Sony’s streak of must-play, open-world video games does not necessarily come to a grinding halt with this week’s new PS4 exclusive Days Gone. But it’s absolutely a tougher elevator pitch than the likes of Spider-Man, God of War, and Horizon Zero Dawn.
Each of those Sony exclusives has some game-changing gem I can use to insist that they’re worth investing in for dozens of hours—that sort of unmistakable highlight to finish the sentence “polished open-world adventure and,” including massive-city web-slinging, polished story, and robo-dino safaris, respectively. The special sauce in Days Gone, which arrives with the baggage of “yet another zombie game” as a loud descriptor, is a lot tougher to extract. It’s there, but it’s mild.
What follows is not a comprehensive Days Gone review, but rather my take after 10 hours of the game convinced me I had seen enough to declare this a fine-enough game rental—nothing more, nothing less.
A Boozer, a user, and a loser
Tell me if this sounds familiar: in an alternate-reality version of the United States, a mysterious plague has begun turning people into flesh-eating monsters. Those who avoided the plague but missed a wave of evacuation helicopters were left behind to rebuild miniature societies and fend for themselves. Days Gone sees you taking control of Deacon, a “one-percenter” in the forests of Oregon, with a motorcycle, a buddy, a missing wife, and a network of post-apocalyptic contacts. These people send Deacon out to do odd jobs (pick up supplies, reconnect electric generators, kill people) while he contends with unraveling truths and unavoidable tragedies.
We’ve done this kind of thing before, which hasn’t stopped us from praising recent zombie-filled retreads like Resident Evil 2. But that doesn’t mean the zombie conceit doesn’t come with expectations. My favorite modern zombie video games have hinged on two major elements: partnership and disturbing monsters. I can’t help but notice that Days Gone fails to nail either of these elements—and doesn’t make up for it with other unique or perfectly polished twists.
I’ll start with “partnership” and come back to the monster stuff later. In zombie games, partnership can come in the form of literal co-op mechanics (Left 4 Dead, Killing Floor) or figurative story-driven ones (Resident Evil, The Walking Dead: A Telltale Story). We can already toss co-op out the window, since this is a single-player quest, which is by no means a complaint. (Unplug your console from the Internet and enjoy a long zombie-biking adventure, by all means.) But the game’s opening sequence is all about riding alongside your biker-gang buddy Boozer, which establishes an expectation that you might have a chatty, computer-controlled friend along for this journey. That’s not really the case.
For one, Boozer is quickly out of the picture. He rides ahead during your second mission to distract a crowd of zombi—er, pardon, “freakers”—so you can grab some supplies, and he almost immediately succumbs to an ambush. His injured self is soon relegated to “voice in your headset” status, as are most of the allies you come across. Let’s set aside the fact that the game never establishes what kind of satellite technology keeps Deacon connected with voice comms within dense, remote forests. The issue is that most of the plot is fed via in-game chatter, which is paused and interrupted whenever zombies start snarling nearby, or rival humans pop up, or Deacon approaches a question-mark indicator on his mini-map.
Days Gone doesn’t anchor its plot with regular trips to a home base of any sort, because the “friendly” camps in the game are realistically spread out across the forest (and require infrequent visiting to claim quests, turn in scrap, or buy major gear upgrades). Instead, most new plot beats are fed by this frequently interrupted in-ear chatter. I regularly arrived at cut scenes and met characters who were apparently introduced or explained by radio chatter, only to be confused by why I’d driven to them or what backstory the characters shared. These scenes are bolstered by solid voice acting and Sony-caliber dialogue, but the characters simmer with silence and furrowed brows, as if they’re all looking at me with their scarred, road-weary faces and wondering, “Why don’t you know what we’re all pissed off about, you little dork?”
