I have to admit, as much as I have complained about suffering from “Open world game exhaustion” during this generation of consoles…I just keep falling back into playing those type of games. Days Gone, released in 2019 is my most recent acquisition. Another Sony exclusive, and another PS4 open world game.
Days Gone was different from most other games though. I had been awaiting its release since it was first announced back in 2016, and suddenly, when it was finally out, I just lost all of the excitement that I had for it after a reading a few reviews, and its 7.1 Metacritic score. Thus, I waited a year for the game to go on sale before I finally dove into it.
And so, I jumped into its Zombie infested post apocalypse rendition of beautiful Oregon, USA. The results surprised me to say the least. Bend (of Syphon Filter fame), created an interesting title here.
The Walking Dead, or The Last of Us
The primary reason for my fixation with this game was my ‘once upon a time’ addiction to AMC’s The Walking Dead TV series. I loved how the series presented a survivalist take on a post ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ event in North America, and Days Gone seemed to capture that spirit even on its early trailers.
I have to say, that I am more than pleased with the results after my play-through. I was truly able to live out my ‘Walking Dead Fantasy’ in the game, and Days Gone went beyond The Walking Dead in perhaps the most important aspect of an entertainment piece based on Zombies; Days Gone is scary, and much more nerve racking than the popular TV series has ever been.
As I played the game, I also found similarities to what perhaps is Sony’s great exclusive title: The Last of Us.
Now, The Last of Us was a story driven experience, with a large world to traverse – to be sure – but a linear world none the less. Days Gone presents us with a similar setting (and gameplay style) but one that is open for the player to explore at his/her leisure.
Days Gone takes some of the best aspects from two great entertainment products in the Walking Dead, and The Last of Us, while carving out an identity of its own in the process. Why, then, was the game received with average reviews?
Some Critics Might Not Like Zombies As Much As I Do and Glitches are everywhere in the game
Seems like the only logical explanation of why any one would score Days Gone with a score lower than a 7. The game certainly has flaws, some in its design, others by actual design, it has rough edges, and there are glitches – here and there – that remain in the title, even after it has received the corresponding updates by Bend (the developers).
Still, I would be lying if I said that Red Dead Redemption 2 was more fun than Days Gone, because in truth, it was not. The former title, rightfully considered a technical marvel, for some reason didn’t capture my attention or imagination the way that Days Gone did. In fact, I dare say that maybe, just maybe, only a few games in this generation have enthralled me as much as Days Gone did in its finer moments.
The story itself, starts two years after a virus wrecks the world by turning most of humanity into Zombies, or more accurately: “Freakers”. Days Gone’s Freakers are athletic Zombie like creatures in the vein of World War Z’s fast zombies, rather than the slow zombies seen on the Walking Dead.
Deacon St. John, a biker gang member in his early to mid 30’s, is our protagonist. Deacon, while a good character, isn’t nearly as deep, of as well written as Joel was in The Last of Us. While he is, or at least was, a gang member prior to the world wide disaster that set up the events for the game’s story, Deacon St. John, as his last name implies; is the ultimate “Saint”.
He will take on dangerous – and repetitive – jobs to save innocent stragglers from Marauders, Bandits, Rippers, and Freakers. In reality, a guy like Deacon would meet a quick end, in a similar post apocalyptic scenario that is grounded in well… reality. Deacon isn’t much about self preservation, but about saving others, and that presents a huge contrast with his ‘bad boy’, take no prisoner’s image.
I believe that this was done on purpose by the writers, but it feels slightly unnatural, and for a game that will draw comparisons to the Last of Us, it is worth to notice the shortcomings of the protagonist.
Deacon’s main motivations – at least at first – are making sure that his best buddy ( and gang colleague) Boozer is alright, while he grieves and searches for answers about his dead wife Sarah. Sarah was presumably killed when a Nero Refugee camp was overrun by Freakers.
Deacon, and Sarah’s tragic love tale is paramount to the game’s story, and it is here where Days Gone fails miserably to make a splash, even if – ironically – the developers tried in admirable fashion to make me care about Sarah. Deacon’s love story is told through a series of interactive flashbacks that are plagued by long loading times (at least on a base PS4).
