Days Gone (PS4/5)

Surviving isn't living
No, no it’s not.

Days Gone is an open world post apocalyptic zombie game that started as a Playstation 4 exclusive, but now it’s just released on PC. I played just played through this on the PS5 since it was included in the PlayStation Plus Collection (and last month it was a PS+ game of the month), and it was one of the bigger titles that I hadn’t played. I’m sure the improved frame rate, cumulative patches and faster load times made for a better experience than if I had bought it at launch.

The Island
That island is pretty important late in the game

First, I want to say it’s a solid game. I enjoyed it and got the platinum trophy. I can also understand the middling reviews though. It was hampered a bit by expectations and by a focus on scope over polish. It just never achieves the rarified air of its Sony stablemates.

Just think about this run of releases Sony had:

Horizon Zero Dawn
God of War
Marvel’s Spiderman

Days Gone

Death Stranding
Ghost of Tsushima
The Last of Us Part II

There were some smaller releases in between, but those were the big ad campaigns. In that list you have better stories, better characters, better combat, better open worlds, better acting, better graphics and much better polish. On it’s own, it’s a pretty good game. It suffers from the comparisons.

Bike repair
Take good care of your equipment and it’ll take care of you.

Days Gone is set in rural Oregon and takes advantage of the beautiful terrain. It’s not really a graphical showcase, but it looks good whether you’re checking out a scenic vista (landmarks are a collectible in the game) or zipping by on your motorcycle. It’s an interesting though necessarily cynical take on how people deal with crisis and loss. It is the end of the world after all.

You play as former motorcycle club enforcer Deacon St. John. As an aside, this is a completely ridiculous name, but only one character comments on this. That character starts out as a bit annoying and deteriorates from there, so I must conclude that the developers liked the name. Anyway, most people call you Deke. As you might expect of an action hero, Deke is competent at most things and deadly in a fight.

Burnout Apocalypse
Sort of emblematic. That sounds cooler than it is.

The other thing I noticed about Deke right away was that he’s Sam Witwer (with bonus tattoos). You might know Witwer from games like the Force Unleashed series, TV shows like Being Human and Supergirl or know his voice from many animated series like The Clone Wars. Like the Force Unleashed, the character model is Witwer. This was distracting for the first few hours, but either he or I settled into the character.

Days Gone is a big game. It can take 40-60 hours to complete. With one big exception, the core gameplay loops will remain the same. You’ll just be doing them with more and better toys and a bigger health bar. The exception is the big feature of the game, huge zombie hordes. Most of the game, triggering the hordes is either instant death or a mad dash to your bike to escape. Late in the game, you’ll finally be strong enough and well equipped enough to take on the hordes. I have to wonder how many people played the game and never made it that far. That’s too bad since it’s a crazy mix of planning, improvisation, panic, tools, toys, environmental hazards, skills and luck. The feeling of relief and accomplishment after killing off a large horde is pretty amazing.

Go kick rocks
It felt like the game was telling me that more than once.

There are some cool ideas in the game. Enemy human gangs will set traps for you. If you’re paying attention, they’re not hard to avoid, but if you’re zipping along at night in the rain or running from a big zombie or heavily armed gang, it adds some drama. Enemies will fight each other. An infected brute or bear fighting regular infected is pretty cool to watch, though sometime it highlights the limitations of the AI. You can lead a horde or other infected toward an enemy base or encampment. It’s satisfying when they do a good job of eliminating each other for you.

Probably the best idea in the game is your motorcycle. Due to story reasons, you start with a piece of junk. Piece by piece, you’ll upgrade it. Most importantly, you can feel each upgrade. You’ll go faster, farther and take less damage with each improvement. Some top tier items are behind story progression gates. Mostly, though it gives meaning to grinding for credits by making your game life easier. It doesn’t hurt that your bike looks better and more dangerous as you go along.

Stamina Increased
Stamina turns out to be more important as you go along.

Mechanically, it’s time to damn the game with faint praise. Beyond hordes and your bike, everything works. Melee combat, not flashy but it works. Ranged combat, sniping, stealth, climbing and traps all work. Each has been done better elsewhere. No areas fall down as a failure. I’m sure it’s quite the technical challenge to get all these systems to work together without breaking. Too many games have set the bar higher.

What about the story? On one level, it’s the story of Deke’s redemption after he’s given up on humanity. Characterization is probably the game’s strong suit. Each trading camp is lead by a vivid character. Even some of the non infected enemies are quite interesting. Deke is flawed and both strengthened and weakened by his sense of morality and code of honor. In fact, it’s easy to argue he’s wrong at several points in the story. Unfortunately, strong characters don’t automatically result in a great plot. Here the threads tying the characters and story beats together are rote, worn out or often uninteresting. The story is functional. It just feels like it wastes some interesting characters. I never hated it. More faint praise.

One down
You’ll often leave a trail of bodies in your wake.

I only experienced a few bugs playing Days Gone. One completely broke a mission. It required closing out the game and reloading the checkpoint after the game restarted. A few enemies got stuck on terrain. Occasionally, I found braindead AI. There were some hitbox errors. Overall, it was a pretty clean experience for such a long and complex game.

In many ways, Days Gone is a scrappy underdog. I see why people want to root for or against it. It’s got no great weakness, but only rarely soars to great heights. I liked it. I didn’t love it.

With some editing, polish and a better story, it could have been among those Sony greats. It coulda been a contenda. As it is, if you want to experience the fantasy of being a heavily armed outlaw bike surviving the zombie apocolypse, it’s a fun ride. Recommended for genre fans, Witwer fans and players with the patience to make it the horde killing endgame.

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