When SIE Bend Studio first revealed Days Gone to the world during E3 2016, it struck me as tone-deaf. A zombie game where you aren’t really fighting zombies, but mutated humans with cannibalistic behaviors, announced at a time when gaming was becoming over-saturated with the bloated corpses of the undead would risk a lukewarm reception. Now here we are in 2019, after several spirit-crushing delays, Days Gone is finally here and it seems that all that extra time to polish the game was worth the wait.
Being a “zombie game,” Days Gone is filled with violence. Decapitations, amputations, viscera, and gore are all common in a world that truly does come for you, whether it be the vicious wolves with the still-fresh blood and guts of their last meal hanging from their jaws, or the frantic and bloodthirsty Freakers who only know brutal violence after becoming victims of an unknown yet deadly virus. Language is also plentiful and colorful with many f-bombs, sh*&s, and other more creative uses of the human language. Drug use is common amongst the remaining survivors as several jobs Deacon can accept from the various camps throughout the world offer big rewards for finding and returning a drug stash that had been stolen. Religion is mentioned passively, but seems to be a means to fleshing out the personality of certain characters rather than the developers making a definitive statement on faith. For example, characters will ask Deacon if he believes in God or not and some will even outright curse God for their plight. One of the enemy factions is a religious cult, called the Rippers, who worship the Freakers.
Days Gone‘s story begins with Deacon St. John and his girlfriend, Sarah, evacuating a town that is quickly descending into chaos. A young boy suddenly stabs Sarah as she tries to help him, severely wounding her at the start of the outbreak that turns most of society into the cannibalistic Freakers. We soon see Deacon force a soldier at gunpoint to evacuate Sarah by helicopter to safety. Boozer, Deacon’s best friend who is also injured, decides to stay behind as there is only room for two passengers in the helicopter. In a moment of desperation, Deacon decides to stay and help Boozer and gives Sarah what appears to be a wedding ring in the shape of a wolf. This is the last we see of Sarah as the game’s title card appears. This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of Days Gone and immediately calls back to the gut-wrenching opening of The Last of Us, showcasing Joel and his daughter.
Fast forward two years. Deacon and Boozer, now recovered from his wounds in the intro, are chasing some bandits when they come across Alvarez, a member of their camp, who was fatally wounded by the bounty the pair were just chasing. Giving up control to the player for the first time, the ensuing bike chase acts as the game’s first tutorial. After spending just a few minutes with Deacon’s bike, I could already tell that these are some of the best motorcycle controls I had that I have ever experienced in a game. Turns are sharp and precise; tapping or holding the X and R2 buttons at specific moments allow for quick, sharp turns that offer an essential means of escape in tricky situations and unexpected encounters. As the chase continues, the player is shown more tutorials on tracking, combat, and crafting. While some might find it jarring to be thrust straight into a series of tutorials right from the start, it helps with Days Gone as the pacing of the first couple of hours is so horrendously slow. While I won’t go into detail, something happens to cause Deacon to lose his bike during the tutorial, and he has to build a new one from scratch. Therefore, the first hour or two of the game is spent learning the basics of combat, driving, tracking, crafting, and all of the elements of gameplay but players are temporarily locked out of experiencing one of the best parts of Days Gone: its world
After running a few jobs and getting a new bike for Deacon, players can finally get their first taste of freedom. With Deacon’s bike, players can set out in the world as they please and random events will pop up from time to time as missions are completed. These events can range from rescuing civilians who are being attacked by Freakers, stopping a pack of wolves from tearing a man apart, or giving someone a ride to safety. However, much like the random events in Red Dead Redemption 2, players should exercise caution when exploring as some of these events lead to traps, ambushes, and other unsavory consequences. One encounter I found had me tracking what appeared to be a severely injured bystander to see if there was anything I could do to help him. I followed his trail only be ensnared in a rope trap and ambushed by a gang of bandits. Luckily, I was able to escape after taking a few hits and dispatched them all. Shortly after this encounter, I earned a skill point to advance Deacon’s skills in either the shooting, melee, or survival skill tree. As players gain experience and grow these skills, they will be able to sprint longer without using up as much stamina, carry more throwables, and reduce recoil when using guns.
While the story’s pacing is all over the place at times, especially in the opening chapters when it is initially difficult to understand Deacon’s overall goals and motivations, Days Gone is a character study of epic proportions. Players will get to watch as almost every major character experience some sort of growth throughout the game, with the exception of some of the camp leaders. The result is an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride as players become attached to Deacon, Boozer, and the allies and rivals they meet on their journey. As we see more and more flashbacks to the earlier days with his girlfriend Sarah, and as players visit her gravestone for several story missions, we learn that Deacon only has Boozer left in this world, and it seems clear to me that while Deacon portrays himself as tough and uncaring to those he meets on the road, this is only because he is scared to death of failing to protect those closest to him.
