- Great world and characters
- Survival elements keep the open world fresh
- Excellent performances by Sam Witwer and the rest of the cast
- Gigantic - with a story that really goes places
- You can give a puppy dog toys
- Excellent photo mode
- Lots of pop-up and hitching in the overworld
- Bugs in every major aspect of the game
- A weak musical score
- The realism can go too far
- The touchpad controls are the easy to trigger by accident
Days Gone has its share of issues, but it's far better than I expected it to be. It's a great offering from Sony that's worth more attention than it's getting. Sony Bend is talented, and I hope they get the recognition they deserve.
A DECADE AND FIFTEEN YEARS
The fact that Days Gone is Sony Bend’s first major console title in fifteen years should not be lost on us. Since 2004’s Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, they’ve mostly developed for the PSP and Vita, occasionally porting later Syphon Filter titles to the PS2 when it was still viable. To go from titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Fight for Fortune to a modern open-world game is an impressive and radical change. It does not excuse the issues that exist within Days Gone, nor does it change what this game actually is, but it gives context to where this game comes from, and also helps explain why the first few hours feel so easy to pick up.
Obviously, the developers have done their research. As I settled into the tutorials, I was reminded of a ton of other games. I saw the Detective Mode from the Arkham titles, hunting like in Far Cry, a presentation on the level of Uncharted, and the narrative flow of a modern Red Dead. Now, Days Gone takes these ideas and blends them together in a way that feels intrinsic to the world as it opens up, but those first few missions are like the last ten years of game design summed up into one chapter.
Where the game starts to diverge from the pack is with the story. In the first couple years following a zombie (or Freaker, using the game’s terminology) apocalypse, Deacon St. John, an ex-outlaw biker, is one of the few survivors left. Along with his friend, Boozer, Deacon rides out on his bike every day to do mercenary work for whatever survivor camp can afford him. He collects bounties, gathers supplies, and recruits people upon request, but this is only a means to an end. His real goal is to find his wife, Sarah, after the two were separated when the Freakers took over. There are other plot points that pop up here and there, but the larger tale remains easy to follow, giving the game wide license to focus more on character interaction and nuance.
With a stellar performance by Sam Witwer (Being Human), Deacon comes to life from the get-go. He’s a lonely drifter who spends his time riding around the Oregonian landscape, unable to escape his thoughts. Dealing with all of his grief and guilt has left him a bit unstable: he finds solace in his frequent trips to a headstone carved in Sarah’s honor, where he can talk out his feelings, while holding out hope she could still be alive. He tries to portray himself as a man of few words, but he’s flexible. Sometimes he’ll come across a marauder camp and curse them out and it’s as if he doesn’t even know he’s speaking out loud, and other times he’ll just shout “bear!” and convey all the emotion of the situation. As he evolves through the story, we get a sense of his loyalty and respect as a husband, and want him to succeed so he can be that way again.
The different mission types are all focused on building the world around Deacon so that it feels as real and lived-in as possible. This means that there’s a lack of distracting side content, like poker games or naval combat, and more emphasis on bounty hunting, collecting materials, and killing Hordes of Freakers. Completing missions for the numerous camps can net you credits that can be spent on upgrading Deacon’s bike and weapons. However, each camp has their own credits system, and that can be frustrating when you’re waiting around for the next mission at a specific camp to open, because you need a bike upgrade and the one camp you do have credits in doesn’t even sell them.
The credits situation is just one of a number of small complaints I have that don’t take away from my enjoyment of the game, but show the growing pains of a studio acclimating to modern game design. The way the developers utilize the PS4 touchpad is another one. On paper, the idea of swiping your finger in a direction to open up different menus makes sense, but the game does not account for the fact that the control sticks sit right below the pad, and some of us have thumbs big enough to brush against it every time we push up. This became an issue in tense moments where I’d be shooting in combat, and a menu would open. This broke not only the immersion of the situation, but also reset Deacon to a neutral position where I’d lose precious seconds trying to re-aim. I died more often from this than I care to remember.
Something that I think a lot of developers have learned is, unless you design them really, really well, like an Assassin’s Creed level of commitment, that stealth missions in open world games aren’t fun. I was willing to give Sony Bend the benefit of the doubt at first since they made Syphon Filter and all, but that just makes how bad these missions are especially egregious. I remember one mission specifically that I kept failing because to distract some guards, I had to throw rocks to lure them in the opposite direction, except the rocks I threw never gave me enough time to slip by. After a while I decided to just go around the camp and reach my destination from a different direction, but the game didn’t like that I was leaving the “Mission Zone” so it reset me again, even though I was actually closer to my objective than ever before.
I understand it must be difficult to anticipate how players will interact with giant open worlds. Especially in games as story-heavy as Days Gone, where variables like time of day and Deacon’s bike can play important roles from cutscene to cutscene. However, there’s a point where the inclusive “come as you are” philosophy feels at odds with the realistic world Sony Bend created. For every good moment the game spends making sure its cast is diverse and LGBT+ friendly, there are also situations that would have worked out if the game was less deliberate. Oftentimes I would arrive at a story location only to have Deacon stand there as the day/night cycle accelerated to match the time of day in the next scene. Whenever this happened, I was taken out of the realism, because the idea of him standing there for twelve hours to talk to the person in front of him was just too funny. Perhaps it’s done to mask a load time, but I’d frankly rather have that than have Deacon stand around and do nothing.
I should also briefly touch on the many bugs I found in the game, as they affect just about every category I can think of. From boss battles where the boss stood still until I threw enough Molotovs in its face to kill it, to sound effects that couldn’t keep up with the action, each time I turned on the game I wondered what I would encounter next. A lot of the bugs were fun goofs to explore, like the time Deacon started spawning under the world after reloading the same checkpoint two or three times, but other times they were increasingly frustrating, as entire functions of the game stopped working until I turned off the console. Some of these issues continue to improve as more patches come out, but thankfully nothing permanently killed my progress. It came close once or twice, but I always managed to turn it around.
I don’t want to overstate the negative. I came away from this game really enjoying the time I had. I loved the way the story unfolds, as it fleshes out the characters even in its most bombastic, “blockbuster” moments. I also enjoyed driving around the environment on a bike that I upgraded and painted myself, and preferred it to the fast travel system for that reason. The combat and mission types are ultimately typical of other open-world games, yes, but I liked the variety for what it was and appreciated how the game found ways to tie in the themes of its story into some of the side content.
Days Gone is ambitious, but messy. It combines a lot of cool systems together and does a few neat things on top of that, but I got the feeling that this was a personal indie project that somehow got major studio backing. Despite expectations otherwise, it makes a case for its own existence, and shows that, yes, there’s value in Sony having two zombie-related IP in the year 2019. Zombie fiction may seem played out, but Days Gone forced me to overcome my cynicism and embrace this game for what it is. There are some loud moments where guns are blazing and the biker machismo is at full force, but the game really isn’t about that. It just wants to tell a quiet, little story in a screwed up world, and takes you on a ride through each of its successes and failures as it takes that journey.
This game was reviewed on a PS4 Pro, using a retail copy of the game I pre-ordered. If you’d like to contact me, you can always leave a comment below, hit me up on Twitter, or email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com!