These flashbacks are cliched, and lack any sort of emotional impact. I commend Bend for trying, but these scenes didn’t really do it for me. I was more invested in Deacon and Boozer’s rivalry with the Rippers, Iron Mike’s frustrating demeanor, and Rikki’s own strange friendship with Deacon himself; than on what Bend clearly intended to be the plot’s main driving force.
Video games, even open world games, have become much more complex in writing, and story telling during the past decade. The gold standard in storytelling has been another game set in a similar setting in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.
Obviously, the Last of Us – story wise – has the advantage of taking place on a linear, developer controlled path, as opposed to Days Gone which is an open world game. In Days Gone, the player can choose to do a number of optional side quests, often distracting said player from the main story missions.
The open world format can easily kill the urgency that characterizes the more gripping gaming tales. Horizon Zero Dawn, managed to avoid that problem by creating a likable protagonist in Aloy. That game made the player care about her predicament by letting them experience her rough childhood, and connection with some of the other characters.
The writing, the cinematic direction, and the protagonist in Guerrilla’s game had that “It” factor that is sorely missing in Days Gone for much of its run time. Quite simply, Deacon St. John isn’t likable from the get go, though on the flip side, he isn’t dislikable either. He just is, which is strange because Sam Witwer delivers a convincing performance with the lines that he is given. Perhaps what harms the story is the fact that Sarah herself, is the cliched perfect girlfriend/wife, as portrayed in the flash backs that the game offers.
It was very difficult for me to feel any emotions towards the pair. In fact, I found that another female character in the game has more depth than Sarah, and it was frustrating because clearly the writing, and the story had the potential for more.
That’s not to say that the plot isn’t engaging at times, because it is. It picks up about 20 hours in. The big problem – other than the less than engaging cast – in Days Gone’s story, is the weird pacing of its plot lines. Quite simply, Deacon St. John is shuffled between three to four camps of survivors on a constant basis, and truth be told the only camp that I actually found worthwhile was Iron Mike’s.
Still, if you want all of the upgrades for the weapons and the bike you need to spend a sizable chunk of time working as an errand boy for each camp in order to earn money, EXP points, and Trust levels. Trust levels are different for each camp ( You can have a level 1 trust rating in one camp and a level 2 in another), and will improve depending on what jobs, and missions you have accomplished in favor of a particular camp.
Deacon’s time in the game is split between his Boozer missions, Sarah missions, and other miscellaneous missions that will arise in each particular camp. Some of these missions connect to the main plot lines, but to say that the story is ‘all over the place’ is not an understatement.
Perhaps more mind-numbing at times is the absurd nature of some of the stuff that Deacon is tasked to do, and his approach towards certain scenarios. For example, later in the game, Deacon is ‘forced’ – he seems to be forced into pretty much every mission – to go into a cave in order to hunt down a test subject (a Freaker), and to find the missing team of researchers and soldiers that went into the cave hours prior to Deacon’s incursion.
At this point in the game, we all know (and certainly Deacon knows) that caves in Oregon house hordes of Freakers. Going into these caves isn’t a smart idea, and going into the caves calling out loud for the missing personnel is definitely a dumb suicidal move. But that’s exactly what Deacon does once inside of the cave. It makes no sense, that a man like Deacon would, in that situation, disregard stealth so stupidly.
This is nitpicking on my part to be sure, after all, this is a work of fiction, and works of fiction take certain liberties in order to move the needle forwards in terms of storytelling. But the problem with Days Gone is that it is filled with many instances such as this one.
The Nero work that Deacon does is actually perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game. The mystery of the virus, and its mutations is similar to the virus in the film “I am Legend”. The game hints as much in that one cave mission that I discussed in the above paragraphs. The problem is that the game teases you with an interesting revelation about Freaker mutations, and the revelation leads to nowhere. The game ends a few hours after that with no follow up mission or storyline to the one plot point that finally made Days Gone’s story an interesting one.
For what is worth, the game does create an annoying, and easy to hate villain. It is one of the few things that the story does right.
