Days Gone is the quintessential 2018 video game. Actually, to be precise and only a bit mean, it's the quintessential 2015 video game. It's an open-world zombie-apocalypse survival adventure with a hard-bitten rebel hero who has a code of honour and an upgradeable motorcycle. In the game, you scavenge and craft, shoot, drive and brawl, follow waypoints and get stuck on tree trunks. The rebel hero, who is called Deacon St John, growls things like, "I don't shoot women if I have a choice." The art strives for poetic decay but, for the most part, only musters a rural-trailer-park drabness. I played it four days ago and can't remember what Deacon looks like. The Last of Us it isn't, even though The Last of Us is clearly what it wants to be. And State of Decay. And Sons of Anarchy. And DayZ.
The game, by Syphon Filter developer Bend Studio, made a splash at E3 two years ago with an impressive demo featuring huge, roiling swarms of zombies, World War Z style. (Days Gone calls them "freakers", being one of those fictions to oddly insist that the survivors of a zombie apocalypse will either never have heard of zombies, or will be sticklers for the dictionary definition of the word - must be undead, shambling - and either way will be forced to invent a new name for what are, quite patently, zombies.) In the course of an advance look at this year's playable E3 demo - a half-hour lifted from, I'm guessing, the early hours of the game - I don't meet such a swarm. (They are definitely still in the game, though.) I'm mobbed by a gaggle of them at one point, and clothesline some stragglers as I ride my bike through the forest. At one point I encounter a listless crowd of the creatures standing around; jittery and flailing, they remind me of Drowners from the Witcher games. I should probably try to figure out how to take them on, but I'm on my way to a much less inspiring firefight with some human foes, so I pile my bike my through the crowd and let them flail after me.
It's a messy game, this, which fits the theme, but isn't always a good thing. In my brief go I struggled to get the camera, aiming and Deacon's movement, all of which succumb to laggy drift, to line up. Choppy performance didn't help. Faced with the zerg-rush zombies, I found it easier to wade into the fray with melee weapons, although the baseball bats and table legs I could find had extremely low durability, and it all got a bit slapstick. I didn't have so much trouble picking off the armed survivalists at a rival encampment with my pistol and a purloined shotgun. Their behaviours were easy to predict and the combat seemed to work more smoothly at range. But it could have been any firefight in any collection of rusty corrugated lean-tos in any game of the last decade. It doesn't feel like Days Gone is going to distinguish itself with refined combat mechanics - but then again, how many sprawling open-world games do?
Within a short, two-mission demo like this it's hard to get a sense of how that world and the story within it are going to open up. The lifeless dialogue and tepid mission design - fix generator, get medicine, find map - didn't inspire me, but I liked coaxing the bike along the twisty dirt tracks with gentle squeezes of the throttle, hitting a button to slide its real wheel around the hairpin bends. Too often in games like this, getting from A to B is a matter of going flat out in a straight line, but the densely wooded hillsides demand a bit more attention, and the scattered zombie population keeps you on your toes. In a rare touch of realism, you need to mind your fuel consumption, too - it will be tricky for Bend Studio to balance this so it doesn't become a chore, but it seems central to the sense of danger of exploring a post-apocalyptic landscape. The bike doesn't just represent speed and convenience - you can't outrun zombies without it. And you might be low on bandages or ammo, too.
It's out here in the threatening wilds, with nothing but half a tank of gas and a backpack full of scavenged parts to your name, that Sony Bend hopes Days Gone will take on a life of its own. I hope so too, and hope that these two missions don't show this game at its best, because what I played felt sloppy and lifeless - just another ramble through the overgrown conventions of an overblown genre.