Days Gone is an open world action game developed by Sony Interactive Entertainment Bend Studios, and available exclusively on the PlayStation 4. Taking place in the near future, you play as Deacon St John (played by actor Sam Witwer), a young but grizzled biker gang member. When a mysterious outbreak turns most of humanity into quick zombie-like creatures known as Freakers, Deacon must learn to survive in this new ruined civilization. Days Gone is a mixture of many game genres with a slew of mechanics and features. Is this an open world genre compilation worth digging into, or is Days Gone a reiterative zombie game with a biker gang aesthetic?
The Last of the Bikers
Our story begins with protagonist Deacon St John and buddy Boozer attempting to help Deacon’s wounded girlfriend, Sarah. As a pandemic of unknown origin unleashes violent creatures on the town around them, the trio reaches a NERO (National Energy Response Organization) rescue helicopter. Leaving Sarah on the helicopter, Deacon returns to Boozer and faces down the impending doom unfolding around them. The horrifyingly fast Freakers continue to lay waste around them, with the future uncertain.
Picking up a couple years later, Deacon and Boozer act as freelance bounty hunters in the remnants of Oregon’s backcountry. Known as Drifters, these mercenaries track down both human and Freaker prey, earning trust and credits at nearby survivor encampments. Deacon completes some odd jobs while he and Boozer debate heading out of the state. In the meantime, Deacon continues to search for the presumed-dead Sarah, and starts to uncover the truth behind NERO and the outbreak.
Despite the wickedly quick Freakers that permeate the setting, the narrative in Days Gone is more reserved and slow-paced. There are a handful of bombastic action moments, but this is a far more character-driven drama than you might think. While the main plot spends plenty of time with the origin of the Freakers, the focus is moreso on the surviving humans and their attempts to stay alive.
Deacon St John is a great protagonist, even if his character can be a bit overplayed at times. It’s all a bit cliche, but behind the “tough guy biker” face he puts on, Deacon is a hurt and struggling man inside. The role comes to life thanks to a solid performance from Sam Witwer, and you’ll likely find Deacon both sympathetic and likable despite his flaws. Although certain characters and plot motivations can become uninteresting with the slow pace of the game, this more serious tone does allow for some truly great character moments. Overall, the story is a mixed bag of standard post-apocalyptic tropes and surprisingly effective plot points. It’s not the most emotional or compelling story ever told in gaming, but it manages to keep the player invested in the characters who matter most.
Searching for Work
During your time as a bounty hunter, there are a slew of things to do around Oregon. Besides the main story missions that introduce you to the various secondary characters, there are various side missions and activities to undertake. You’ll spend a lot of time traversing the open wilderness on your trusty motorcycle, eliminating threats where possible. The tree-covered hillsides and abandoned buildings are home to various foes, both human and Freaker. You’re rewarded for clearing out Freaker nests, cultist camps, and all sorts of other post-apocalyptic outposts. Days Gone wraps it all up in a gameplay system that offers a lot of options, but can feel a bit iterative at times.
Over the course of the story, you’ll encounter several survivor camps that serve as main hubs. Here, you can pick up side missions, sell various collectibles, buy new weapons, and improve your motorcycle. As you interact with each different camp, completing missions and selling goods, you’ll earn trust. By proxy, this allows you to access better weapons, cooler motorcycle decals, and more. There’s a narrative aspect to it as well, as you’re often pulled between these camps and their wants while acting as a freelancer. Camp leaders will often radio you on the fly, directing you towards new missions and points of interest. Gaining favor with these camps, building up your currency, and upgrading Deacon all make up the bulk of Days Gone‘s gameplay focus.
Story missions are the best when it comes to the authored content, and there’s an occasional side story that manages to stand out. However, a lot of the side content in Days Gone boils down to “go here and kill everything”. Whether you’re hunting down a human bounty, clearing out Freaker nests, or rescuing endangered survivors, your answer is to always kill first and ask questions later. There’s an occasional stealth mission that changes up the pace, but they’re rarely engaging or intense. Clearing out camps of enemies is cathartic and enjoyable, but it can become repetitive as your narrative motivations blend together.
A Bleak World of Freaks
You’ll only stop at camps for occasional upgrades and to restock, as most of your time is spent roaming the dangerous wilds. Whether during missions or in free roam, you’ll ride your trusty bike through various environments, hopping off to check out points of interest. Keeping your motorcycle full of gas and repaired is a constant requirement, but luckily gas and scrap aren’t very difficult to come by. The bike itself is more of a cruiser than a motocross, so it can feel slightly clunky to control at times. When fast travel was an option, I would usually prefer that over riding the dusty trail. This is more because of the lack of fulfillment that comes from exploration, but I consider the driving mechanics so-so all the same. Nothing is inherently wrong with the design or experience of motorcycle transportation, but I found it more repetitive as the map grew larger in size.
There are always stray Freakers lurking about, which you can take down in a variety of ways. The combat in Days Gone is primarily third-person shooting, with optional melee and stealth combat. However, there’s a focus on survival and realism, as health doesn’t regenerate (even on the easier difficulties), and ammo is scarce and expensive. You can always avoid most enemies, but if you want to fast travel between camps, you’ll need to clear out a handful of areas infested with Freaker Nests. How you choose to approach combat in Days Gone is a big part of the experience, and making sure you’re prepared to execute is just as important.
