After a few release date delays, Sony Bend’s Days Gone has finally arrived and with it comes the only major (known) PS4 exclusive for 2019. Needless to say, there is a lot riding on the success of Days Gone, both in the hopes of PS4 owners and those looking for a different take on the zombie apocalypse. And after playing the game for 40+ hours, there is no question that Days Gone has some flaws and missteps, most of which are content-focused, but ultimately Sony Bend has delivered a grittier but action-focused version of the world post-zombie outbreak that has some strong character work and exciting gameplay.
Days Gone puts players in control of Deacon St. John, a biker gang member living in Oregon at the time of the “Freaker” outbreak. While much of the civilization that survived the ravenous hordes of Freakers found refuge in small settlements and camps, Deacon took on the role of Drifter, a sort of free agent who will do jobs for the camps but has no real alignment. From a gameplay perspective, Deacon’s Drifter role helps support the open world gameplay and quest-focused nature of Days Gone, but it also helps highlight the different ideologies of the leaders and inhabitants he interacts with. Where one camp is very work-focused, to the point its residents suffer, another is more welcoming, but ruled with a strict sense of responsibility.
Amidst these disparate camps and quest givers, Deacon’s focus is on two things: finding out what happened to his wife during the outbreak and making a life for him and his biker brother Boozer. His “errand boy” nature is usually in service of one or both of those goals and the desire to learn more about how Deacon plans to achieve them fuels the story forward. As a whole, the narrative of Days Gone has its moments, good and bad. There are times when it feels overly cliché and obvious and others where the futility of post-apocalyptic life puts a unique spin on a familiar trope. The game is arguably at its best when it’s not trying to worry about answering larger questions or building a universe, but when the spotlight is put on the characters, their relationships with one another, and the societies that have bloomed out from devastation.
Of course, a character-focused story like this wouldn’t work without a strong lead performance and Sony Bend has found a capable actor in Sam Witwer. Best known to video game fans as Starkiller from Force Unleashed, Witwer has a long and diverse resume of roles in all forms of media, but here he turns in arguably his best performance to date. Thanks to impressive visuals and detail, the performance work perfectly captures every subtle nuance of Witwer’s acting, from a quick glance away to show guilt or a slight glossing of the eyes during an emotional moment. Witwer is a standout but the performances and the character work in Days Gone as a whole is top notch, which is almost a necessity for a game with over 6 hours of cutscenes.
Gameplay in Days Gone should be familiar to open world fans and is fairly straightforward. Each camp doles out main quests for Deacon and occasionally a character will send him out on a side mission. While on these quests Deacon will need to contend with the more violent survivor factions, like Marauders (bandits, basically) or the Rippers (cult-like obsessives), and the marquee enemies, the Freakers (which have a few different types). In both cases, the gameplay can favor stealth or more direct gunplay, with a variety of tools to support either option.
However, when fighting the human enemies, Days Gone is a very straightforward third person shooter, with some support abilities (focus to slow down time, for example) to make it a little more dynamic. In our playthrough, the missions with human enemies didn’t feel as memorable or as dynamic. It was all about moving from cover to take out the next group, or during stealth sections, luring one enemy away, taking them out, and then moving onto the next. The game is certainly a compotent third person shooter with smooth gunplay, but generally the AI is not the best in the game and it's harder to forgive humans for their stupidity than zombies.
Freaker encounters, on the other hand, have a lot more suspense and room for improvisation, and are Days Gone’s best gameplay element. It’s possible to completely avoid most Freakers or to fight them all at once, but finding a mix is the most interesting. To stealthily eliminate Freakers one by one by luring them away from their group, and then choosing moments for more direct confrontation, players will toe a line that can turn into a mess quickly. There’s an inherent risk that comes with engaging a Freaker since there is always the possibility of drawing in a large Freaker horde, and make no mistake the hordes in Days Gone, and some of the more unique Freaker varieties, are not easily dispatched. Sometimes that horde is only a small group, which means using Deacon’s tools like grenades, lures, and weapons (melee/guns) to thin them out, but other times it can be overwhelming and escape is the best option.
