Days Gone Review
Days Gone is an open-world action-adventure game set in a harsh wilderness two years after a devastating global pandemic. Play as Deacon St. John, a Drifter and bounty hunter who rides the broken road, fighting to survive while searching for a reason to live.
Sam Witwer, Jim Piri, Courtnee Draper, Nishi Munshi, Jason Spisak, Bernardo DePaulo, Daniel Riordan, Dee Dee Rescher, Eric Allan Kramer, Crispin Freeman
Developer: Bend Studio
Studio Director: Christopher Reese
Writer/Director: John Garvin
Game Director: Jeff Ross
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro with patch 1:07)
When I played Assassin’s Creed: Unity roughly nine months after release, I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed my time. I was shocked to make it through 20-30 hours of gameplay with zero bugs in a game that I had seen be ridiculed online for them for months on end. I’m telling you this because Days Gone, the first core PlayStation console release from Bend Studio since the PS2 is hiding a good game that is undoubtedly held back by nauseating technical issues.
Your first six-to-eight hours with Days Gone will be your worst. It’s a slow drag of ploddingly introduced mechanics, weapons and characters that eventually does open up to a much more varied and exciting experience. Every location and every character I enjoyed the most is from later in the game. It’s obviously a huge time-investment and a hurdle, and ultimately if you aren’t enjoying a game after a couple of hours it’s hard for me to argue you invest more time to see if you’d like it later. If you do, I can’t guarantee you’ll think it’ll be worth it, much like I can’t guarantee any TV show with a shaky first season will be worth it next season. However, I’m glad I stuck with Days Gone.
Two years into a near world-ending event that has left the majority of the population dead or turned into mutated creatures known as ‘freakers’, we take control of protagonist Deacon St. John. He’s a dry-witted hard-ass with questionable, yet typical video game protagonist morals that will have him toting how he won’t shoot or kill unarmed women or children, but proceeds to then stealth kill a bunch of women we simply assume are armed and also kills ‘newts’, which are child freakers. Deacon appears to have been doing whatever he needs to do to survive for the past two years. As a drifter, he does work doing bounties for several camps located around Oregon in exchange for camp credits. These would mostly involve hunting down marauders or others who have harmed or attempted to harm a camp. As a player, you’ll do your fair share of these types of missions as side mission if you choose as well.
Deacon lost his wife Sarah two years earlier amongst the initial stages of the outbreak’s chaos. In the opening hours of the game, it’s easy to gather his only reason for continuing to fight on is his best friend and fellow Mongrel biker club member Boozer, who you don’t really get a good idea about until later in the game. This is because Boozer gets gruesomely burnt on his arm by the crazed faction called ‘Rippers’ in the game’s first hour, leaving him bed-ridden for the following tedious hours of Days Gone as he recovers. This injury pushes Deacon to fight and search for medical supplies for his brother and also to find help in places he would have turned away from before.
When you pause Days Gone the menu displays the number of days that have passed since the outbreak of freakers. As Deacon’s story grew with me though, I started thinking of it as a counter for how many days had passed since Deacon felt he truly had a reason to live. His relationship with Sarah is delivered at times through the means of flashbacks which aren’t the most fulfilling events to play through as they’re just cut-scenes or non-interactive gameplay ride-alongs, but I eventually grew into their romance and it’s important for Deacon’s story.
Deacon, as a protagonist, much like the rest of Days Gone is hard to like in the first several hours. But by the end of the game, I really did like him and his character progression was like with all things in this game, rough and long, but given where he ends up, also earned. I appreciate that Days Gone answers a lot of my big questions in the game as well which rewarded me sticking with it. Someone eventually bringing up how the newts Deacon has been murdering are just mutated kids offered a moment for Deacon to reflect on the past couple years and who he’s become. He’s obviously haunted and you could argue, in love with the fight. His constant whispering to himself as you take down freakers, or his screaming as you clear a marauder camp shows a bloodthirsty killer. But given the world we’re in, who can blame him? Freakers killed his wife.
Days Gone’s freakers are not zombies and to simply describe them as pseudo-zombies is an injustice to their design, which is both interesting and horrific. Freakers are mutated humans, and later in the game, you’ll even bump into mutated animals which includes terrifying bears.
Days Gone isn’t afraid to go into dark territory and push the buttons of its horrific setting. The newts are kids, and I never took glee in killing them knowing what they were, but when they go violent, they can kill you. I could however, very easily understand why someone would have trouble clubbing one of them to death. Several times Days Gone dived into its bleak, horror movie vibes, but I actually could have used more of it as the game at times wavered between AMC’s The Walking Dead or The Road level of bleakness.
Bend Studio wants you to really feel how long it has been. Two years! The game might as well scream it as you’re sent out on tedious and repetitive missions just to make you feel how long this adventure is and is going to be. And it is certainly long, there is no doubt about that. My rough estimate for how long it took me to beat Days Gone would be around fifty to sixty hours but that is with some side quests and exploration.
For the most part, Days Gone will have you riding your bike to a location, clearing out the freakers or human enemies there, possibly retrieving an item, or activating something, and then leaving. There’s only a handful of more cinematic and story-driven missions that offer something outside the ordinary, like one that has you heading into an abandoned mine that felt like true horror as you tried to not wake the freaks inside. It would have helped pace the game a lot better if more missions were like that with a focus on story and using the world in interesting ways, but for the most part, it is very paint-by-numbers for an open world game, not to say that’s inherently a bad thing.
