PLATFORM: Playstation 4
TYPE: Third-person, action-RPG, open-world.
What do you call an outlaw in a world with no laws? What is there to rebel against, to detach yourself from, when all the world’s anchors have become mangled by an apocalypse? These are some of the considerations I wondered playing as biker gang member Deacon St John – who graduated from the school of hardcore dude names along with colleagues Aiden Pearce and Duke Nukem. Deacon traverses the beautiful open world of Bend Studio’s PS4 exclusive, navigating undead hordes who appear as waves of necrotic aberrations on the American pastoral canvas. They move as a swarm, biting and gnashing, easily overwhelming Deacon. Like the nocturnal creatures they are, they sleep in nests made of black goo or caves filled with meat. If you want to survive, you need to study and learn their behaviours, their homes, their hunting grounds.
When we’re introduced to Deacon, he’s found himself on the other side of the end of the world without his beloved wife. He’s hardened and bitter. He fights for no one, loyal only to his biker “brother” Boozer. The game begins when the world ends – you’re given no introduction and only told one thing: drive. I’ve been playing for hours now and so far there is no grand narrative, no fight for a cure, nothing bigger than Deacon’s concerns. He’s trying to figure out what happened, but it’s not central to his goals. He just wants “to go North”. This fits the nature of the character, at once giving us a giant open world yet keeping its concerns located to only a few characters – all of whom only exist to benefit Deacon in some way.
Located around the world are growing camps, where the last dredges of humanity have attempted to cough up some semblance of the time before the world fall into a pit we’d dug. Farming, fishing, mechanics, safety: People in dirty clothes mutter to each other, cough constantly, are suspicious of anyone they don’t recognise. The leaders treat Deacon as, he himself says, “an errand boy” – good enough to get the job done, but not so special he should be a member. This suits Deacon as he is allowed freedom but gets the benefit produced by the camps.
Each camp has its own concerns, with its own over the top leader: one is an Alex Jones “America!” screacher who is made worse because his conspiracy theories came true; another was a warden, who runs a camp that’s little different to a prison making your choice to help and bring survivors there questionable; the third I’ve only just met. The interactions with Deacon convey an authenticity that speaks to quality writing, with it clearly being the case of complicated but long history. No one outright loves Deacon and he’s often snappy and irritable when he has to interact with people, when he has work to do – which is… relatable. They provide the majority of the missions – both main and side-quests.
I was genuinely impressed with the missions, despite them being of “travel here and eliminate” variety that seems attached to all open-world games these days – most notably Red Dead Redemption 2.
There are different enemy types: the “freakers” (zombies), the infected animals, War Boy-types called “Rippers”, and general fellow survivor enemies. Each of these creates different play styles for each mission – coupled with changing day-night cycles and weather, which results in wandering “freakers” possibly upsetting your plans. I once attempted to sneak into a normal human encampment, but an infected wolf decided to play fetch with my face. This led to an all out gunfight, which is rare considering how good the stealth feels.
Deacon can hide in grass, throw rocks to distract or attract enemies, can upgrade his abilities to see enemies through walls like Joel’s listening ability in The Last of Us. There’s even a cross-bow bolt, which you craft using the remains of “freakers” to cause human enemies to turn on their friends. I love this detail: Clearly they’re infected so are slowly turning but haven’t been so infected they’re using their hands and teeth. All this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable stealth experience – especially with the horror element, where sometimes you must move through creepy abandoned homes or caves.
Surprisingly, as I played, Deacon showed consistent signs of sympathy and raw emotion he’s aware of. There is an entire mission arc which makes it mandatory to deal with Deacon’s past, where he visits a make-shift grave of his wife and engages in talk therapy. There is even a flashback where Deacon responds to his wife who calls someone “the first explorer” in the region, and he responds with: “the first white explorer maybe…”
But aside from Deacon, players will also be focused on his bike.
Deacon’s bike is central to everything you do: It can be upgraded and customised to a great degree. Bend Studio’s artists and engineers deserve all the praise for the bike’s intricacy and the correspondent “feel” when you attach certain fittings: better engine, better exhaust pipe, and so on. It’s fun to drive and navigate: I was able to pull off slick moves and turns quite easily. Players have to be aware of the fuel gauge but this helps create more tension, since you can’t just travel wherever you like. You need to plan your route, learn where oil canisters are, so you can top up where necessary: An annoying element is that the map indicates fuel stations but you have to search far and wide for an actual fuel canister. I’m not entirely sure what the point of the fuel icon is, when it doesn’t guarantee fuel. However, fuel canisters respawn in constantly the same space so if you’ve found it once, you’ll find it there next time you drive through. You can also top up at camps for credits and find canisters in the back of broken down tow trucks.
This management of fuel in a constantly upgradeable vehicle, with encampments that offer different benefits to the main character, reminds me of Avalanche’s Mad Max game. There were also repetitive missions but the journey, world and gameplay diversified what it felt like – much as Days Gone does. I adored Mad Max so this fit in very well for me.
So far, my only big issue with Days Gone is that often the story feels a bit stale and unimportant. I don’t know why I’m often doing the things I do. Dialogue feels chopped and mixed, with lines applicable to a moment 5 minutes ago only initiating later. The shooting feels horrible, with the bizarre and useless reticule I’ve ever seen – I hate games with bad combat where guns feel like paper. Days Gone taps into Red Dead Redemption 2 with the outlaw, traversal mechanic and even skinning of animals; it taps into Mad Max with the post-apocalypse and fuel management; even elements of Ubisoft’s open worlds where you can clear out zones to make it safer next time. However, I never felt bogged down or that it was ripping off these other excellent games. It didn’t feel like it was trying to do too many things so much as it was trying to do the best, with minimal annoyance.
Take it’s forced stealth sections: While it has insta-fail states, it has frequent checkpoints that mean any mistakes won’t send you back all the way to the beginning. Decisions like this show respect to me as a player and I’m not groaning when these moments appear.
However, this review is only part 1.
So far, I’ll say that Days Gone doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel or revolutionise the open world genre. It’s a comfortable, familiar experience in a new environment, with gorgeous graphics, a likeable main character, enjoyable stealth and bike maintenance. It’s gorgeous sound design, creepy horror elements and gross as hell zombies provide a fun alternative and I’m looking forward to diving back.