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When Days Gone was introduced to the world at E3 in 2016, it came to the audience in a fury of gunfire tearing through mobs of writhing, screeching undead hellbent on tearing through human flesh. It was a technical showpiece then, inviting players to a new post-apocalyptic world, and those moments of terror initially touted years ago by Sony’s Bend Studio provide just as much excitement in the full version of the game, released Friday on the PlayStation 4.
Players control Deacon St. John, an ironically religiously named character who, after a tour in Iraq, comes home to find a country that has little use for him. He becomes a nomad of sorts, later finding family in a motorcycle club called The Mongrels. Two years later, Deacon finds himself in a very new world, one stricken by a pandemic that has turned humans and animals alike into zombified versions of their former selves. Little is revealed about Deacon at first beyond three things precious to him: his best friend Boozer, his bike and his deceased wife. Each one of these will cause Deacon to make decisions throughout his journey that will both tug at heartstrings and cause players to scream in confounded confusion at their TV.
Star Sam Witwer masterfully brings Deacon to life with all of the gruff and tumble that you would expect from a character that has lost everything in the zombie apocalypse. He’s a constant contradiction to himself and his personal code. At times he’s amazingly compassionate, others utterly ruthless. He’s a man willing to risk his life for complete strangers while also shutting out people who have shown him love and grace for morally reprehensible acts.
For most of Days Gone, Deacon’s apathetic nature makes him unlikable as a character. The only moments when something redeemable comes through are in the form of flashback sequences that show the budding love between he and his wife Sarah (Courtnee Draper). These work to humanize Deacon and directly soften the character in a necessary way. Scenes between the two are the best parts of the narrative underpinnings in Days Gone.
In between these poignant moments, however, are many that are less engaging. In many ways, Days Gone as an action-adventure shooter, rather than a full open world, would make for a better game. This is not because any of the systems Bend Studio put in place don’t work well — in fact, besides some annoyances in enemy AI and bugs, the world they’ve built is fantastic. The problem lies in open world gameplay systems that are actively fighting against what could be a great story. Gating the player from certain areas in a way that feels artificial and holds the game’s story back is the culprit most of the time. Players will often go from a meaningful story beat to performing fetch quests for one of the four faction leaders in the game, characters that Deacon, if he were being true to his character, would have turned his back on long ago. Sequence such as this make the story feel and are often jarring enough to take one out of the experience entirely.
Another aspect of the game that misses its mark are the zombies themselves, or “freakers,” as they are called in Days Gone. These infected enemies come in a wide variety: “swarmers” are the classic 28 Days Later zombies, super fast and agile, who overwhelm players with their numbers; “screamers” let out a yell to alert other freakers to come to their aid and attack; and “breakers” are the “heavy” freaker class that deal major damage. Add to this some infected versions of fauna like wolves, crows and bears, and there is a full complement of undead entities to kill. None of these enemies feel especially interesting, however, besides the newts, described by Bend Studio as “infected adolescents,” essentially zombie children. The addition of this class of freaker is the most fascinating version of the game’s enemies because they only really attack the player when they are in a wounded state or when the player infringes on their rooftops.
There has also long been an unwritten rule in gaming that players don’t kill children in games. Days Gone’s vision of a brutal world has bucked this trend and given the player the ability to do just that. At first this decision seemed stunning that it was allowed, but in the world Bend Studio has built, it absolutely makes sense.
Still, it’s the freaker hordes that provide the most memorable moments in the game. Players will need to carefully plan and gear up before clearing out one of their areas or find themselves quickly in the meat grinder. Seeing them swarm, climb and traverse spaces with lighting quickness never gets old and showcases all the coding, animation and scripting work the development team worked so hard to perfect.
Of course, no post-pandemic story would be complete without vast amounts of humans who have decided to take the law into their own hands. The two groups that are featured most prominently are the Marauders, who set traps along the roads to ambush travelers, and the Rippers, a cult that believes that the outbreak was a sign from God and that they should scar their bodies in tribute. Neither group employs any specific tactics that differentiate them from one another, but they each have some great dialogue that feels menacing in the moment. There is one other sect that comes in the form of the game’s version of FEMA, called NERO. Missions involving the organization are some offer some of the weakest gameplay in Days Gone, but do provide entertaining and necessary world building.
Overall, gameplay is relatively straightforward. Various guns in the world all feel satisfying to shoot, with humans and freakers reacting as you would expect when getting hit by everything from a chunky shotgun blast to an arrow in the knee. Where the game shines, though, is in its melee combat. This is where the visceral brutality of the world really shows itself. Cobbled-together tools that combine everyday items result in weapons of destruction that look like something out of the Saw film franchise, each with varying degrees of effectiveness and stylized execution animations to boot. Within the game’s three skill trees are numerous ways to make Deacon more deadly. Focusing on putting points into skills that emphasize the “up close and personal” approach provide all the tools players need to be efficient throughout their time spent in virtual Oregon.
One small annoyance with the combat system comes in the form of the radial wheel where weapons and gadgets are selected. The initial open of the menu is fine, but when digging through the nested options, sometimes an unwanted item gets selected. That becomes something potentially deadly as enemies continue to move at Deacon in real time while players fumble through the menu.
Speaking of menus, one ingenious innovation by the dev team is to allow players to open up things like their map and quests with directional swipes of the controllers’ touchpad. It works flawlessly and would be a welcome addition to other PlayStation titles. Other really smart touches include vehicles which contain items that make sense in the world the game created — such as health upgrades in an ambulance or a police car filled with ammo — and the upgrade system for Deacon’s motorcycle. Repairing and improving the bike provides actual gameplay advantages that can keep Deacon alive or out of danger in ways that most vehicles in open world games don’t.
Massive consideration should go to the art team on Days Gone, as well, who have done a glorious job recreating the unpredictability of Oregon’s weather and terrain. The game is a love letter to the beauty and splendor of the Pacific Northwest’s vistas and landscapes. The way sunsets move down the mountains or midday rain showers coat the pavement is captured in full detail and is something to marvel at.
While there is some tonal inconsistencies in the narrative, curious decisions in quest structure and some technical issues like long load times and big hitches in frame rate in the last half of the game, Days Gone has found a very special place in the post-apocalyptic zombie game genre. The game revels in telling the story of harsh decisions in a brutal world and asks the question, “How do you keep going after you’ve lost everything and everyone?”
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