The human-based mission becomes a tedious affair rather quickly simply because of the lack of variety to them and the enemy AI being so predictable. Your gun combat at the start of the game is very bad, purposely somewhat because you do have a semi-RPG system to upgrade Deacon’s accuracy among other things, which makes stealth and melee the go-to-action. You can very easily abuse throwing a rock to lead an enemy to a corner and then taking them out silently over and over. This was how I played Days Gone for about 70% of the game. Once I hit the last third, I had much better guns, enough camp credits to stock up on ammo constantly and would be happy to just run in guns blazing.
Days Gone involves a handful of semi-survival mechanics that added to the experience and help it stand out from other similar titles. Your bike requires fuel and can break down, but in my 60+ hours I never ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere as you can top-up at camps, and even fuel stations along roads have an apparently infinite supply of fuel for you. Your bike is compartmentally upgradable and can take damage to the point its engine doesn’t run, which means you need to be constantly repairing it to make sure it’s roadworthy with scrap you can find or pull from random vehicles. There is a crafting selection for you to make including health restoring items, molotovs, trap and items to attract freakers which requires you to search buildings and random camps for items. I felt like I was always finding the perfect amount of items so it felt like the stuff I was crafting was uncommon, but I wasn’t flooded with excess pieces as to defeat the survival aspect.
The Hordes in Days Gone are the true gems of combative and tactical planning, with a reliance of either planning out the best-laid trap, or being able to react to what's happening around you. Hordes were one of the most talked about things from Bend Studio and PlayStation prior to release and they didn’t let me down, several fights with massive hordes of a thousand freakers have been some of the tensest and rewarding gameplay I’ve done all year. The hordes are nearly an end-game experience though as you’ll really struggle to take them down in the earlier hours and bumping into one in the night is a paralyzing moment. It’s not until way later in the story that Deacon even consider the idea of taking down a horde as a possibility and to be honest, in my first ten hours I didn’t understand how it’d be possible either. Leading a horde through a building planted with explosives, ducking and rolling to escape them, running just an inch in front of hundreds of their faces as you spay every bullet you have into their faces though, is glorious.
Oregon, as presented in Days Gone, is a beautiful and brutal world which starts off as swampy greens and muddy grey but eventually grows into much more varied environments and weather conditions including heavy storms and snowy mountain tops. Days Gone is also one of the most highly detailed open-world games I’ve played with roads being trashed with debris, sticks, twigs and other items and houses featuring assortment of items that all bring together an Oregon that feels real, it’s just a pity it doesn’t feel truly dynamic and lived in, instead it’s a beautiful sandbox.
Days Gone featured the tagline ‘the world comes for you’ but what they meant is ‘you come for it.’ Bumping into some random mission or events in the wild would have gone far, instead, you simply get random bandits trying to ambush you, or boring civilians to save, or kidnapped people you can save and send to a camp of your choice for credits and respect in that place -- none of it really matters.
Another hindrance on the beautifully designed world is the ridiculous amount of texture bugs and issues. Driving through a forest I’ve had everything turn to what is best described as play-doh-moosh. Texture pop-in is also so bad that I was killed several times from a car, rock or something else just not existing in front of me. Characters too can go from well detailed and motion-captured, those being the core cast, and then random civilians having faces that animation seems pulled from another game entirely.
The biggest buyer-beware is the game breaking bug I ran into around forty-hours in that was only saved thanks to my obsessive muti-save-slot saving.
Not even the audio is safe from issues which is a huge disappointment as it’s very important to the game. Days Gone features a great score from Nathan Whitehead which is paired with the tone-defining sounds of freakers in the distance to create a unique soundscape -- which is obviously ruined when the sound completely drops in and out at random, which happened to me several times. Even some cinematics had the sound-design mixed poorly so that Deacon’s voice was overshadowed by the random group of humans talking in the background.
Days Gone’s technical issues aren’t game-breaking aside from a few I’ve seen reported online, one of which I, of course, ran into. For the most part, the issues are tiny annoyances, but they are so consistent that it could ruin one's experience. One camp will drop me below 10FPS every single time I enter it and running around like that is annoying. I purposely steered away from ever going to that camp unless it was for a story mission for that reason. If I’m staying away from a location for FPS issues, it’s not good, full stop.
The reason I pushed through several near rage-inducing bugs was because of the story. Sam Witwer as Deacon and his relationship with Jim Pirri as William ‘Boozer’ Grey really just grew on me. As did a lot of other characters including Courtnee Draper as Sarah, Nishi Munshi as Rikki and Eric Allan Kramer as Iron Mike. I even teared up in a scene and shed a single tear in another. When the credits finally rolled I felt like I’d been through three seasons of a TV series. The first was okay, slowly paced but I stuck with it for the overall narrative. The second was a lot better and introduced me to a more varied and considerably better core cast. Then the third season drove home several emotional punches I didn’t see coming and cementing Days Gone to have something special hidden amongst the rough.
Days Gone tries to do so many things and tell so many stories that it feels like it’s sabotaging itself at times. But its core story is intriguing and the universe it sets-up is ripe for continuation. But as it stands, as of posting this review, it’s very much a buyer beware case because of the technical issues.