realism to riding, not unlike the first time hopping behind the wheel in Grand Theft Auto IV.
Days Gone ticks pretty much all of the lite-roleplaying boxes you’ve come to expect from open-world games like this. In a world where resources are fast-dwindling, it was inevitable that scavenging and crafting would play a large part and they definitely do. Just as the thirsty pray for rain, Deacon’s primary avenue for survival most of the time is finding the last dregs of medicine and ammunition that weren’t swept up in the pandemic and the game withholds very often. Like The Last Of Us, it promotes that overbearing feeling that you’re undeniably shit out of luck. With a motorcycle as your steed, you’re forced to remain wary of your fuel. Though it’s unlikely you’ll run out between major markers, as the map is surprisingly compact and small, it’s a pain if you do so, as a word of advice, if you see a gas stop then fill your tank. You don’t want to get caught on foot at night.
Freakers, Days Gone’s elegant substitution for zombies, are dangerous enough if you’re cornered by one. They’re grabby, their bite hurts and in numbers, they’ll knock you down a peg in no time. Now magnify all of that by one hundred-fold once the sun goes down on Oregon because at night it’s a whole different ball game. Much like Dying Light, once the dead bathe in a bit of moonlight it’s suicidal to be outside. Their numbers are greater, they’re stronger in general and it’s all-in-all quite unsettling. Though it’s a neat concept to hang your game on, it also introduces a pretty brutal difficulty spike that, unless you’re packing some serious firepower, can be rather insurmountable. Now for a small aside posing as a pro-tip: Breakers will be introduced to you as a story beat. They’re a hulking deformed mass and are literal tanks, capable of soaking up a lot of damage. I tried for a while to shotgun it, bathe him in Molotovs and even go old-fashioned mano a mano with it to no avail. Fearing I’d hit a chokepoint I glanced at my skill tree and noticed a perk that renders these once-murderous mounts of muscle inert and susceptible to a one-hit stealth kill. This struck me as such a flaw from both a design and logical standpoint that I didn’t even stop to count my blessings that I happened to have enough skill points to purchase said skill. So kids, don’t tin-arse your way to good fortune like I did but be prepared.
Days Gone doesn’t always maintain the immersion that well. If it’s not hamstringing me from a technical standpoint it’s pulling me out of the action with breakdowns of logic that force me to suspend my disbelief. Am I to believe a group of marauders kidnap me, take my belongings but don’t confiscate my boot knife, the one thing Deacon can use to break locks and therefore free himself from this brief and not at any stage threatening nightmare? While a mid-review patch did fix a lot of the gripes I had with Days Gone, there are still a few things that test my patience. The game has some painfully long loads and a dreadful save system that is only exacerbated by them if you fall into the trap I did. I was nearing the tail-end of long quest before I neared a pretty threatening enemy type where I knew I could easily be mowed down if I wasn’t careful. Knowing this, I saved. Of course, I died and the game’s auto-save took me back about five minutes so I naturally loaded the save I just made seconds before not wanting to endure part of the level I’d already played only to be taken back to the very start of the level. Thanks to the load times, it took two minutes for that bad news to reach me.
Given Sam Witwer’s back-catalogue and the fact that Days Gone’s Oregon is one populated largely by motorcyclists, I searched for an opportunity to make a Siths of Anarchy gag. I couldn’t, but let’s not linger in the stench of my failure and instead focus on the fact that Witwer does a great job with the script that was available to him. That might seem like a backhanded compliment and it sort of is, because as good as he is in most things he’s done, the writing is quite often Days Gone’s weakest quality. His gruff likeness is much better than his delivery as the game’s art direction is largely on-point with Oregon itself playing the centrepiece. Days Gone is one seriously pretty game as its day-night cycle and weather systems make getting through the story mode a sumptuous treat. There’s a muted acoustic score that lurks beneath proceedings, perhaps in an effort to emulate Gustavo Santaolalla’s tender composition for The Last Of Us and while it doesn’t soar high enough to match it, it swells infrequently to create some pretty warm moments.
Bend has delivered on a largely enjoyable open-world game with Days Gone. It has its fair share of hang-ups and though most are forgivable, some are not. Their depiction of Oregon, while bleak, is truly breathtaking and strikes me as the ideal mould for open-traversal. Its map isn’t as big as many in the genre, though it’s densely populated by things to do.
THE PLAYSTATION 4 VERSION OF THE GAME WAS TESTED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Days Gone is a fine addition to the evergrowing list of first-party Sony exclusives. Does it have the shine and polish comparable to Naughty Dog's best works? No, but it delivers a dense and beautiful open world that proves that there's perhaps a little bit of elbow room left for zombies in gaming, even if we're not calling them that this time around.