Review by Harvard L.
I like to believe there was a collective feeling of apprehension in the audience at E3 when Days Gone was first announced. The game’s elevator pitch is simple. Zombie apocalypse. Open World. Motorcycles. A PS4 exclusive by a Sony in-house studio based in Bend, Oregon, in a time where “Sony in-house” already had a high bar of expectation placed upon it. Everyone was asking – how could this game bring something new when ever part of its premise is already well and truly oversaturated? As it turns out, any doubts were poorly founded. Days Gone is not a perfect game, but Bend Studio does manage to bring many new ideas to the table, reinventing the way zombie games are conceived and crafting an emotionally affecting story in the process. This is a game of pleasant surprises and unexpected tenderness, bringing hopeful optimism out of a genre which we all thought was a closed door after The Last of Us.
The success of Days Gone can be traced to a few stable pillars of good design. These are the hordes of zombies which populate the game world, the slow pacing focused on everyday events, and an affecting story filled with strong characters undergoing relatable challenges. Although much of the game falls within Sony’s safe design choices (as we have seen in the recent Horizon: Zero Dawn and Spider-Man), these pillars elevate the game to something greater and more admirable.
Days Gone uses the zombie to an effective end, showing players that there is new life in such a familiar trope. The zombie is one of the most overused video-game baddies: an easy way for designers to impede player progress, and a cathartic thing for the player to kill, without any need for remorse or moral concern. We’ve seen zombies in every-which-way between Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead and State of Decay. They are so common that they’ve become part of the gaming lexicon – you could convincingly argue that Splicers from Bioshock or Rioters from The Division fill the same role, even if they aren’t the victims of a pandemic or a necromantic incantation.
This representation borrows greatly from the depiction of zombies in film. The early Resident Evil games pioneered fixed horror-movie camera angles. Left 4 Dead structured its levels as if they were grindhouse films, with the players as actors and an AI “Director” which would moderate spawns to keep tension at the highest. Days Gone, on the other hand, moves as far as it can from this trope. It mostly avoids the overwrought one-against-a-million survival stories that zombie games tend towards, and instead takes a more slice-of-life approach, putting players in the shoes of a survivor going about their everyday routine. With zombies wandering the streets, the remaining humans have either gathered into encampments surrounded by palisades, or formed raiding parties bent on doing whatever it takes to survive. The missions reflect the day-to-day struggles of living in this type of world.
But while Days Gone eschews many of the cinematic leanings of other zombie games, there is one film that the game gleefully draws ideas from. Bend Studios’ creative director, John Garvin, has mentioned that he took inspiration from the cult horror film 28 Days Later – and it’s easy to see why. Both Days Gone and the 2002 film directed by Danny Boyle were released to audiences familiar with the trope-laden zombie genre; and both set out to prove to that largely apathetic audience that the living dead could still be both scary and surprising. The superficial similarities are immediately visible: both the game and the film buck the trend of clumsy, shambling zombies in favour of fast, aggressive, primal beasts. They also both insist on not using the “Z” word – 28 Days Later sticks to “The Infected”, while Days Gone calls them “freaks” or “freakers”. Both are also deadly serious when most of the genre stablemates slide closer to B-action, thrills, or laughs, and rely on the audience believing that their apocalyptic vision is realistic.
And, thankfully, Days Gone succeeds in making its zombies something to be feared. The E3 trailer’s amorphous legions, spilling over each other in a bid to devour the player, appear just as promised in the game proper. They feel like part of the ecosystem – wandering around open fields to feed at night and retreating into dark spaces to hibernate in the day. The clincher is that they’re not generic video-game enemies designed to be mowed down. They are incidental inhabitants of a changed world, and they will indiscriminately kill the player if they are not careful. In fact, the open world design amplifies the feeling of powerlessness. I’ve had multiple instances where I’ve turned a corner while exploring and accidentally plowed my motorbike headfirst into a hundred Freakers, and the experience was as terrifying as you’d imagine. Hordes remain formidable enemies all the way up until near the end of the game, and you’ll need to devise new strategies with each horde you fight, as they force you to make total use of your loadout, craftable items and environmental hazards.