Generally speaking, taking down enemies and battling the Freakers is enjoyable. I enjoyed taking my nail-embedded baseball bat and home-running some zombies. I equally enjoyed the gunplay, both in explosive moments of mayhem and times of silent precision. Some missions provide exceptionally intense gameplay, like clearing out the deadly Freaker nests with fire. There’s occasional annoyances and frustrations that come from the survival and crafting mechanics, but overall it’s an enjoyable combat system that feels fun even after countless encounters.
Like many other open world action games, Days Gone contains a handful of expected survival and crafting mechanics. The crafting gameplay itself feels similar to The Last of Us; you’ll simply collect scattered items and mix them together on an intuitive crafting wheel. You can craft a growing number of items throughout the game, including crossbow bolts, bandages, and molotov cocktails. This list also grows as you unlock new recipes, including melee upgrades and enhancement “cocktails”.
Taking a page out of Red Dead Redemption‘s book, you can also hunt and skin random predators you’ll encounter in the wild. Collected meats and trophies can then be turned in at various encampments for currency and respect. The mechanics work fine and aren’t too much of an annoyance, but crafting and other survival elements in Days Gone bring nothing new to the table.
Finding resources isn’t all that difficult though, thanks to the handy (if cliche) “survival vision” that Deacon can use. By pressing in the right thumbstick, you can quickly scan the environment for goodies, which are briefly marked with icons. At the very least, this prevents the monotony of searching for specific items among the nature-heavy landscape. This survival vision can also be upgraded to reveal enemy locations and other important information, providing some benefits in combat as well.
As a final touch, the day and night cycle in Days Gone has a decent impact on the number of Freakers roaming around and their general strength. At night, they can often be found in large hordes, which are brutally tough and terrifying. In the day, they’re not as numerous in the open, but clearing out their nests becomes more hazardous as they retreat. Freakers are an ever-present threat, and knowing when and how to avoid them is a big deal, especially on high difficulties.
Improvise, Adapt, Upgrade
As you complete the various tasks available in the desolate Oregon countryside, you’ll be able to upgrade Deacon in a handful of ways. Besides obtaining new crafting recipes and consumable buffs, there are a few extra avenues to even the odds against the Freaker hordes. Deacon’s survival abilities arent the only thing you can level up either, as your trusty motorcycle can receive some improvements as well.
The biggest gameplay progression comes in the form of three skill trees that add both passive and active abilities to Deacon’s arsenal. Skills can be unlocked by spending precious skill points, which are unlocked by gaining experience points. You’ll get experience from natural gameplay, including killing enemies, completing missions, and turning in various collectibles at camps. In the Melee Combat tree, you can gain skills that reinforce crafted weaponry, perform hard-hitting combos, and generally improve Deacon’s dexterity. The Ranged Combat tree offers similar skills for those who favor the third person shooting, offering a slow-motion “focus” ability for better aim, higher ammo capacity, and other bullet-based buffs. The Survival tree predictably makes crafting and resource gathering even easier, and also contains vital upgrades to the aforementioned “survival vision”.
You’ll also find handy NERO injector kits at the NERO checkpoint locations littered around the map. These are instantaneously used to level up either your health, stamina, or shooting focus. Injector kits are a nice permanent reward that pop up often enough, providing a consistent feeling of progression. Similarly, your motorcycle can be upgraded at will, provided you have enough credits and encampment respect to do so. By visiting a safehouse mechanic, you can improve your bike’s durability and speed, and even splash on a new coat of paint. New motorcycle skins are unlocked at a decent pace as well, which add a nice customizable cosmetic touch to transportation.
While the backwoods and dirt roads of Oregon are quite beautiful to behold, their extravagance comes at the cost of performance. While playing the game on my base model PlayStation 4, I experienced an abundant amount of slowdown and frame drops. As the game displayed more and more lush scenery with high levels of animation, it likewise struggled to display it at a consistent level. At times, the slowdown interfered with the flow of gameplay.
Most of the frame rate and slowdown problems occur during open-world travel, as you whizz by on your motorcycle. Things can get choppy during on-foot combat and exploration as well, but it’s more apparent while driving. Especially at night, Days Gone can have a muddy, grayish tint to the visuals, something common in “gritty and serious” games. Although the visuals are never too bleak to be ugly, they can be repetitive when speeding by on bike. This, coupled with the technical hiccups weakens the overall game. I assume that these problems are lessened by the power of the PlayStation 4 Pro console, but the staggering number of standard PS4 owners will most likely experience these technical annoyances. Luckily, Days Gone isn’t plagued by massive glitches and gameplay bugs (to my knowledge), so the issues are mostly cosmetic.
The Bottom Line on Days Gone
Days Gone is an exceptionally long journey through the outback of Oregon, packed with zombie apocalypse tropes and open-world gameplay. Despite its occasionally repetitive nature and predictable overarching story, it manages to be a fun albeit flawed adventure. By the game’s end you will feel satisfied and ultimately happy with the story’s conclusion. That said, the road there can be long and arduous, but memorable all the same. This surprisingly emotional and grounded story might have a few hiccups, but it’s worth experiencing all the same.