Before I start this review, allow me to rant a little. I realize that gaming has transcended the realm of megabytes to become massive multi-gigabyte experiences, but when a day one patch is literally one third the size of the full game, it doesn’t bode well for first impressions. It is usually a sign of a developer screwing up, or massive features missing from the game. Also, it complicates the reviewing process. You see, most review copies are now digital and have to be downloaded. I don’t have the best Internet, and a game of this size typically takes a couple of days to download. Since the download keys are sent out mere days before launch, this does not leave a lot of time to play and review the game. So when a patch of 22 GB drops a couple of days before the review has to be out, chances are good that the review will go out without the patch. Which is exactly the case here since today there was another 13 GB patch too. I will however post an update post-review once the most recent patch is installed.
If I’m honest, Days Gone has never really been on my radar. I vaguely remember it being announced a couple of years ago, but it either didn’t impress or I was suffering from zombie-game fatigue. Whatever the case, the latter surely didn’t change. The market is literally flooded with zombie movies, series and games. One can’t help but feel that every single idea has been implemented and exhausted. What could Days Gone possibly bring to the table that is unique?
With this attitude, the game was fired up after a rather lengthy download process, and immediately my socks were blown off. The opening sequence is reminiscent of one of my favorite games: The Last of Us. In fact, the game takes many cues and inspiration from Joel and Ellie’s adventure. For example, both games avoid referring to the infected as zombies. In the case of Days Gone, they are referred to as “freakers”. Major themes in both games are camaraderie, friendship and loss. Both games have two main protagonists. In the case of Days Gone, the story follows two drifter-mercenaries, Deacon and Boozer, as they try to survive. A major difference between the two games, however, is the setting. Whereas The Last of Us was a story-driven, somewhat linear experience, Days Gone attempts something similar in an open world.
While it mostly succeeds in this endeavor, this is also one of the game’s biggest flaws. In the opening sequences, where the game is still mostly linear and story focused, it is almost perfect. Maybe I was looking at it with nostalgia glasses since it reminded me so much of The Last of Us, but once the world opened up, the experience got watered down with side quests: Clear this area; collect this item; secure this camp; follow/catch this person; turn this on/off – your typical open world side quests. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a decent game, but the pace drops off rapidly after the spectacular opening, and in the end you don’t get the same experience as with The Last of Us.
The story plays of in Oregon. It’s set a few years after a mysterious infection turned most humans into “freakers”. A nice touch is that the number of “days gone” since the outbreak is displayed while the game is paused. Our protagonist, Deacon St. John and fellow biker, Boozer, spent most of the 700-or-so days surviving. Despite the somewhat mundane obligatory open world quests, Deacon and Boozer’s main quest is to head north to figure out what happened to Deek’s wife. There are also a story thread concerning the obligatory government conspiracy, and the human factions striving to co-exist in the apocalypse. The problem is that none of the characters are particularly likable or memorable, and the story somewhat forgettable. At it’s core, it is mostly a generic third-person open-world game.
That said, the open world has components that contribute to the experience. The most notable, the weather. The weather effects in this game are phenomenal. Snow and rain gradually cover the terrain, and actually affect each quest. For example the snow will dampen your footsteps, and the rain will make the road more slippery for your bike. “Freakers” will also behave differently in the different kinds of weather. Rain will dull their senses by dampening sounds. Snow will grant them a strength boost, but at the risk of decreased visibility. Then there are also the day/night cycles which also influence your approach strategy. Certain “freakers” will be less plentiful at night time, but the darkness makes the remaining others more aggressive.
Speaking of interesting mechanics, players can make use of a motorcycle. It is useful for traversing the environment and your bike is almost an extension of your character, and can also be upgraded and improved. It requires fuel and repairs and has status indicators which you should keep a constant eye on. Even though some resources are not necessarily scarce, you don’t want to find yourself in a position where you run out of fuel or scrap to repair your bike. Resources are gathered from the environment and crafting plays a major role in your survival. There are different weapons and items to craft. Annoyingly, melee weapons have limited use. This forces the player to play strategically. Do I use my weapons at the risk of temporarily running out of ammo, do I use my melee weapon and risk breakage before an even worse “freaker” enemy, or do I go in stealthy? Unfortunately, the latter two options lack some refinement. Initially I felt a rush similar to those in The Last of Us sneaking up to and taking out an enemy, but I soon realized that there is no immediate threat to being detected. Soon after totally botching a stealth attempt, I took out a whole squad of “freakers” with a slightly modified baseball bat. Even if this fails, the open world provides enough room to run, hide and wait for the enemy to forget about your existence.
I am totally generalizing, and even though this approach works most of the time, it doesn’t work for all types of “freakers” – of which there are plenty. Humans and fauna are both affected by the virus and the latter provides an excellent challenge and variation. Even without being infected, the animals are territorial and don’t take kindly to humans rummaging about. Infected they are even worse. Infected wolves, also called Runners, have the pace to keep up with your bike, making them extremely difficult to outrun. Rager bears are towers of strength and fearless. They have massively increased durability, and are able to take lots of damage.
It is always said that the biggest monster is man, and in the lawless world of Days Gone, this is no exception. Along the way you’ll find Marauders and Rippers aiming to capitalize on the infection for different reasons. Days Gone also makes the brave (and controversial) move to also include infected “children”. Newts are infected adolescents that are generally less active and will only attack when Deacon’s health is low or if he gets too close to them. Screamers will stun Deacon with a characteristic scream, alerting nearby “freakers” of his position. Swarmers, the majority of “freakers” you’ll encounter, can either travel in smaller groups or swarm together. While individually they pose less of a threat, in a swarm they can easily overpower you. Each creature or enemy warrants a different approach, and while some of the quests can be a bit bland and repetitive, the enemies at least provide enough variation.
Now, onto the less positive. In the build-up to release, there were many concerns and criticism about the game’s performance. Framerate drops, glitches, crashes and long load times were some issues reviewers and other early adopters experienced. Unfortunately, without the latest update, this is all true. Getting into the game takes a while due to the long loading times, which are also experienced mid-gameplay. Perhaps the most jarring of all is the annoying fade-to-black before each cutscene. It takes away from the immersion. At the time of writing, the latest update is being downloaded and I will give feedback on performance improvements within the next couple of days. That said, odd crash aside, none of the issues are game-breaking.
Overall, Days Gone has the makings of a good game. It has some technical issues that are actively being worked on, but perhaps its biggest flaw is my constant comparison to (the much superior) The Last of Us. Maybe if the opening sequence didn’t set my expectations so high (from having no expectations, I might add), I wouldn’t have made the immediate comparison. But then again, if it didn’t, it would have risked being just another “zombie” game. It is an extremely difficult balance and, honestly, BEND Studio managed well for a first attempt. It lacks the true emotional depth of The Last of Us, but managed to provide a fun and enjoyable experience. In the ocean of zombie-like games, it is difficult to stand out and I feel that Days Gone made a decent attempt. Unfortunately, it loses its focus along the way and becomes repetitive and bloated. Nonetheless, it lays a decent foundation for a new IP and BEND Studio can only go forward from here.