How does post-apocalyptic biker adventure Days Gone live up to Sony's strong PS4 exclusive line-up? Tom Hoggins rides along to find out
There will never be anything to dull the senses of a painstakingly created video game world. Their construction is a feat of herculean digital architecture; from the Western plains of Red Dead Redemption to the Nordic climes of God of War to the bustle of Spider-Man’s New York City.
Days Gone --Sony Bend Studio’s Walking Dead meets Sons of Anarchy zombie biker adventure-- is similarly impressive on the surface. The roads of Farewell, Oregon are a decimated parable of the Pacific Northwest. A diverse landscape of dusty roads, verdant forest and towering mountains. As gruff biker Deacon St. John, you thunder your bike across the landscape in the blue skies and sunshine following a rainstorm, heavy tyres churning up the road. One eye on the sun peaking over pine trees, the other on the screeching zombie barreling out of the grass.
But having set the stage so spectacularly, it is frustrating to see Days Gone provide so little of interest filling its corners. It is a mechanically sound open-world adventure that occasionally fires into life; but is curiously, often aggressively dull with a parade of missions and mechanics that have been done before, and better, in widely superior games.
It is also acted out by some of the more obnoxious characters a blockbuster has managed in recent years. Deacon sets up the game as a ‘Daryl from Walking Dead’ simulator; he rides a bike, wears a leather jacket and shoots people --both living and dead-- in the face with a crossbow. But he is a mumbly, grumbly presence to spend time with; either muttering repeated sweary epithets under his breath or inexplicably yelling into the night air at a radio broadcast.
As Deacon you are surviving in Farewell two years after a pandemic has left the majority of the population zombified, turned into ‘Freakers’ that can move at lightning speed and are wont to bash your head off. Deek’s ‘brother’ Boozer (yes, really) suffers a horrific injury at the hands of one of Farewell’s more crazed human factions at the beginning of the game, leaving him bed-ridden. Deek then prepares to ‘go north’ while Boozer heals up, fixing up a new bike and performing jobs for the nearby survivor camps to keep the ‘Biker Boys’ (yes, really) in credit.
In gruff male protagonist motivation 101, Deacon is haunted by the loss of his wife Sarah in the early days of the pandemic. And congratulations if you also had ‘mysterious government agency up to no good in helicopters’ in your post-apocalyptia bingo card. Hackneyed ain't the half of it.
So off you go, driving your bike hither and tither. Killing zombies and pinching their ears for bounties, clearing out human Ambush camps, finding abandoned agency outposts and turning on generators to power them up. Occasionally you will get into a motorcycle chase across the ragged, undulating plains.
And it’s all fine I guess. For the most part held together by robust mechanics. Melee combat is crunchy and meaty, Deacon slashing away with a boot knife or a more damaging scavenged weapon like a hatchet or lead pipe. As is now convention, these weapons break after prolonged use, but can be bolstered by scrap; shoving nails into a baseball bat or 2x4, for instance.
Shooting is similarly solid, popping off headshots by briefly slowing time with ‘focus’, or desperately spraying an onrushing zombie platoon with automatic weapons. Ammo is scarce enough to be a panicked consideration, but you unlock increasingly potent equipment as you progress to make Deacon more formidable.
Like most open-world action, it’s a far cry from genre-best. Human enemies are particularly dumb as the they pop in and out of cover or blissfully ignore you creeping round to stab them in the neck. And fighting zombies often involves backpedalling and picking them off as they charge. It’s uninspiring but serviceable stuff and, fortunately, far more polished than the wonkiness in earlier previews had suggested.
There are some decent ideas threaded throughout. Each camp you perform jobs for has its own currency and trust, so you must work for them to up your ‘credit’ and unlock new tiers of weaponry and bike upgrades via trust. And each one has a slightly different moral compass; the ‘work camp’ run by crotchety Tucker that feeds and houses survivors but labours them to the bone, the more conspiratorial Copeland looking to spread the truth in (frankly terrible) radio broadcasts, or the holistic and capable camp down south.
But even with those differing motivations, the great shame is that the missions in Days Gone all fall into cliched template. And it isn’t long before you are thoroughly bored of clearing out freaker nests or camps, or driving somewhere to find some macguffin or have a two line conversation.
Or, worse, go into some basic enforced stealth section. Or, even worse again, engage in a painfully slow and insipid flashback to the good old days. Here you slowly walk around not knowing what lavender is while super-smart scientist partner Sarah explains it in Latin. Because she is super-smart, obviously, yet still fell for Deacon's 'dumb biker bloke' patter because that's the type of game this is.
The issue is that despite Days Gone base competency, none of its wider components ever land and can become a clash of messy systems. The missions are dull, the story beats fall flat and there are nitpicks all over that contribute to the sense of a game that has perhaps never been a cohesive whole.
You have to manage your bike’s fuel, for instance, which adds a nice vibe of survivor’s instinct as you take your foot off the gas and skim down steep hills. But in reality it tends to just add a spot of busywork, fuel cans are plentiful or you can fill up at camps, so there’s rarely any real consequence besides stopping off every now and then. It also has clashing logic; some missions you have unlimited fuel to complete a specific journey, which is fair enough, but others require you to have enough before the mission starts with little clue as to which might be which.
This lead to a rather comical situation where my bike was idling at a mission marker, with me confused on how to proceed and as soon as I had filled up, the bounty I was looking for suddenly spawned on his bike and roared into the distance for me to give chase.
This non-committal to the idea is sadly indicative of Days Gone, making for a curiously middle-of-the-road game. Even those great hordes of swarming zombies that defined the game’s first unveiling are resolutely uninteresting. At first an irritation to be fled and when you do have the capability to take them on, it tends to be a war of attrition than any thrilling tactics.
Everything takes that little bit too long, be it fighting those hordes or clearing out nests squirreled in buildings, padding out an already absurdly lengthy game. Even the simple pleasure of taking your bike out for a spin on the open-roads of that beautiful world seems stymied; be it the often constant crackle of Deacon’s radio or distraction of fuel stops.
In theory, much like riding your horse through Red Dead or Spidey-swinging through NYC, the journey should be as compelling as the destination. Here, neither ends up being particularly interesting, leaving you to resort to fast travel to get it over with that bit quicker. As long as you have enough fuel.
Days Gone is a game that is, at once, both so close and so far from being what it could have been. There are certainly things here to enjoy and sufficiently pass the time. Those dusty roads of Oregon being the most prominent, but when that world is so empty and its inhabitants so vacant, it starts to become a real challenge to care.