What is also interesting is that Deacon has his own code that he lives by. For example, he states early on that he will never attack an unarmed woman and we never see him do this during the game. Meanwhile, he is quick to mouth off and step to just about anyone else who gives him pause. I really appreciate how Bend drip feeds these subtle yet revealing snippets of Deacon’s background and overall character in between story beats. It’s nice to know that we aren’t playing someone who is just stoic and distant because he lost his wife to the horrors of the world, but he is a realistic human being who has fears, doubts, and motivations that drive everything he does, no matter how brutal or reckless it may be. Watching Deacon’s true character unravel over the course of the game is a real treat.
One of the best things about the world of Days Gone is the sheer randomness of it all. For example, players may be going about their business doing odd jobs for Copeland, Tucker, or Iron Mike, one of three encampment leaders players can encounter early on in the game, when they spot a horde of Freakers on a route that would otherwise offer relatively safe travels. The interesting thing about hordes is that they are almost completely unpredictable. This is both good and bad as players can choose to use this to their advantage and lure a horde into one of the many bandit camps in the world and let the problem sort itself out. However, this is also a bad thing as taking out a horde requires careful planning and on-the-fly strategy and decision making. Other than a very easy initial horde encounter, none of the other hordes I have come across have had explosives so perfectly placed around the area. Players will have to place these traps themselves during later encounters. Going in unprepared may mean backing yourself into a corner which is a death sentence when going up against the hordes.
A good example of this is when I went to complete a side mission where I was tasked with clearing out a bunch of Freaker nests. Doing so would earn me reputation with the camp of my choosing, thus allowing me the ability to fast travel in that area and to purchase various weapons and/or bike parts back at camp. I arrived at my destination and all seemed quiet so I set to work sneaking around and trying to pinpoint the nest location before tossing my Molotov to finish the job. Before I knew it, a Freaker must have seen me and triggered the rest of the horde because I was almost immediately swarmed. Since my bike was in the middle of the town, I was gonna have a hard time getting out. Needless to say, I didn’t make it back to my bike. When I respawned, the horde was no longer in the city, but had quietly shuffled on further down the path. I got on my bike and quietly rode back to camp for the night; that was enough excitement for me for one day.
In a way, Deacon’s bike is a lot like Arthur’s horse in RDR2. Deacon takes good care of his bike and it requires constant awareness and maintenance to keep it in good condition and topped up with fuel. Luckily, this is never too much of an issue as fuel cans are plentiful and found at almost any camp, Nero Checkpoints, or gas stations throughout the world. Most fast travel locations contain a gas pump which never runs out of fuel and only requires Deacon to drive up next to it in order to refuel. However, fuel isn’t the only problem players have to worry about when it comes to their bike. Scrap is found throughout the world and is used as the primary means for repairing weapons and the motorcycle. The bike can be damaged severely and need a quick fix if Deacon gets swarmed or runs into any number of bandit traps set up along the roads. This can become a real problem for players that don’t take the time to prepare as there are only specific places to save the game in Days Gone. To save, players must be near their bike and players cannot fast travel unless they are on their bike. This also means that a player will want to keep close tabs on where they leave their bike when on missions or when trying to take out hordes, not only for a quick getaway, but so that they can fast travel back to a camp for repairs, ammo and upgrades as needed.
Combat is another area where the bike comes in handy. Unlike most open world games, aiming a weapon while driving is handled with the L1 button as a cursor locks on to the target and slowly shrinks over time. Players will want to wait until the crosshairs turn green for the most accurate and damaging shots. This mechanic is a life-saver since oftentimes Deacon is pursued by all manner of bandits, wildlife, and/or Freakers while on the road. Off of the bike, combat is fast and brutal. It honestly reminded me most of The Last of Us as melee hits have a satisfying crunch when striking enemies with clubs or ball bats and hitting them with any bladed object is bloody. yet satisfying. Axes split heads open and stealth killing enemies from behind will have Deacon stab them in the neck, shiv them to death, or outright slit their throat.
