A frequently gorgeous, sadly generic open-world game that runs out of steam well before its extended play-time is over.
From the moment I first heard about Days Gone, I wondered about its reason for existing. With so many open-world titles and games that use post-apocalyptic setting featuring zombies and/or other types of deformed creatures, why make another one? Maybe someone at Sony was looking at Horizon Zero Dawn, first announced around the time that work on Days Gone officially began, and said right girls, you've had your metaphorical glass of 'secco with this one, let's make a post-apocalyptic game for real men. Maybe someone looked at all these other existing titles and thought why not make another - people keep buying them, they'll buy this one, too. But there are only so many times that works. In Days Gone, you can see why.
Days Gone starts with a familiar scene. We meet Deacon St. John and his wife Sarah in Seattle, the streets filled with panicked people and overturned vehicles. You don't yet see what everyone is running from, but of course you know - this is a zombie game, get with the programme. Accompanying the two is Deacon's best friend Boozer. He seems to exist for one reason only - to justify why Deacon would leave his wife after she's gravely wounded in an act of violence so senseless it literally doesn't make sense. I've watched it over several times, not least because the game makes you reminisce about it more than once, and the big moment that defines nearly the story just doesn't add up.
Sarah (seemingly?) dies. This is not a spoiler, because it's so essential to Days Gone it's alluded to in the marketing materials. I'm glad to say that after everything games have done in recent years to establish women, in Days Gone we're back to them existing entirely to enable the male protagonist's pain. This isn't helped by Sarah coming across as a woman who seems to be as dumb as bricks for most of the flashbacks. Take her first meeting with Deacon. She is out in the mountains with a broken car and no phone reception when a stranger on a bike stops and aggressively asks her for directions, before pretending to drive off so she has to ask him for help. No woman would ever. If a woman would in fact ever, she would then proceed to fling herself off Deacon's bike as soon as the words "so what's a nice lady like you doing in a place like this" leave his mouth.
Maybe someone at Sony was looking at Horizon Zero Dawn and said, right girls, you've had your metaphorical glass of 'secco with this one, let's make a post-apocalyptic game for real men.
Several years after the incident we're back with Deacon and Boozer, hunting down a guy on their bikes. It's a fun intro that gave me a lot of hope, because manoeuvring through the forest without hitting a tree while shooting at someone is always fun - it was fun in Uncharted, it was fun in Far Cry and it's certainly fun here. For all that I'm busy with dodging trees, it's also immediately obvious that virtual Oregon is a beautiful place. Whether during the downpours or in the snow, it's frequently breathtaking. This first mission introduces you to all Days Gones' tricks in short order. You chase a guy, track him down once he's wounded and meet your first zombies, called freakers this time around. Freakers exhibit more animal-like behaviour by being out during both day and night and by building nests. If you want to reduce the concentration of enemies in an area, you need to burn these nests by chucking a Molotov cocktail at them and shooting the small horde of zombies that comes rushing out at you.
This mission type introduces you to the crafting wheel for the first time. Most items in Days Gone are either crafted or found. You can craft healing items, bombs like the molotovs, traps and ammo for special weapons like your crossbow. There's a great selection of weapons on offer, and trying them and the traps out in a variety of ways keeps combat interesting. You collect ears from killed freakers, which work as the game's currency. At camps you can use that to buy parts for your bike, weapons or items.
This is all standard stuff, so let's address the big, roaring elephant in the room. I'm of course talking about the bike. The bike is what's meant to set Days Gone apart from other open-world games since it's your only means of transport and your way of life. Biker's gon' bike. It's frankly a major source of tedium, and if Deacon didn't love it so much I would've abandoned it in the first lake I drove it into.
The bike you own at the start of the game is stolen and parted out, so you have to start from scratch. Successfully finished missions reward you with paints, custom decals and other cosmetics, meanwhile you'll have to spend some of your hard-earned ears on upgrading the engine to allow for more quiet driving, the tank for reduced fuel consumption and the tires for better traction. I can't say that any of these upgrades made much difference, likely deliberately so.
Days Gone wants you to consider the time of day to drive so you'll come across fewer zombies, which means the engine is always going to attract zombies you swerve around on the street, and you're supposed to plan your route carefully to include stops for fuel and avoid just pelting down a mountain range to take a shortcut. Falls from any height and crashes will damage your bike; you can collect scrap to repair it on the go or pay a mechanic to fix it. If your bike lands in a body of water, the engine dies immediately. If it's too deep you also won't be able to retrieve it, which means you'll have to walk the entire way to a settlement, on foot, to pay a mechanic to get it back for you. Oh, you don't have enough currency? Well, you better jog to a nest of freakers then to grind for some ears!
To be fair, this happens very rarely. What happens a lot, though, is you nervously staring at your tank metre or sneaking an extra victory lap around a combat area to find a canister of petrol because you just run out so incredibly fast. Main story locations will provide you with canisters, so they're not super rare, and I know refuelling is meant to aid realism, but it's just not fun. Having to park your bike a sufficient distance away to not get killed immediately and then having to run back during a few missions that take you across large distances without your bike also isn't fun. Walking your empty bike isn't fun - it means certain death if a horde of zombies is on your tail.