And while the game positions itself as a story of friendship, it mechanically plays out as a very isolated experience. On the road, you’ll rarely run into anyone other than NPCs with broken animations who are trapped by zombies and rattle off generic, randomly shuffled “help!” and “thank you” dialogue. They appear in the form of emergent tasks, marked by question marks on the mini-map. You’ll also find traces of destroyed camps (which you follow by clicking a “spidey sense” button and following visible footsteps) to find scrap and resources of varying value and “raider” encampments of humans with painfully stupid AI in “normal” difficulty. In the case of the latter, Deacon will mutter some dialogue about hating the more selfish and evil humans who have survived, which is apparently reason enough to murder them and take whatever supplies and crafting recipes they’re hiding.
Zen and the annoyance of motorcycle maintenance
The best thing you get to do in Days Gone is ride a motorcycle across a beautiful, dense forest and its abandoned, rustic towns. Had the game shipped with an “unlimited gas” mode, I’d recommend renting the game on that feature alone, much like I did for Spider-Man‘s zen-like web-slinging system last year.
Bend Studio needed a while to get the game up to a solid 30fps refresh while rendering a variety of open plains, hilly trails, and shadow-soaked forests, and I’m glad to say they reached that threshold. Impeccable sound design sells some of the game’s best-looking sequences as well, particularly when rain pours all around (thus helping Deacon sneak-walk past more zombies). But these accolades only apply to the PS4 Pro, as I didn’t test the game on a standard PS4. Notes provided to pre-release testers warned that Bend is working on standard PS4 performance for the eventual day-one patch, so I can’t confirm whether that version is yet up to a crisp 30fps refresh.
But in bad biking news, Days Gone frequently pesters you out of that bike-zen mode. The motorcycle runs out of gas very quickly, even after its first gas-tank upgrade, and it incurs physical damage whenever it bumps into anything, which you must stop and “repair” by spending the game’s scrap currency while holding a “repair” button.
Deacon’s bike-driving prowess is pretty decent, but certain primary routes teem with objects to bump into, and the controls glitch out every so often—especially when you park the bike in a place that the game decides isn’t ideal, thus making it bump into stuff in a glitchy-physics way and racking up damage in the process. That’s by no means a game-breaking issue, but the bike-repair aspect weighs down the experience, as if the developers are always whispering into players’ ears, “We’re going to punish you when our game’s bike controls work against you.”
In a few missions, you’ll get access to an aim-lock button option to shoot guns at foes’ bikes while driving, and, sure enough, these drive-and-shoot romps are fun. But most missions ask you to get off the bike, at which point you’re in well-trod open-world territory.
A GTA comparison—and not a good one
Your inventory includes three gun slots (pistol, rifle/shotgun, sniper/crossbow), traps, explosives, and “distraction” items (stones, noisemakers, etc.). You can run, sneak, and engage in third-person combat, but between a clumsy cover system and floaty, auto-aim shooting, the gunplay feels a lot like the ho-hum stuff of Grand Theft Auto. (I’ll take this moment to clarify that the game bears some visual and tonal similarities to various Far Cry games, but the unsatisfying combat, more than anything, nukes that comparison point.)
In a few cases, you’ll have to deal with giant fields of zombies, at which point your combination of gear comes into play. You’ll sneak around, set up some remote-detonation explosives, and move to a hiding hole before setting off noises and distractions. Dozens of snarling zombies will mindlessly move into position, set off the kabooms, and you’ll decimate a good number of monsters at once. Seeing so many zombies rendered on-screen with an emphasis on realism and terror (as opposed to Dead Rising-esque campiness) is palpably tense, and dispatching them with the big booms is exciting.
But that’s a tiny portion of the Days Gone experience. Most of the time, you’re seeing one to three zombies at once, which can be dispatched with the game’s melee weapons (which fall apart after some use but can be easily replaced or repaired), and it’s always quieter and more efficient to melee small crowds to a quick death. Should you be ambushed by more zombies than that, you can easily run away, hop on your bike, drive a bit, wait, and try again. The game’s zombies only make chase for so long before giving up, returning to their previous zone, and resetting. In the case of human foes, meanwhile, they’re coded to run to one of a few hiding positions in each “encampment” they occupy, so you can expect to sneak to each cover point, make a noise, and wait for humans to run like idiot lemmings to each pre-coded point for easy kill line-ups.
