Days Gone doesn’t play by the open world rulebook.

Where games like Far Cry or Sony sibling Horizon Zero Dawn want to push you, the player, into the world, and coax you into encounters, urge you to explore and make you do all the work, Days Gone is more intent on bringing the action to you.

Sony’s latest PS4 exclusive takes aim at ‘open world fatigue’ - the sensation players get when they’re bogged down by doing so many side quests they forget what the actual story is - by switching things up with the game mechanics, and making Days Gone’s version of the American wilds that much more dynamic.

After a good four hours of hands-on gameplay with the upcoming RPG, we were left more enthused about the game than we expected - if only for the way it deals with delivering an interesting, character-lead narrative in a responsive, engaging open world.

Deacon’s Blue

From the off, you’re introduced to Deacon St. John, the unlikeable, surly and fashion ignorant protagonist of the game. The opening cutscene sees Deacon’s injured wife take off in a helicopter - supposedly going to a safe camp in the mountains - whilst Deacon stays put to rescue his long-time outlaw brother-in-arms, Boozer.

The scene is intended to make you empathise with Deacon - but everything about the character rubs us up the wrong way. Arrogant, smarmy, choosing his Outlaw pal over his heavily pregnant wife… it doesn't set him up as a hero in our head.

But then, maybe that’s the point - we’re quickly thrown forward two years into the future, into a world where civilisation has crumbled, and the undead roam the earth. Here, we see Deacon is a haunted man: Boozer is still alive and well, riding out on motorcycles with Deacon to kill bandits and nab bounties, but our main character is broken.

Flashes of anger, morose monologues, Deacon pining for his assumedly dead wife - the first hour of the game is a rollercoaster that pulls no punches when setting up the bleak tone that defines Days Gone.

Men and motors

The outlaw inspiration fused with the zombie tropes basically makes the whole thing feel like Sons of Anarchy/The Walking Dead fanfic - but that’s not a bad thing. We couldn’t name you anything else, videogame or otherwise, that smashed these two genres together. And - surprisingly! - the contrasting tropes actually suit each other pretty well!

One of the main things you need to be aware of in the game is your bike. The hog is Deacon’s pride and joy, and forms an integral part of the survival mechanics Days Gone is built around. The bike is more than just a vessel to get you from collapsed ruin to slipshod outlook - it’s a key part of Deacon’s identity, and (from what we’ve seen so far) probably one of the last things that’s keeping him sane in this crumbling version of the USA.

You need to take care of it as well as you take care of yourself: the bike has a health bar and a gas gauge, and if you let either get too low… you’re going to find yourself at the mercy of a world that is very much out to get you.

Undead Nightmares

At any one time, there are a variety of variables acting on you and your ability to survive in Days Gone.

The day/night cycle informs the enemies you’ll be facing (zombies like darkness, bandits like daylight) and affects your stealth capabilities. The weather affects your visibility and your options when it comes to taking down enemies (fire isn’t as effective in the rain, as you may expect). There are also myriad different biomes in the game - from snow to sand, from forest to urban and beyond.

Each of these areas will have different cover options and different resources available - meaning you have different strategies open to you wherever you are. But you’ve got to think about everything you do.

Days Gone debuts the ‘Escalation System’ - basically a fancy term for ‘zombie awareness’. If you shoot an enemy in a camp, that bullet is going to alert zombies to your presence. If you start making a ruckus here, more zombies are going to hear that, and before you know it, you could see yourself in a 1v1000 situation that you’re never going to escape alive.

Throw in a few zombie bears or some more messed-up mutations and Deacon’s got himself in a situation not even his beloved bike can get him out of.

Say it ain’t Sony

There are three central pillars the Days Gone encounters operate around: stealth, melee and ranged combat. The game has been built so that each of these elements can be patched together on the fly - after all, you never know what kind of domino effect one of your actions is going to have on the world.

So if you’re sneaking around a bandit camp, slashing throats, and a stray zombie sees you, you can duck back into the long grass as the undead starts causing havoc with the humans. If it’s not quite going at the speed you want, you can find higher ground and throw a few potshots into the mix, take out any stragglers.

Days Gone prides itself on how well these mechanics knit together, but that doesn’t stop them being markedly average. It feels like Bend has been learning from the Sony book of action game design, but has cobbled together a character that handles without any of the finesse of Nathan Drake, or the fluidity of Horizon’s Aloy.

It’s hard not to compare Deacon to his peers when Days Gone feels like such a Sony game - and that’s a shame, because there’s nothing necessarily bad about his copy/paste gunplay or his perfectly functional stealth tactics… they just don’t leave a strong impression in the grand scheme of things.

Days Gone initial verdict

Days Gone has a lot going for it: the setting and the character-centered story are certainly unique, and the way it brings the world to you sets it apart from its open world contemporaries.

It’s not as visually impressive as its Sony stablemates, but when you consider Days Gone can generate a writhing horde of over 100 undead at a time, it’s something you can overlook.

For all its good ideas, Days Gone feels a little stilted in gameplay - a jack of all trades, master of none. Combat is punchy and pacey, but the stealth and the gunplay lack any real refinement and often left us wanting more.

Whether that’s more reaction from the enemies we’re engaged with, more heft in the shot of the guns, more tension when we’re slinking through the undergrowth, or more personality from the characters we were engaging with.

Days Gone has all the right ingredients to be a surprise hit for Sony - it just needs more refinement and more focus so players can engage with the great open world, without average mechanics holding them back.

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