Apart from their nest-building, freakers don't differ from other game zombies in any meaningful way. They're devastating in hordes, a bit laughable on their own. You'll likely take down most of them with melee weapons, as they're more common than ammo and because freakers are quite fast. You're frequently encouraged to sneak around large groups, which is when the AI regularly just stops playing nice. Here I am, several feet away, my noise metre shows me I'm completely silent, when suddenly, out of nowhere, raaah! At other times I'm convinced they're popping up out of nowhere, because my proximity radar on the mini map will show nothing, I've turned around several times and should see a freaker running at me, and yet I hear them gobbling, swing my bat in a random direction and meet a decaying head as if by accident.
There are so many freaker nests, too. Most of the time can't clear all nests in one area at once because you need ammo to kill that many, so you maybe do one or two whenever you pass them on the road, but don't do it en route to a main mission, because you'll use all of your ammo, and on the way back you'll likely have used all of your resources in a big fight, so when to do this type of mission that amounts to you standing in front of a house and emptying all of your magazines into a horde? Never isn't an option, because until you clean out the nearby nests you won't be able to fast-travel to important places nearby. It just makes me feel actively punished for not wanting to engage in a type of mission that's just no fun.
Everything I've talked about here, the chases, sneaking, camps, nests, is side mission stuff that appears in the main mission in exactly the same way, in several instances even in the same environments because the map isn't as big as it looks. Any game I can name you that shares similarities with Days Gone - Far Cry, The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn, Shadows of Mordor, Shadow of the Tomb Raider - has managed to adapt familiar mechanics in their main missions to introduce some variety. Not so Days Gone, where you will be doing the exact same thing, in the exact same way, for hours on end. It's likely that at one point you will have to pick up a side mission just to grind, too, because resources you can pick up in the world will get tight at some point, making you dependant on currency. What's more, you'll only be able to buy certain things such as bandages once you raise a camp's trust level, which you do by - all together now - completing side missions. This can of course be perfectly enjoyable, I've played many a game this way, never bothering with the main story, just clearing out camps and such for a bit each evening, but if you want to continue on with the main story and the game forces your hand in this way it just gets very frustrating, very quickly.
The bike is what's meant to set Days Gone apart from other open-world games since it's your only means of transport and your way of life. It's frankly a major source of tedium.
When you're not fighting freakers you're fighting infected animals or marauders and rippers, the human enemy types in Days Gone. I liked the suitably horror-tinged introduction to the infected birds, but most other enemy types just turn up in a mission. Marauders set up camps for you to take out, and human enemies behave in more varied ways from freakers, which makes fights against them more interesting. I particularly liked fighting humans on stormy nights, when their flashlights blind you, and I cackled with glee every time I attracted freakers to chokepoints to do the dirty work for me. Narratively, your reason for clearing out camps is them encroaching on territory belonging to the camps you're aligned with, and because those murder hobos, unlike you, aren't nice people. See Far Cry. Marauders also set up traps on the open road, preferably when you're just coming back from a main mission and have no ammo left. Ngh.
Rippers meanwhile look and behave like the War Boys from Mad Max, which should be enough of a reason to kill them, and it's also the only reason you're getting, so chop chop. This isn't a point of criticism I only level at Days Gone, by the way, I'd always enjoy more of a reason for virtual mass killing than "they bad", but Days Gone in particular is so shadowy about its motivations that Deacon froth up in a rage at seeing Rippers before you even find out who they are.
Which brings me to the story. Deacon St. John, save for his bandana which he wears at his own wedding, is kind of a nothing. He either says "Sonofabitch" to express any and all emotions or spells everything out, from the plot you've just witnessed to his own feelings: "I care because I feel like it was my fault." Days Gone tells you either everything or nothing, but it's never subtle, never lets you uncover anything for yourself.
Deacon tracks the local shadowy pharmaceutical corp, which Sarah used to work for, to find out what happened to her. When he witnesses Nero experimenting with freakers, he seizes a chance to continue the investigation. That in itself is ok as far as plots go, it's just that in order to stretch that across a game you're regularly sidetracked by stuff no one cares about. You're chasing a lead, but before you do that you first have to go back to a camp to do a fetch quest.
Then there's the fact that there's not that many people to talk to who don't actively want to kill Deacon. Boozer has fulfilled his role in the exposition, so Deacon gets his own personal young woman to protect named Lisa, who is modelled like a short 20-year old but talks like a 6-year old who got hit in the head. The reason Deacon cares about her? She allegedly looks like Sarah's sister, which is never addressed in-game, just stuffed into a mission description. After you've temporarily dropped Lisa off somewhere, there is an entire story mission which you drive from one end of the map to the other only to witness this legendary exchange:
Lisa I don't like it here.
Here are your EXP, thanks for playing!
Days Gone carries with it the expectation that if you cobble a game together from parts of other games that are already massively successful, you'll have yourself a winner, but it has no awareness of why these games were successful, or simply no means to replicate them. I'm not sure whether you should blame a troubled production process, which Days Gone definitely had, for the state of the game or if it's just an attempt to hoodwink you into paying for a game you've already played several times over.
I wasn't expecting Days Gone to add anything new to the genre, but both in terms of its systems and its story it's uninspired, which is driven home by the fact that it's endlessly, needlessly long. I'm begging you, haven't we done this enough?