That’s really it for challenge: dealing with zombie and human threats alike. Sometimes, you’ll have to sneak around armies of armored humans, who cannot be attacked, to spy on their stories and thus unlock new quests, but that’s the only real variance to the encounters on offer (there are no real puzzles, let alone moments of brain-busting stealth-strategy).
And that’s where I get to my issues with Days Gone‘s monsters: there’s seriously zero zombie variance to break up the combat. Bend Studio’s idea of “gritty, realistic” zombies is to skimp on the Left 4 Dead archetype of monster variety. It’s the same mindless creature, over and over, albeit sometimes in the form of a wolf or a bear, as opposed to having “super” zombies serve as chiefs or zone-controlling barf machines. (You’ll find a screaming zombie a la L4D‘s “witch” character, at least, but not on a frequent basis.) Days Gone doesn’t make up for this lack of enemy diversity with the zany, combat-shifting stuff of the Dead Rising series, which lets players craft and combine all matter of implement to take out screen-filling zombie mobs.
And, yes, crafting is also worth mentioning, if only because the game’s “normal” difficulty means players never run out of supplies. This virtual Oregon has no shortage of elements needed to make your own bandages, molotov cocktails, and melee weapons. As a result, the game teaches you to take advantage of extra supplies and glitchy enemies to engage in straight-up combat—in ways that The Last Of Us so brilliantly taught its players not to do, for survival’s sake.
Deacon doesn’t bring the religious experience
My incomplete run-through of Days Gone included just enough solid plot and tense battles to leave me with a somewhat positive experience. But the plot I treasured the most—particularly the stuff about Deacon and his partner—comes almost entirely through lengthy, non-interactive cut scenes, which all strike a serious tone while including jokes, levity, and heartwarming acting.
That seriousness was met with all too much jank in the real-time gameplay. In addition to bugs mentioned in the earlier sidebar, the game’s open world either triggered enemies too randomly, forcing them onto my position with laser-sharp precision, or had them stare me down in open fields (humans and zombies alike) while doing nothing. The most telling moment came when I stealth-crawled through a town to avoid dozens of zombies, only to reach a final moment: a bear insta-spawned into the city, and I had to pump burning explosives and bullets into it to live. In addition to the bear’s jarring, random appearance, none of the nearby zombies reacted to this insane encounter.
That kind of busted-quest moment happened often enough to color most of my Days Gone impressions. It’s a great time to be a fan of open-world video games, and if you still haven’t played the likes of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Metro Exodus, or (in zombie terms) Dying Light, each of those imbue more plot, variety, and open-world possibilities into their lengthy adventures. Plus, if console exclusivity is a drag, all of those are available on Xbox One and Windows PC, in addition to PS4.
That being said, I went into Days Gone with an open mind, having seen the game’s performance and bugs creep up in preview press events, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Bend fulfilled its goal of delivering a stunning, massive virtual Oregon. I got creeped out by solid sound design, saw satisfying flashes of gore upon pummeling zombies to death, took in a few moments of Sons of Anarchy-caliber dialogue, and paused to enjoy sweeping views between my satisfying motorcycle drives.
Also, give credit where it’s due: If Days Gone were an Xbox exclusive, some might have praised Microsoft for finally turning its reputation around, having gone for so long without a good single-player adventure (its disappointing open-world zombie survival game State of Decay 2 doesn’t count). Sony’s other first-party fare has set a much higher bar for this kind of game, which is no fault of Bend’s.
If you’re hungry for a new weekend-filling zombie adventure on PS4, Days Gone is an easy rental recommendation. If you’re already working your way through a big-game backlog, on the other hand, you should probably spend your days on other fare.
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