A Flawed and Unforgettable Experience
Days Gone does a lot of things wrong. The pop up in foliage, and object textures is massively noticeable at nearly all times. In some in game cutscenes I found a few textures that didn’t load properly on the character’s models. The one scene in which Boozer’s head tattoo didn’t pop up in time, leaving a blurry mess on his head, sticks out in my memory.
The visuals can be beautiful at times though. Oregon is a beautiful place. I have never been to that state, but the game does a good job in presenting some of the wonderful views of its lakes, with its snowy capped mountains adorning the back drop. The environment is truly one of the strong visual suits of Days Gone. The changes in weather, and sun rises are spectacular. The ground texturing, and materials used for every organic ground surface on forests, and rivers are perhaps one of the best if not the best I have seen alongside Red Dead Redemption 2’s visual work on that particular area.
It was truly a sight to watch snow fall in real time as it covered areas that minutes before were green, and dry. It is here where Deacon makes noticeable footprints on the terrain and it looks good. Snow, and mud tessellation effects however, are far behind other modern open world efforts.
Some foliage interacts with Deacon, but prepare to watch deacon walk into pine tree branches, and just pass right through them. It is a bit jarring coming from Red Dead Redemption 2, but again these are minor complaints.
What is not a minor complaint however, is the awful draw distance that plagues the game. The game looks beautiful when trees and foliage are near Deacon, but it can look jarringly basic when looking at elements at a distance. Meaning flat terrain with with sprites for what should be trees, even when looking at these items with binoculars or a sniper rifle the textures just don’t load.
Even enemies, large ones like hordes, cannot be spotted at certain distance, they simply just banish into thin air (I witnessed the occurrence of this event on multiple ocassions with my binoculars) after they walk themselves (or you walk away) to a certain distance from Deacon’s current position.
I don’t know if this is an effect of the Unreal Engine 4 as the engine while extremely popular is also extremely absent in open world games. Perhaps it was a challenging engine to work with, but Bend has Sony’s financial backing behind them, and I would assume access to Guerilla’s Decima engine which has been used to greater visual results in Horizon Zero Dawn, and Death Stranding.
The character models themselves are lacking. The Characters look better in the game’s cutscenes than they do during regular gameplay, but that isn’t saying much. Even in cutscenes their facial expressions are awkward, and many times I witnessed clothing, tattoos, and environment textures not load properly, if at all.
It is strange, perhaps the low scores the game garnered were in fact due to how glitchy, and buggy the game was at release. Now, in the year 2020, after all of the hefty updates the game remains a glitchy mess. I can’t recall another 3 AAA title that was this buggy. Especially one that comes from a first party Sony studio. It is strange indeed.
All that said, the game does do one thing better than any other game I have ever played since Dark Souls. It creates a believable atmosphere, one that is full of anxiety and nervous energy.
A unique experience
I don’t know that I have ever encountered a situation where I have been as nervous playing a game, as I was the night when I, playing as Deacon St John, ran out gas in the middle of Oregon’s zombie infested woods. I had to travel on foot for about 15 minutes before I found a canister of gasoline, all the while trying to avoid Zombies/Freakers, and other dangerous creatures because I was also low on ammo. Needless to say it was truly a relief when I finally managed to get back to the bike, and started its engine. I had broken into a cold sweat during this trial as I was truly afraid of dying by an onslaught of freakers in the game.
The above paragraph justified my purchase of the game. Not because I was scared, and anxious in that particular instance, but because the game is full instances just as scary, and even more perilous than running out gas in the middle of the woods. You can, as easily, run out of gas nearly a Horde’s nesting ground, and find yourself surrounded by hundreds of Freakers when the sun goes down.
I mentioned gas a lot, because ‘Gasoline’ is the key to your survival in Days Gone. If your bike can run, you can out run a horde. If on the converse you find yourself on foot, and at a considerable distance from your bike, or worse, on foot because you ran out of gas, it is a scary predicament to find yourself in, especially if you are near a horde.
The game is particularly scary early, as your resources are limited, and Deacon doesn’t have the skills or health/stamina parameters at a desirable level. Early in the game your knowledge on how enemy AI works (especially hordes) is also limited, so until you get more comfortable knowing the patterns and limitations of the hordes, traversing Oregon in Days Gone is a pleasant, and nerve racking experience.