In the first melee encounter I experienced I had a fire axe that I had found on an earlier mission which made quick work of the first two goons that rushed me. Another came up from behind just as the axe broke and a brutal and bloody knife duel ensued. I prevailed as Deacon stabbed his assailant multiple times in the gut to finish him off. Both melee and gun combat is handled with the R2 button depending on which weapon Deacon is currently holding. R1 is used to fire weapons when riding motorcycles. The stakes are high in every combat encounter in Days Gone. Whether Deacon is fighting his environment, wildlife, Freakers, or hostile humans, one false move can mean the difference between life and death.
For this reason, I found stealth to be the most viable option for completing missions vs. going in guns blazing. While ammo is surprisingly plentiful, firing weapons without a silencer can alert Freakers in the area and may even alert a horde which is not what you want if you are already trying to clear out an entrenched camp of bandits. Every enemy can be looted for ammo and crafting materials, and Freaker corpses yield Freaker ears which can be turned in at camp for influence to allow players to purchase more upgrades and weapons. However, for players who want to live out their 007 fantasies, silencers can be found by looting any of the abandoned cars littered throughout the world. Both the hood and the trunk can be opened and searched. This requires careful observation though as cars with an alarm will have a red light on their dashboard and attempting to lift the hood of these cars will trigger the alarm and attract Freakers. Smaller cars will provide a silencer for side arms, medium cars will yield a silencer for primary weapons, and SUVs and larger cars give players a silencer for special weapons. The two available Crossbows are always silent but require players to seek out a certain crafting material to make ammo.
Players can only carry one silencer per weapon at a time, even if it is already equipped to their gun. And just like with the other weapons in the game, silencers will break after repeated use. There is a percentage meter right below Deacon’s health and stamina bars that indicate how long melee weapons and silencers have before they break. Luckily, silencers can also be purchased at camps once a certain level of favor has been reached with the leader of that camp.
Combat won’t be the only thing keeping players busy in Days Gone though, as side missions offer plenty of diversions which include clearing out Freaker nests, bandit camps, eavesdropping on NERO teams as they survey the aftermath of the outbreak and rescuing victims of the Ripper cult. These may or may not end in combat encounters, but one of these rescue missions had me fighting a bear while escorting a teenage girl to safety. Meanwhile, another battle was going on behind me between a group of bandits and some Freakers. This world is just as much alive as it is brutal, though it is not alive in the same way as other open world games. Clearing out a town means it will remain cleared of Freakers but bandits may move in and set up an ambush for the next time players ride through. It is always best to keep an eye on your surroundings at all times as ambushes are frequent and always deadly.
For all of its highpoints, there are some shortcomings to Days Gone as well. For starters, it takes forever to earn enough reputation with the camps to purchase better weapons early on. While there is a weapons locker at every major camp and outpost, only purchased weapons will appear there and not weapons that Deacon may find lying around as he travels. Also, only guns can be stored in these lockers and melee weapons must be crafted or found out in the world or on the corpses of defeated enemies. Also, difficulty can spike randomly depending on what players bring with them to enemy encounters. While more clever players can sometimes improvise their way out of a tense situation, most players will get overwhelmed by hordes of Freakers, ravenous wolves, or bloodthirsty marauders if they venture out unprepared.
Another fault is that due to the hostile and unforgiving nature of the world in Days Gone, I did not feel compelled to check out most of the random events that popped up as a blue question mark on my mini map. 9 out of 10 times, these are bandit ambushes waiting to happen. For the few times that it allows me to gain some favor with the camps, it doesn’t yield very many rewards and these events don’t seem to be tied into any of the side mission storylines or their progression rewards so there is little point in completing them. These don’t lead to any cool, unique weapons, experiences or clothing items like those in RDR2.
Days Gone is one of those games that shouldn’t be as good as it is despite getting through those first couple of hours without a bike being rough and boring. But once players are set loose into the world, the sheer awe of what Bend was able to accomplish just with the hordes alone is worth that early slog through the tutorials. Players who love exploring open worlds will have an absolute blast. While exploration doesn’t really yield any tangible rewards, just stumbling across a downed NERO chopper or sneaking through a once-quiet little church town offers up some of the best environmental storytelling I have seen in some time. One moment in particular stands out for how it captures the innocence of childhood and how that innocence can be so easily shattered when we shut ourselves off to the horrors happening right outside our doors. Like The Last of Us before it, Days Gone should be played by everyone as its faults are minor and this is the zombie game we’ve all needed for awhile, even if the Freakers aren’t technically zombies.
The Bottom Line
Days Gone is a game that shouldn't be as good as it is: a harsh and unforgiving world that is almost as difficult to endure as the roller-coaster of hype that surrounded the game since its first reveal three years ago.