Freaks ‘n’ Deacs
When Days Gone was announced during the same E3 press conference as the likes of God of War and Death Stranding back in 2016, it’s safe to say that it probably made the smallest splash out of all of the Sony exclusives unveiled during the show. There was some impressive tech on show, but even during our behind-closed-doors look at the game, it seemed clear that it was still in need of a bit of work. Jumping forward to today, then, and there is little doubt that there has been anything but hard work going on at the offices of Sony Bend since that showing. I will hold my hands up and say that I was extremely sceptical of Days Gone going into it, but after spending an enormous amount of time with it over the past two weeks, I don’t think I ever needed to be.
You see, a lot of the promo for Days Gone focused on things that seemed to be fairly generic. Zombies? Yawn. Another huge open world? C’mon. A protagonist with a dead spouse to try and avenge? Yeesh, are they going to put a bullet in his dog too? The underlying fact is that Days Gone genuinely holds its own in a crowded genre, and it does so with an intricate mix of systems, narrative and surprisingly engaging gameplay mechanics that all interlock to provide an experience that is more than the sum of its, admittedly familiar, parts.
Let’s start with the narrative. You play as Deacon St John, a loveable asshole who’s part of a biker gang, separated from his wife during the outbreak of the zombie, sorry, “Freaker” apocalypse. Bundling her on to a helicopter with limited space left, Deacon vows to find her, with… Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The thing is, this “Sons of Anarchy x Walking Dead” mashup soon warms up to be part buddy-cop black comedy, part survival horror. You and your pal, Boozer, find yourself 700 or so days later holed up in a watchtower, surviving on what they can craft and with Deacon hell-bent on finding out exactly what happened to his wife, all while smashing their way through hordes of Freakers, as well as the psychopathic Ripper religious cult, and the ever-present other factions of human antagonists as well. Through a series of events, Deacon finds himself riding out alone with Boozer keeping tabs on the hideout, and you’re tasked with everything from hunting to crafting to allying with other camps in order to help humanity survive this hideous outbreak. Without spoiling anything, I was actually really impressed with the story in Days Gone. It doesn’t rely on any over-wrought clichés for the majority of the time, and on the odd occasion that they are pulled out of the hat, you either don’t notice them or simply don’t care. With that being said, the pacing does feel quite slow to start with, but it picks up quite quickly after a certain point and gradually raises to a suitably bombastic climax at a reasonable clip.
The two biggest things that stand out in terms of gameplay when it comes to Days Gone are quite simple. The bike, and the hordes. The bike is more than a means to get around the map – if you’re familiar with any aspect of biker culture, you know that they’re essentially extensions of the riders. There’s plenty of customisation to slap on your saddle and improve everything from the handling to the headlights, but if you stray too far from the path, you’ll need to make sure she’s topped up on fuel. As you open up the map, you can fast travel to unlocked NERO outposts (the shadowy organisation investigating the goings-on) and camps that you’ve befriended. The wrinkle here is that you need to clear out “nests” that the Freaks have built around the world before you can open up certain fast travel routes. It’s a definite change from the “climb this tower, hit a button” method of unlocking parts of the map, and it’s a welcome change. If you clear out a nest during the day, you’ll encounter a bigger wave of Freaks that spew forth from within, but if you do it at night you’ll find yourself up against fewer, yet stronger, enemies. While I’m talking about the Freaks (honestly, the word “Freaker” is used sparingly in the game itself, resorting to the “er-less” version), the second mechanic mentioned above is to do with the hordes. You’ve seen big bunches of zombies in games before, but the first time you encounter a big horde in Days Gone? Yeah, something’s going to drop. It might be your jaw. If it’s late at night, it might be a log. There are plenty of hordes roaming the world of Farewell, Oregon, and they will mess you up.
The first time you encounter a horde, something’s going to drop, be it your jaw or a log
Remember that scene from the reveal trailer? Where Deacon interrupts a horde in the sawmill? Yeah, that’s not E3 magic. The horde fixates on you. The AI has been improved from early preview sessions so that the horde now swarms around you and tries to envelop you. Technically, it’s really impressive (for the most part). Freaks stumble over each other, they trample each other, they scratch and claw at you to just get a hold of your tasty, tasty flesh. Make sure you’re tooled up before taking one on because when things go down with a horde, they go down.
Pleasingly enough, these “things” don’t include the frame rate for the most part. Yes, it’s the point in the review where we get technical. There is absolutely no denying that Days Gone looks sensational – the world building and weather effects are stunning in here, right down to the near-real-time snow settling on the ground. Unfortunately, there were a few technical issues during my playthrough, even after the day one patch was installed. These ranged from noticeable frame rate dips, sometimes for seemingly no reason at all (although even when the bigger hordes attack, the PS4 Pro held its own admirably), audio tracks randomly dropping out (sometimes it was the bike engine audio, sometimes dialogue), and on one occasion during our let’s play video, a banner across the top of the screen stuck around permanently until the save was reloaded. Fortunately, reloading saves (or at worst, restarting the game) resolves these problems, so your mileage may vary. The day one patch did clear up some problems (particularly a lot of frame rate issues), but they did crop up, particularly toward the endgame sections for me.
If I were to give people one bit of advice playing through Days Gone, it would be to savour the open world. Don’t hammer down the critical path, and try to strengthen yourself as much as you can. Feel out the difference between the Freaks during the day and the Freaks at night. The difference isn’t quite on the level of Dying Light, but there’s a noticeable change as the sun sets, and the hordes come out to play a little bit more frequently in the pale moonlight. Get to know the people in the other camps, build up your camp credits and get an arsenal ready so you can take on the hordes.