The game’s open world allows Days Gone to adopt a slice-of-life structure to its narrative, crafting a world that is fleshed out and realistic. Although the game’s map is of a decent size, its density of unique landmarks, natural formations and structures will soon linger in the player’s mind – and it’s genuinely a lot of fun to simply ride along the countryside seeing what can be found. Although there is beauty in Bend Studio’s rendition of post-apocalyptic Oregon, there is also a hostility which will keep players on their toes. Riding around makes the player an easy target, vulnerable to ambushes from human raiders, zombies or infected animals. This leads to a natural, emergent storytelling that runs underneath the game’s narrative proper, and goes a long way to build atmosphere and immersion.
Various features lead to the game’s world feeling more alive and persistent. A robust day-night and weather cycle affects the behaviour of zombie hordes and wildlife, forcing the player to adapt to their conditions as they come. Generally, the day is safer as most zombies are hibernating rather than walking in the fields, and the player can manipulate this to their advantage by resting in safe zones to advance time. The player’s bike is also dependent on fuel found around the game world and scrap metal to fix up any damage, and these mechanics also contribute to the lingering tension of exploring. One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had was being stranded far away from a safe encampment while my bike had broken down, I had no scrap metal left to repair it and no ammo either – as a result I needed to sneak for miles before properly earning my right to safety.
Players are welcome to tackle the game’s story at whichever pace they like, and are free to pursue sidequests such as bounty-hunting or zombie nest extermination at their leisure. The main story missions are smartly not-too time-dependent, and do not betray any emotional gravity if the player decides to put them off. Missions are varied in their structure – some will have you tracking outlaws and bandits like a detective, others will have you exploring abandoned areas, and yet others will have you stealthily sneaking around armed pathogen researchers for a shady government organisation named NERO. What I liked most about the mission structure however is that they put story before all else. For the sidequests, I found that they all tapped into the protagonist’s motivations as a character, and did not distract from the game’s overall tone. I found myself undertaking them because I wanted to help the encampments, and the people who were giving the tasks to me. Main story missions are similarly story driven – rarely did I ever feel that enemy encounters were contrived to create action-setpieces, and some of my favourite missions were not much more than just cutscenes and walking, paired with some incredible story revelations. Ultimately, I’m forced to utter sentences which I never thought I’d have to say. Days Gone is far more interesting precisely because there are zombies in it. Days Gone works best because it is open-world. So far, so good. But this is a lengthy game, and before long the random open world ambushes and fetch-quest missions repeat themselves. The average combat and familiar cover-based gunplay would have had me on autopilot – if it were not for the game’s story.
Players are put into the shoes of Deacon St. John – a rough biker who works for various encampments as a searcher and bounty hunter. Deacon is refreshingly one of the most vulnerable protagonists I’ve seen in a while. He mourns for his wife who passed away in the initial outbreak two years prior to the events of the game, and preserves her memory in his actions and moral code. Due to a run-in with some enemies, he also needs to take care of his injured best friend – a gruff, tattooed biker named Boozer. These obligations come to define Deacon’s character as the story progresses: his motivations and loyalties are tested, and he is constantly challenged with how far he will go for his loved ones. Deacon’s voice actor, Sam Witwer, brings a complexity to the character – a “Nathan Drake” toughness to match his hostile surroundings, hiding depths of self-doubt, grief and hope that he might one day come to terms with his past.
This depth is also reflected in the game’s various side characters, who players will quickly get very acquainted with as the narrative develops. Each character’s relationship with Deacon reveals more about the protagonist and the world. Cutscene flashbacks to Deacon’s relationship with his girlfriend and then wife Sarah imbue the game with a softer and more wistful tone than most action games, and Deacon’s loyalty to his friend Boozer further sands away his rougher edges. Bend Studio’s creative director has bragged about the volume of cutscenes in Days Gone, and, refreshingly, rather than simply being content for the sake of content, these are used to great effect – making the most of the PS4’s hardware to convey the characters’ changing emotional states as they learn more about the world around them.
