The zombie apocalypse has been done to death by now, to the point where the entire experience feels quite rote.
While there are several zombie-centric games out there that have done a serviceable, ocassionally excellent job of portraying the bleakness of such an existence, most are paint-by-numbers riffs on one other.
Days Gone is an intriguing amalgam of many of the elements that most zombie titles tend to add to the melting pot, but as a Sony exclusive it's unsurprisingly a far more polished affair. An adventure with grit, heart, and plenty of zombies, it feels like the natural evolution of games like Dying Light or State of Decay.
By allowing players to become emotionally invested in its characters, Days Gone is able to weave a tale that's far more satisfying than your typical zombie adventure.
BORN TO BE WILD
Days Gone plonks you in the dusty old biker boots of Deacon St. John, a former outlaw who finds himself doing his best to survive rural Oregon that's been ravaged by a crop of zombie-like creatures called Freakers. These cannibalistic monsters have only the most base, primal instincts: gobble up any living creature for sustenance. They aren't zombies – at least, not in the traditional sense – but they act enough like them to do plenty of damage.
It's been two years since a crippling disease transformed the majority of humanity into Freakers. It isn't pretty, and as such the last bastion of humanity has been forced into hiding in survivor camps dotting the landscape.
Deek, as St. John's close friend Boozer calls him (another nickname) lives out his days trying to pinpoint where he and his partner will grab their next hot meal from. They cruise around the landscape riding their trusty motorcycles, a relic of a time long since passed. As members of the Mongrels' motorcycle gang, they're both holding onto a part of the past that they'll never see again, and all the while Deek is troubled by the presumed death of his wife, Sarah, back when the virus outbreak occurred.
As such, he's a gruff man who initially doesn't care much for pleasantries or anyone other than himself and Boozer. Throughout the entirety of Days Gone, we're treated to a thrilling chain of events that find Deacon slowly transforming into an ultimately much more caring individual, which becomes extremely rewarding. With the stage set, you can travel throughout the entirety of the slice of rural Oregon reserved for you, all the while wondering if Sarah is truly alive or not – and what you’ll do if you find her.
GET YOUR FREAK ON
While exploring the land in Days Gone, you'll be faced with a variety of enemies, most of which include Freakers themselves.
The skittering Newts are slightly terrifying in the way they move around on all fours, while the basic Freakers, referred to as Swarmers, overwhelm you with sheer numbers. They aren't the smartest enemy in the game, but they can overtake you quickly if you aren't careful.
Specialized Freakers include the Breakers, enormous bullet sponges that seem to take an astronomical amount of damage to put down. Screamers are exactly what they sound like; frustrating baddies that screech out warnings to hordes of enemies that you're out here mowing them down.
As if these mutated strains of enemies weren't enough, you could even run into a Rager here and there, or a massive, infected Freaker bear wrapped in barbed wire. When Days Gone goes all out, it truly goes all out. These are all zombie strains we've seen shades of before in games like Left 4 Dead or even in different zombie movies, but seeing them all in one place makes for a great amount of variety so combat doesn't begin feeling stale.
Combat is meaty and satisfying, with a range of weapons afforded to you to take out the enemies who dare threaten your humble way of life. From shotguns to crossbows, Deacon has an entire armoury at his disposal using the game's rudimentary crafting system. You can utilize items that appear to be trash, such as cracked beer bottles, rags, and other materials to create special items like healing bandages or even Molotov Cocktails.
LOOKING FOR ADVENTURE
When you aren't facing off against Freakers, there's still plenty to do. The open world is positively teeming with various subplots to explore and side quests to pursue.
Deacon and Boozer have their own unique narrative threads to unravel, but along the way you'll become entangled in others' stories as well. There's a wide variety of different survivors to chat with who'll need your help taking item A to point B and everything in between. Most of your time will be spent traveling via Deacon’s motorcycle looking for folks to help and ways to improve everyone’s unique situations.
A selection of side missions will keep you plenty busy as you work through the main game's quests as well, and occasionally you'll play through different flashbacks to Deacon's life with Sarah before the virus outbreak occurred. These segments, while necessary for world building and giving us a glimpse at the person Deacon used to be before his world was turned upside down, affect the game's pacing a bit.
They aren't nearly as entertaining as being able to explore the world freely, and can be likened to just about every segment in Gears of War where you get a phone call and have to walk around as if encased in tar for a few moments. They could have been reworked as cut scenes instead of playable moments, and they would have communicated just as much.
This decision is as head-scratching as the choice to remove crucial branching paths that were previously in the game. In early looks at Days Gone, several situations called for you to make a decision about how Deacon would interact with the world around him, and these decision points are sorely missed. You can tell exactly where they would normally have been in-game, so having had them ripped unceremoniously from the narrative feels strange. There's still plenty to do aside from decision-making, thankfully.
Luckily, there's plenty to keep you glued to the screen as the twisty story continues to develop. You'll absolutely be faced with developments you weren't expecting as you near the end of the 30+ hours you'll need to spend traipsing through Oregon, and as such Days Gonehas one of the better zombie apocalypse tales out there.
What really stuns about Days Gone is its astonishing level of polish, both in terms of graphics and voice acting.
Actor Sam Witwer (Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed) has some serious acting chops up his sleeve, and as such brings a believable husky, raspy tone to Deacon. Sometimes he stutters out sentences, talks over other characters, and blurts things out in ways you wouldn't expect a video game protagonist to do. It's marvellous, and his performance should well be praised because of these idiosyncrasies.
It helps that the game looks absolutely fantastic, too. This is the one of the most visually arresting post-apocalyptic landscapes the PlayStation 4 has seen, and you’ll want to spend a while simply taking in the sights instead of playing when you first get started.
All the details painstakingly crafted for the game, including Deacon’s motorcycle, clothing, and even the side characters have been given high levels of detail that help them to stand out from the crowd.
DAYS GONE VERDICT
Days Gone could have easily been another zombie adventure satisfied to colour inside the lines. And while it still largely adheres to a familiar set of mechanics and design decisions pulled from the zombie game playbook, it pulls it all off extremely well.
Its narrative will push you to complete every side quest to see what secrets there are to unravel next, Deacon himself's transformation is worth waiting for, and the Freakers are gnarly enough to keep you hanging around.
While it certainly isn't the most original story ever told, it's a yarn that the team clearly put their heart and soul into. If you're looking for a much more personable glimpse into what a zombie apocalypse might look like in modern times, Days Gone is an excellent place to start.