The game shines in those hours. Even battling the occasional marauders that ambush Deacon on the roads, or that set up camp in the woods of the surrounding areas, is an entertaining, and nerve racking experience in itself as Freakers and infected wolves can hear gun shots, and arrive at the scene in order to take you by surprise, or if you are lucky to kill your enemies for you.
In other words, the game plays a lot like Red Dead Redemption 2, except that added to the perils of gun fights with bandits, you also have to be mindful of your surroundings as Freakers, Wolves, or Infected Bears can kill you if Deacon is caught unawares.
Taking out your first horde, can be a time consuming, and exhilarating experience. That last statement is specifically true if your first time destroying a horde is during the story mission that actually forces you to take down a horde in order to move the plot forwards. This mission is particularly frustrating because you can’t save, meaning that you can spend an hour thinning out the horde’s numbers only to have to start all over again by dying.
Days Gone does provide you (especially in this mission) with many tools, and objects in the surrounding area to facilitate the bringing down of the horde. In some ways your creativity is put to the test, and again this is an area where the game shines. Days Gone provides a play ground for you to experiment with the enemies and their AI in different scenarios.
My description of the gameplay so far is one of positive points that makes the game feel like a must buy for everyone who is reading this, but sadly, as with the rest of DG’s package; there are some issues…
Too much of a good thing…
To put it bluntly, Days Gone overstays its welcome. After 30 hours, I was ready to pack things in. It had been a fun ride, I had my fill of scares, and was ready to focus on the main story in order to get the game done. Unfortunately Days Gone doesn’t let you just rush through the main story per se, you have to do many, many ‘story missions’ in order to get through the game’s plot.
Even though I was ready to pack it in at 30 hours, the game took me another 30 hours to finish. As you can guess, I wasn’t happy about this. Deacon ‘badass’ St. John is everyone’s errand boy, as nonsensical as this is to the story, it is also an annoying part of Days Gone’s gameplay.
In order to get anywhere with any particularly main story character, Deacon has to do ‘something for them’ first. The ‘something’ includes: anything from rescuing hostages from marauders, to just plain killing marauders, at times the word marauder is replaced by the word ‘Ripper’ which are a religious lot of marauders , but marauders all the same.
At times you have to accompany other main characters in order to take down Marauders or Rippers, and to rescue hostages all the same, or to fetch some item of sorts. But most times, you have to hunt down a former “Camp Member” who went rogue and killed some people on the way out. Deacon usually finds said camp member armed to the teeth, surrounded by marauder friends, and a gun fight ensues. Perhaps if your are unlucky said rogue camp member simply flees leading Deacon into a long sometimes annoying bike chase.
The bike chases are problematic in themselves. Shooting from the bike feels awkward, and takes hours to get used to. Depending on your gas level, and how well your bike is equipped, the chases can range from long and annoying, to extremely long and annoying. I wish the chases had been scrapped altogether if they weren’t going to tighten up the shooting mechanics. But alas they are in the game, and they are not fun.
The ‘save hostage, retrieve item, run an errand, etc’. Mission structure is a common staple of open world games. However, I can’t recall (other than perhaps RDR2) another game that made you do as much errand/sidequest stuff like this as main story missions as Days Gone did for 60 hours. Heck, at some point I even stopped doing the sidequests of burning out nests, destroying Marauders Camps, and destroying hordes, simply because I was already tired of doing most of those things over, and over during the main story missions.
Apart from the repetitive nature of said missions, there is very little incentive to do most of those quests as they do not provide anything but XP, and Trust level XP. Both of these things will be gained in spades anyways from playing through the main story alone. The only side-quest I did made an effort to complete, was the one involving the clearing of Nero check points, as they held the Nero injectors which improved HP, Stamina and Focus.
There is nothing wrong with the quests themselves, they are just too many, and get cumbersome after 30 hours of doing the same thing.
Fast travel is a blessing when you can get it. The world isn’t large, but it feels massive, as road blocks, and the occasional marauder ambush point can delay traveling from one place to the next. The game introduces a few new enemies later on in the game, but it did nothing to refreshen the experience after I had grown tired of it.