Freaker encounters are easily a highlight of the gameplay and a showcase for the power of modern consoles. Now, developers can show what an imposing group of zombies is capable of, and it is pulse-pounding. There’s a genuine sense of relief when an area is clear or Deacon gets free of a horde. Even melee combat is surprisingly fun against the Freakers, due in large part to a crafting system that modifies basic weapons like bats and 2x4s with nails and saw blades and a dodge mechanic that allows Deacon to get in and out easily.
In addition to melee weapons and a suite of guns, Deacon has some unique tools at his disposal and some skills to spec into. Littered throughout the world of Days Gone are a number of crafting materials, which Deacon can then use to make tools like molotovs, attractors, proximity bombs, and more. These additional options present more choice when it comes to encountering enemies and completing missions, especially where the larger Freaker groups are concerned. Mostly, the explosives will help where the large groups are concerned, but even for one or two Freakers it’s nice to have options.
Days Gone’s skill tree splits into three branches – melee, ranged, and survival – to support different play styles and make slight changes to combat, crafting, or survivability. Unfortunately, a lot of the skill tree choices are not particularly useful, or didn’t make a big difference when it came to gameplay. In most cases, we were investing points into less desirable skills simply to unlock better skills down the road. It’s there because these types of games usually have a skill tree but not impactful enough to give that sense of gameplay evolution. Really, the more useful upgrades are found at NERO checkpoints, bases of operation for the game's seedy government outfit that is studying the outbreak that house syringes that give players a boost their health, stamina, or focus.
For an open world game, Days Gone has a very familiar feel. Traversing through rural Oregon on Deacon’s motorcycle in a variety of weather conditions helps showcase the stunning visuals of the game, but a lot of the map feels empty between major locations. But even those landmarks and main mission areas are interesting from a production design standpoint but they aren’t particularly unique. Eventually, when traversing back and forth and back and forth to collect and turn in missions, the open world starts to lose its excitement and you will start to favor fast travel over a bike ride. The only element that really keeps players from fast travelling everywhere is the gas cost associated with each trip. Completionists like this writer will still want to check everything off the list but more so out of obligation than anything else.
Similarly, a lot of the side missions or optional objectives beat the same note, like raiding another Marauder camp or activating another NERO Checkpoint. There’s so little variety in the open world that once you’ve done one of the three or four objectives, you know how most of them are going to go and that takes away some of the appeal of that open world exploration. Even the motorcycle, which is a major selling point of the game and has its own set of upgrades (bigger engine, bigger gas tank, sturdier frame), feels like a means to an end.
As a whole, mission design in Days Gone is one of its weaker elements and the jump from in-game cutscene to pre-rendered cutscene makes everything even more jarring. There is typically a short load or black screen before a scene and then that scene might transition into black for a pre-rendered scene and then back and forth to gameplay and more scenes. Much of the narrative scenes are compelling and the missions, while somewhat same-y after a while, are exciting enough, but the connective tissue needed a bit more smoothing. We also ran into a few bugs with the audio sync and texture pop-in that sometimes ruined the experience. One instance involved an NPC that we were supposed to follow falling through the ground. It’s surprising to see a game delayed so many times have some odd, progress-breaking bugs, even after several patches during the review process.
Almost every element of Days Gone has some positive qualities and some negatives. The open world is gorgeous and fun to ride around in, but the lack of diversity in the things to do outside of missions takes away that desire to fully explore and complete every task. Dealing with Freakers is a true highlight but when human enemies get involved, the game turns into a straightforward shooter. Days Gone seems at its best when it leans into the elements that make it the most unique, specifically the horde encounters and the storytelling/acting, but it’s when it tries to hit all of the necessary open world notes that it starts to lose its luster.
Make no mistake, though, this is still a well-made game, albeit with a lot of familiar elements underneath the zombie apocalypse veneer. PS4 players should still absolutely play the game and they will come away satisfied as a whole. Just know that this isn’t the same type of top to bottom hit that some past Sony exclusives have been.
Days Gone releases April 26, 2019 for PS4. Game Rant was provided a code for this review.