Game name: Days Gone
Release date: May 18, 2021
Available on: Steam
Genre: Action, open world
Developer: Bend Studio
Publisher: PlayStation Studios
When Days Gone launched for PlayStation 4 in 2019, I was somewhat interested in its post-apocalyptic open world action, but the middling reception and reports of bugs and performance issues made me quickly forget it even existed. After all, zombie games aren’t exactly in short supply nowadays, and I didn’t really care for the biker culture aspect of the game. Fast forward two years, and things couldn’t be more different. How so? Well, this is a review and I can’t just spill the beans in one paragraph, so you better get comfortable as I share my thoughts on the game.
The basic idea for Days Gone is relatively simple. We play as Deacon St. John, a survivor of a global pandemic that turned billions into zombie-like creatures named Freakers. As a member of a motorbike gang before the apocalypse, our character isn’t exactly super likable or charismatic, but he’s pretty good when it comes to fighting his way out of trouble or managing long rides through the remains of the USA. I won’t deny that I went into the game with no expectations whatsoever when it comes to its story, and with a certain animosity towards its main character, since biker culture isn’t exactly my thing. The first ten hours or so mostly reinforced my preconceptions, but from then onwards, both gameplay and story got noticeable upgrades (and I can even say that I enjoyed my time playing as Deacon, he might not be a very approachable person, but he definitely is a believable protagonist, especially for this type of game). The rest of the game’s varied cast of characters is more hit and miss, though the hits are far more noticeable than the misses, to Bend Studio‘s credit.
Gameplay-wise, we’ll find a title that feels somewhat similar to other big budget AAA open world action games, such as the Far Cry series. Our hero can craft all sorts of stuff from junk he collects along the way and there is a basic stealth framework that gets a lot of use during the opening segment (which lasts around eight to ten hours, from my experience). Tall grass acts as cover, sounds attract enemy attention, and throwing rocks will get the AI to break their route and investigate. As expected from any modern zombie game, we can use a crossbow for silent long range kills, and Deacon can also buy or find suppressors for his guns, though these addons will break if we use them enough. Getting behind most enemies unnoticed lets us execute a contextual stealth kill, but in most cases, breaking stealth isn’t game over, as we can still fight our way out of encounters. Melee combat is visceral and weighty, and firefights have a desperate feeling around them, especially when the target of your shots is another human with a firearm who can fire back at you. The animation work giving life to the combat system is spectacular, but it doesn’t get in the way of the action, something I’m particularly grateful for.
As it’s become the norm with this kind of AAA production, Days Gone also features a leveling system for our player character, so we’ll allocate skills on three different groups (Melee, Ranged and Survival). Some skills are passive (giving us interesting buffs, extra materials every time we scavenge stuff, etc.) and others are active, with highlights such as a bullet time ability, faster reloads, etc.). Some of the abilities that are locked behind this skill tree feel a bit too important to not have them from the start, but that’s sadly something we’ve become used to these days. Still, getting the most interesting abilities doesn’t exactly require a huge time investment, so overall it’s not really a big problem. Our main stats (Focus, Health and Stamina) can also be upgraded, but there’s a completely different mechanic in play here, where we’ll have to look for NERO (a fictional US government agency) checkpoints and obtain injectors. Once again, it’s something I could have done without, but it’s implemented in a good way, and solving NERO checkpoints without attracting the attention of a Freaker horde is an enjoyable activity.
Deacon’s bike can also be customized whenever we reach friendly outposts, and we can upgrade it with all sorts of stuff, ranging from extra fuel capacity, to a better frame for increased resistance, storage space for ammunition, etc. A visual customization system is also in place, and I was pleasantly surprised when I found that I could apply a paint scheme based on Kojima Productions‘ excellent Death Stranding. We don’t have access to all the upgrades from the get go, and instead, we get them as we upgrade friendly outposts’ trust on Deacon (something that’s achieved as we do missions for them, or by bringing in food and Freaker ears, which act as gruesome bounty markers we automatically collect every time we kill a Freaker and get near its body).
While we are on the subject of Freaker bounties, one thing that I particularly enjoyed about Days Gone is its commitment to making the player feel that they are doing something for the wider population of this post-apocalyptic Oregon, even if Deacon keeps trying to convince everyone that he’s a loner who doesn’t care about anyone else. This selfish façade hides a deep desire to do the right thing even in extreme circumstances, something that’s accentuated in gameplay terms by the existence of Freaker hordes and nests. Clearing nests is a risky activity which involves getting into infested areas and throwing Molotov cocktails at structures, and we can be sure that whenever we decide to do it, we are going to be forced to face off against increasingly higher numbers of Freakers. Of course, there is a reward for doing this, as we’ll open up fast travel paths and get Trust points, but it’s something that showcases Deacon’s true self, as he’s always willing to put himself through this grueling activity. Hordes are an even more dangerous proposition, and one that we shouldn’t even attempt until we have access to traps (which we get once the initial ten or so hours are over). Once again, there are tangible rewards for dealing with these, but overall, it feels like the right thing to do, and our character’s commentary as we engage in combat with the hordes also helps sell it as something we should be doing.
Not all the mission types are as engaging and rewarding as getting rid of Freaker infestations though. For some reason, the game features tailing missions that reminded me of the worst Assassin’s Creed had to offer in the past, with instant-fail stealth scenarios where we can’t eliminate opponents. Thankfully, these encounters were far from the norm and the majority of the game is actually fun to play, but I wish they were never added to this title in the first place, as they seem to be an outdated relic from the past (and one that even Ubisoft has evolved past!).
Moving on from gameplay and onto tech, Days Gone‘s PC version is simply outstanding, featuring a well-rounded suite of graphical options and a number of upgrades over the console versions (chief among them, the ability to play at more than 60fps). A FOV slider also makes an appearance, and it goes up to 100 degrees, which is a pretty respectable number for a console port. The graphics options menu is easy to read, and should we wish to change settings while we play, we can see the results in real time, accompanied by a neat FPS/frame time display that also lets us see the performance impact of the options we applied. And speaking of performance, the game held pretty much locked 100fps on my setup (Ryzen 5 5600x, 32gb RAM, RTX 3070) playing at 1440p resolution with max settings (motion blur off). That framerate held up even when going up against massive hordes, so I have to commend the tech wizards working at Bend Studio, as this is an excellent showcase of their prowess in the field. This is a gorgeous looking title, and it features plenty of scenarios where one would expect drops (such as the storms or mist that can cover the world thanks to the dynamic weather system in play) and yet that almost never happens. I’ve also read reports of other people having great experiences on lower end hardware. Other not so small things that this port does well include having the option to disable mouse smoothing, and fully customizable keyboard bindings. Gamepad users will also be happy to learn that the game can natively display Xbox One, Xbox 360, DualShock 4 and Switch Pro controller prompts, depending on the hardware we are using.
Do I seem extra positive about this game? Well, the reality is that Days Gone caught me by surprise. I was expecting a generic (and buggy) open world action title, and instead, I got an engaging adventure which manages to tell a far better story than anyone could have expected. Add a pretty much perfect port on top, and you’ve got a package that deserves success in the PC space. Hopefully the Steam audience will embrace it, since a sequel has apparently been canned and I’d very much like to see Sony reverse that decision.
9/10 – Great.