Combat is handled in the same way that games like The Last of Us and RDR2 handle their gun play and melee attacks. The focus gauge slows time which comes in handy for the many ( and I mean many) gun fights. There is an over use of “The Witcher sense” which has become a staple of every open world game since. Press the thumb stick down, and Deacon goes into a ‘sense’ mode in which he can see footprints of individuals he is seeking, and the location of items. This skill is later refined by the use of skill points gained by leveling up.
The shooting itself feels okay, though aiming is highly imprecise by design, thus forcing you into focus mode when firing at distant targets. This frankly gets a bit annoying after a while, and I just wonder why in god blazes Bend didn’t just make aiming and shooting as simple as every other 3rdperson shooting game in the market has.
The bike serves as Deacon’s mobile safe heaven. The bike provides a quick escape from danger, and the game’s only save point (apart from an owned or established camp beds) . The bike can be upgraded with different types of equipment in order to make it faster and more resistant to damage. It is not too bad to drive a bike around. It is faster than a horse, and keeping it running with gas (and repairs with scraps) is important to the game’s gameplay and atmosphere. I think the bike was one of the few things that the game did implement to near perfection.
The Hordes are an impressive sight to watch the first few times you encounter them out on the open road. They are however an unnecessary burden during the main storyline. After taking out 4 hordes I pretty much stopped hunting them down. I found said venture too time consuming, and not rewarding enough to warrant my attention beyond that.
On a funny note, Deacon St. John is an errand boy, a saint, and at times John Rambo…but Deacon St. John can’t swim. Fall into the water and instant death awaits you. It is weird, and because escaping from Hordes is such an important aspect of the game, I wondered why the option of swimming wasn’t added to the game as it certainly would have helped in more than a few occasions.
The Glitches Continue
Like the visuals, there some things seriously wrong with Days Gone’s gameplay. During my time with the game, I saw zombies sink into hard solid asphalt road, their bodies stuck as they waited for me to kill them with my customized melee weapon (melee fighting is more satisfying than the actual gun play). I witnessed as my first “Breaker” Boss, disappeared into thin air, and consequently Deacon St. John was choked to death by an invisible grip. I witnessed my second “Breaker” boss make another disappearing act, leaving only his sound behind. Tried as I might to find him, I just couldn’t find the aggressive monster. Loading a previous save file fixed the issue, but nonetheless it happened.
Enemies which weren’t there 30 yards away, suddenly appeared from thin air as I got closer which made snipping a hit or miss thing. I am surprised Bend never managed to solve these issues. In this era of patches and updates I think it is a bit unreasonable. Days Gone is a big open world game, but in no way a more complex game than Skyrim or even RDR2. I don’t think I can excuse Bend for allowing some many glitches and bugs to make into the final version of the game.
The problems continue
The frame rate is also spectacularly bad. Slow down is everywhere, it is specially jarring during while biking when the motorcycle even ends up skipping its sound effects because of how bad the frame rate stutters at times.
The sound suffers too. While the screams and shrills of the Freakers are goose bump inducing, and contribute greatly to the atmosphere and anxiety inducing gameplay; the are technical issues.
Sometimes dialog sound bites keep running, even after other scenarios not in league with the dialog is running on the screen. Other times some sounds go mute. I would make a bigger deal out of this if it wasn’t for the excellence in the game’s Music combined with Deacon, and Rikki’s voice acting.
The music is one of the strongest points in the game, even the tracks with vocals on them were excellent. I consistently enjoyed the music from beginning to end.
The Sum of All Parts
By all accounts Days Gone should be a terrible game. The shooting isn’t tight, the stealth missions are annoying, it plays like a mix of a cheap version of The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption 2 set in an open world. The glitches are everywhere, and the visuals can range from beautiful to breathtakingly bad. ‘Inconsistency’ is the word I would use to describe the game.
And yet, Bend crafted a world with an eerie atmosphere, in which I always felt threatened. I had more fun in the first 30 hours of Days Gone than I did in 80 hours of RDR2. Conversely, I grew bored, and tired of the final 30 hours of the game quite simply because I kept doing the same thing over, and over, and over again which allowed me to both, see the plot for the uneven mess that it was, and to get acquainted with some most horrific glitches, and general flaws of the game’s gameplay.
