Straight up: Days Gone offers a brutal, thoughtful, and, at times, frustrating excursion into open-world survival. Riding your motorcycle through hordes of blood-thirsty zombies frequently feels exhilarating, and that sensation becomes much more palpable when your characters begin to grow and you have access to better gear and weaponry. Although the game often feels as though Ubisoft got their hands on the State of Decay franchise and infused it with a fleshed-out story and more refined gameplay, it never feels like a tired retread with a host of borrowed mechanics.
You’ll feel all the emotions the main character experiences throughout the story, and your knuckles will whiten as you attempt to keep him alive when a massive group of Freakers descends upon him while he attempts to restore power to a ruined outpost in the middle of nowhere. And while it has more than a few bugs that can rip you right out of the experience, Days Gone ranks among the better games I’ve played thus far this year. It’s also worth noting that we’re still in the early part of the year, so make of that what you will.
An excessive amount of hyperbole drips aplenty from that paragraph, and I am well aware of that fact. I really have enjoyed my time in Days Gone, and I immediately wanted to start it all over again after wrapping up the 30-plus hours of story. Watching our hero, a biker/drifter named Deacon St. John, battle his way through the world while dealing with a host of painful memories and busted emotions felt genuine and very real.
As overly familiar as the world he inhabits may be — Days Gone definitely exists in the post-Walking Dead era of zombie-related entertainment — it also serves as a wonderful backdrop for a tale about a broken man and his ability to push through a post-apocalyptic world despite everything he holds dear crumbling all around him. I’ve never really felt the need to hug a video game character before, but Deacon definitely needs a hug. Somebody, for crying out loud, give that poor man a freaking hug!
Days Gone opens with a tense moment between Deacon, Sarah (the love of his life), and Boozer (his brother). Sarah, sporting a wound in her side, needs immediate medical assistance, and the trio stumbles across helicopter that will ferry them out of a nightmarish cityscape. The problem: The helicopter can only take two people. Since Deacon’s a great guy who never leaves a man behind, he puts Sarah on the helicopter and sticks with Boozer, who also has a pretty gnarly gash of his own. The friends watch as the helicopter heads off into the distance, and Boozer remarks, “What did you do?” Deacon doesn’t have an answer to that question, though players will soon discover that our hero’s decision had a very profound impact on his life and those he holds dear. After a time jump, we join Deacon and Boozer as they make their way through a horrifying landscape filled with dangerous zombies and, perhaps worst of all, killers and religious headcases who desperately want everyone to “get low.” You’ll quickly discover that humans are far more deadly than the world’s undead monstrosities.
While you’ll spend a lot of time smashing, shooting, and destroying Freakers, Swarmers, Newts, and other hideous creatures, Days Gone ultimately tells a very human story. At its core, the game uses this zombie outbreak to tell a story about a man finding his footing after fate kicks him square in the face and leaves him a shell of his former self. And while Deacon does a fine job navigating his relationships and beating down the enemies he encounters, you can easily tell that the guy has serious issues; listening to him mutter about taking down marauders and raging at a radio broadcast tells you everything you need to know. As the story progresses, you begin to understand why. Although he’s incredibly kind and thoughtful, there’s an undercurrent of rage and heartache that courses through every inch of his body.
Navigating the world of Days Gone takes some getting used to. If you’ve spent any amount of time with the deeply underrated State of Decay 2 (yeah, I said it), then you’ll quickly pick up on what you need to do to keep your flesh intact: scavenge and wisely manage your resources. In fact, you’ll spend a large amount of time digging through car trunks, popping the hoods of automobiles for scrap, and rummaging through abandoned buildings to find the things you need to keep Deacon alive. Toward the beginning of the game, you have very poor weaponry and limited supplies, making the first few hours a breathless and, at times, frustrating struggle to survive. However, once you get your hands on some good guns, a few top-notch melee weapon schematics, and better motorcycle parts, you have a bit more room to breathe, allowing you to explore more of this gorgeous open world without the constant fear of getting your skin pulled from your bones.
Even then, however, you still have to worry about keeping Deacon alive long enough to help his brother recover from a particularly nasty encounter with the cult-like Rippers, a confrontation that leaves the poor guy with a severely burned arm. In fact, if the Freakers and Swarmers and Newts don’t get you, then the humans will. It seems that everyone and everything wants to kill you, including the wildlife.
Battling packs of wolves, for example, can feel almost as dangerous as knocking down a handful of zombies who suddenly emerge from inside a rest stop bathroom. And when you’ve finished clobbering the wolves with your spiked baseball bat, you might have to contend with a group of marauders who decided to finish what the wolves started. Not surprisingly, these fights will quickly cause your meager supplies and ammunition to dwindle, so you need to choose your battles very carefully. If you see a random encounter pop up on the map, take a good look at your supplies. Running low? Then you should seriously consider moving on to your next destination as an act of self-preservation.