The game also uses its various camps to comment and critique upon the diverse leadership styles which have appeared once society had been plunged into chaos. The first encampment, for example, is a might-makes-right libertarian haven, where only the strong survive. But it’s not the only way to survive a zombie apocalypse, as the game argues. Each encampment is contrasted with the others as a distinctive leadership style which creates order at a certain cost – freedom breeds lawlessness, efficiency breeds a loss of individuality, altruism brings a lack of defences. When the story is working its best, it will have players thinking deeply about what is right and wrong, and how to remain hopeful in the face of despair.
The underlying theme of Days Gone’s narrative is progress – namely, whether it is better to try and cling to the past in the hope that things will go back to normal, or to pursue a new life leaving behind the old ways. The early missions of the game hammer this theme home while introducing the player to an eclectic cast of characters, and for a blockbuster game the commentary is surprisingly insightful. In addition to being McCarthy’s The Road meets Kerouac’s On The Road, the relationship between Deacon and his injured friend is reminiscent of the bleak optimism between George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men (minus the challenge of the mental faculties of one of the two). Deacon and Boozer dream of riding north, to a place where the zombie outbreak has impacted less, and where they can be free from the obligations, debts and grudges they have made with the various encampment leaders in Oregon. Although the world they live in is hostile and seems to thwart their plans at every turn, there is still something heartwarming about the genuine on-screen friendship. While riding, Deacon will occasionally radio Boozer just to check that he is doing okay – I can’t remember the last time a video game protagonist came across as so openly sincere.
A similar tenderness exudes from the way Oregon is represented by the team at Bend Studio. It must be wonderful for the developers to be making a game set in their own backyard, and their love for the Pacific Northwest region shines through. The game takes players through picturesque forests, deserts, mountains and lakes, juxtaposing the beauty of the natural environment (much of it reclaimed with the absence of civilisation) with the feral zombies that now cover the land like a plague. There are moments riding through the game’s world which made my jaw drop – and I’m sure that Bend Studio wanted it this way too: the only ways to travel are by bike or on foot, and fast travel is locked behind time consuming sidequests which will take players to each landmark anyway. The eye-candy is best experienced on a PS4 Pro, and players will be sure to make good use of the included photo mode.
My main gripe with the game comes from the inconsistency of the story’s tonal elements, which blemish an otherwise outstanding story. The story works best, and feels most original, when it is channelling the transient, slice-of-life vibe and showing players the everyday occurrences within the world. Most missions, as well as free-roaming, achieves this – but the game is far too long, to the point where later plot developments stop feeling natural. The exceptions do also stick out – most egregiously a hostile Mad Max style cult called the Rippers who practice self-mutilation and worship the Freakers. These enemies feel like they’re straight from a different game, and each mission focusing on this faction is absurd and bombastic, clashing with the otherwise pensive mood that Bend Studio creates. For each mission that stands out for its quality, there are also others that seem to go against the narrative entirely, and these inconsistencies will frustrate you – not because they are inherently bad, but because they are such a departure from the quality of the game at its best. These issues don’t ruin what is otherwise a well-structured game, however – what issues are present can be chalked to challenges of managing a studio this large and project of this scale (perhaps consider making shorter games next time, devs).
For its strengths and its faults, I kept finding myself drawn back to the game’s evocative narrative all the way through. Even after the open world shenanigans and tedious emphasis on combat wore me down, I carried on at the thought of finding out more about characters who at that point were starting to feel like real people. And at the centre of it all, is Deacon St. John – a callous, cold-blooded ex-biker ex-military mercenary, but he’s got an enormous heart, and that makes all the difference. The whole game is a joy to play, because of the optimism which he and his friends build up over the course of what is otherwise a bleak and empty landscape. And this is more than a fitting summary for Days Gone – a zombie game in 2019 featuring open-world mechanics we’ve all seen before – but like Deacon, the team at Bend Studio have got an enormous hearts, and, just like with Deacon, that makes all the difference.
– Harvard L.