I think Days Gone is a must play for fans of the Walking Dead series, and the ‘I Am Legend’ film. It captures the mood of those works perfectly. The experience of surviving the Oregon landscape from a post apocalyptic Zombie menace is worth the price of admission. Entering buildings and abandoned houses (pretty much every building can be entered and explored) in search of crafting materials is always a gratifying experience, as is escaping hordes and surviving some of the other perils that await.
It is unfortunate that Bend just never seemed to completely get the technical aspects of the engine right, and that they completely botched the Mission/Story system. Days Gone feels at times like it belongs in that upper echelon of Sony titles along side Horizon Zero Dawn, and Spider Man, but at times it also feels like an unpolished product in every area that isn’t the Musical Score.
I love Zombie Media, and the Walking Dead. Therefore I enjoyed most of my time with Days Gone. That said, I can see where others – not as interested as me in the subject – will find Days Gone a dull mess in terms of storytelling and a tedious one in terms of gameplay. Still, I recommend the game for anyone that wants to experience a unique take on the open world genre with some of the most anxiety inducing moments ever crafted by a video gaming experience.
Flaws and all, when you add the gunplay, the scares, the atmosphere, and some of the better looking sights. Days Gone is greater than the sum of its flawed parts.
Nice gun fights marred by pedestrian aiming mechanics. Satisfying Melee Combat. Frustrating mandatory stealth missions made me hate the otherwise competent stealth system presented here. The bike chases are frustrating messes, but the actual bike riding while traversing freely is satisfying enough. There isn’t enough variety in the missions. Hordes are a selling point in the game, and to Bend’s credit, Days Gone delivers a play ground for your creativity to flourish when tacking the zombie hordes.
When everything works well in Days Gone, it can be beautiful. But for the most part pop up, terrible draw distance, slow down, and lack of proper texture loading in cutscenes take a toll on the score. Deacon looks pretty good, as does Rikki, but the rest of the cast ranges from good to pedestrian looking. Objects, and enemies can disappear into thin air when least expected. I came away largely unimpressed with the Unreal Engine 4 when it comes to Open World games. Those floor textures and materials do look awesome.
The horde is an impressive, and terrifying sight. I wasn’t counting numbers, but some hordes easily had about 500 zombies moving in the screen at the same time with a decent frame-rate performance. Days Gone can ‘wow’ in many ways, and disappoint in many others.
Some of the best music I have heard this gen, solid voice acting for the most part, amazing ambient sounds. Some sound clips keep playing when they shouldn’t though, proving that glitches found their way into this category too.
Trying is not the same as succeeding. Days Gone tries hard to succeed in telling a great story. Unfortunately it falls flat. The length of the game, and all of the side errands that Deacon has to perform before the game’s resolution kills any sense of urgency that the story might have had at some point.
A weak love story takes center stage, and the mission structure spreads the story across the game world in ways that dilute the few interesting things that the game’s plot has going for it. There are some likable characters in there, and an annoying villain, but other than that the story isn’t much to write home about.
Replay Value: 8.0
There is plenty to do here. Between burning Nests and killing Freakers, clearing Nero check points and killing Freakers, Clearing Bandit camps and clearing Freakers, and taking out Freaker Hordes you can easily spend 80-100 hours. The problem is that it all become a repetitive chore because the main story has you doing most of above missions over, and over again in mandatory fashion.
Had the game ended at around the 30-35 hour mark, perhaps I would have rated the game half a point higher. Days Gone for its first 30 hours, had more fun moments than RDR2 in its in the entirety. Conversely, in its last half it had more tedious moments than RDR2 did in its entire tenure. The joy is never complete in the game, for every good thing that it does, there is always something to complain about. However, Days Gone was capable of creating some of the most memorable moments in my gaming career, and for that, I feel that it was worthy purchase, and one that I would recommend for anyone interested in adventure games, and the Zombie genre in general.
I feel good about the future of Days Gone as prospective franchise for Bend, even if perhaps, we should move away from Deacon St. John and Sarah into a more interesting cast of protagonists.