As the game progresses, you’ll work your way through multiple story missions and side quests, which should provide you with enough experience to climb through the ranks of Days Gone’s modest leveling system. Additionally, you can also clear out Swarmer infestations, provide much-needed power to abandoned medical units, and take down the handful of dangerous outposts sprinkled across the game’s large map. As mentioned, these activities feel very Ubisoft-esque; for example, you can linger outside camps and mark enemies with your binoculars or run into the fray with guns blazing, though how you approach these outposts will depend on you. Just keep in mind, however, that reckless behavior will often result in your untimely death. And if you do somehow manage to survive, you’ll likely walk away with very few bullets and bandages/medkits to your name, so a slow and steady approach almost always wins out over sheer brute force.
Regardless of how you choose to do the job, completing missions/quests and destroying outposts and nests will earn you some much-needed trust with the area’s survivor camps, allowing you to access better gear/weapons and parts for your motorcycle. Hunting animals, collecting herbs and plants, and snatching bits and pieces from dead zombies will also help you earn the respect of these camps, as you can trade them in for trust and credits. And if you still need something to help while away the hours, you can also spend a fair amount of time wandering the landscape in search of the myriad collectibles Days Gone has to offer, though, thankfully, these items don’t show up on your world map (and, truthfully, they don’t do a very good job in the worldbuilding department). Finding something to keep you busy shouldn’t prove too difficult, especially if you want to make Deacon St. John as strong as possible toward the final act of the game’s campaign.
So, it’s that time in the review that I discuss the one thing you’ve probably wondered about since Days Gone’s official announcement: those juicy zombie hordes. Let me just say that I didn’t encounter my first horde until several hours into the game, and I almost literally cried out in terror when I saw one crest a hill in the middle of the night as I tried desperately to escape a few Freakers I’d stumbled across inside a tunnel.
What makes these roaming packs of flesh-eating monsters so terrifying is that you simply don’t have the means to take them all on. Unlike games such as Dead Rising, battling a horde in Days Gone will quickly result in your demise, as Deacon St. John simply does not possess the weaponry or dexterity to smash them all before he ends up in the middle of a Swarmer sandwich. These moments lead to some seriously intense confrontations, especially when you parked your bike a good distance from the horde and your health is running low. If I haven’t made myself abundantly clear, the hordes provide plenty of scares and suspense, as you never quite know when one will show up.
And although Deacon’s motorcycle handles smoothly, which comes in handy during your daring escapes, the same cannot be said for the man himself. Poor St. John might look like he can handle himself in a brawl, but when push comes to shove, the guy doesn’t seem to have everything together. Shooting often feels a little too loose for my liking, though things tighten up a bit as you get better gear — but not by very much. Melee attacks, sadly, come across as unwieldy at the best of times and downright sloppy at the worst.
While you do have the option to roll away from your opponents during these confrontations, suggesting you might have wiggle room for a little strategy, most fights will unfold with you mashing the right trigger and hoping Deacon comes out on top. You’ll have more of a fighting chance during the day; by night, unfortunately, our hero doesn’t stand a chance between the zombies’ increase voracity and the wonky controls. As such, you’ll do well to plan your missions according to time of day by taking advantage of the ability to sleep at camps. Thankfully, Deacon can run like the wind (even during the early parts of the game), so take advantage of the guy’s ability to hoof it when the odds aren’t in your favor.
As much as I enjoyed roaming the countryside, knocking over the undead with my bike (and then immediately getting off said bike and quickly attempting to repair it), and guiding Deacon toward some semblance of post-outbreak happiness, Days Gone doesn’t execute its vision without its fair share of problems. For starters, the game crashed and locked up a few times on my otherwise trusty PlayStation 4 Pro, once toward the end of a particularly difficult encounter with a large member of the wildlife population. The result: I had to replay that skirmish all over again — after I’d almost defeated the creature after several frustrating times.
Another time, the game decided to freeze while I attempted to access my gun locker, and one of my favorite weapons vanished without a trace, forcing me to spend credits on it all over again. The game also had a tendency to hitch while driving the motorcycle at high speeds outside of heavily populated areas, which occasionally made yours truly barrel right off the road. In short: Days Gone sports typical open-world problems, though not nearly as game-breaking or annoying as others. Still, the lack of polish surprised me, as most PlayStation 4 exclusives seem almost spotless upon release.
Despite the technical hiccups and the problems inherent with open-world adventure games, I had a great time with Days Gone. Sure, the overall experience smacks of other games on the market, and it doesn’t really try to do anything remotely original with the design and setting. And while I had a problem with the Walking Dead-esque setting, mostly because I’m not really a fan of the television series, the presence of a likable, well-written protagonist helped alleviate the sensation that I was essentially fighting zombies in the same universe as Rick Grimes.
Hell, the main character is a motorcycle-riding, crossbow-wielding tough guy with a big heart — the description practically screams, “We’re gonna borrow that!” Again, Deacon St. John keeps those feelings at bay, and he keeps the story moving and grounded despite some B-movie plotting and well-worn cliches. And while most people will probably show up for the huge hordes and zombie-related mayhem, these moments pale in comparison to some of the genuine character moments you’ll experience throughout the story. Days Gone might seem like yet another post-apocalyptic adventure with zombies, but the human element easily rises above all the blood, guts, and carnage.
This review is based on time spent playing Days Gone on a PlayStation 4 Pro. A copy was provided to us by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Days Gone overcomes loose controls, familiar mechanics and gameplay loops, and a well-worn setting to tell a very relatable story featuring one of my favorite characters in recent years.