Days Gone – Five Years Later

How does Bend Studio's underrated open-world survival title hold up after all these years, especially following its updates?

Posted By | On 24th, May. 2024

Days Gone – Five Years Later

Once upon a time, when E3 was still a thing, Sony revealed a new title and IP called Days Gone. Developed by Bend Studio, a first-party studio known for the acclaimed Syphon Filter series, the near-10 minute trailer saw protagonist Deacon St. John riding his motorcycle down a hill after surveying a dilapidated sawmill.

Upon heading inside to investigate, he would discover hordes of zombies. What started as a sneaky infiltration for supplies became a desperate fight for survival as the undead (known as Freakers) assailed the player in waves. Tumbling, desperate to get their hands on one man for no other purpose than to feed.

Of course, this was more than a third-person shooter where Deacon would survive by pumping hails of ammo into his enemies. One segment saw him attaching an explosive to a log pile, causing it to tumble upon the oncoming horde, granting precious few seconds to escape. Another saw him using an empty spot between two massive logs and throwing Molotovs, igniting any crossing zombies. All of this was seemingly for nought – more zombies appeared, and Deacon found himself crawling, climbing, doing everything possible to thin this never-ending horde.

Not only was it a showcase of the environment and the many ways players could leverage it to fight back, but also the technology that allowed for such extensive amounts of undead. Even more intriguing is how the fight never ended – the Freakers just kept coming from every avenue, clawing at their prey with everything.

As impressive as it was (especially with how well this translated into the final game), there were questions. What else did Days Gone have to offer? What was the story? What other scenarios could it create with these hundreds and hundreds of zombies on screen? There were plenty of questions, but the initial response was quite positive.

Sony and Bend Studio would confirm the project’s open-world nature and set a 2018 launch. We would learn more about the story, which involved Deacon St. John (voiced by Sam Witwer) on a quest to find his wife, Sarah, after a zombie outbreak in Oregon. As a biker gang member, Deacon would traverse the world on his motorcycle, which requires refuelling and repairing.

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While you had firearms, the noise could attract nearby Freakers, causing a swarm to attack. Relying on craftable melee weapons and stealth, though the former could break after several uses, were key to defusing certain situations without being mired in the undead. Also, while the Freakers could be a notable threat, Days Gone was one of the few titles with infected animals, like wolves and even bears, that mixed things up and offered their own nightmarish challenges.

Unfortunately, the 2018 release didn’t come to pass, and it was delayed to 2019, first in February and then to April. Though there were some concerns over its development cycle, Sony’s triple-A first-party line-up was on fire. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Horizon Zero Dawn, Marvel’s Spider-Man, God of War – it was expected that Days Gone would be another success. There were others, of course, but these four in particular are noteworthy.

Commercially, the PS4 title was off to a strong start, not only topping sales charts in the United Kingdom but also becoming the second-best-selling title in the United States for April 2019. It also topped sales charts in Japan, surprisingly beating God of War. Oddly enough, Sony hadn’t announced how many copies the game had sold. Considering it had done so for all of its other titles, was it possible that Days Gone didn’t perform that well in comparison?

Unfortunately, despite seemingly strong sales, its critical reception left something to be desired. On Metacritic, it has a 71 Metascore from 122 reviews. Not a terrible score, but not the best either when so many of Sony’s other hits hovered around the high 80s to low 90s. Certain elements earned praise, from the visuals and pitched battles against the Freaker hordes to maintaining one’s motorcycle.

days gone

However, Days Gone also had its share of criticisms. Witwer’s performance as Deacon was generally praised, though some opinions were mixed on how overdone it could get. Laughable dialogue aside at certain points (you know which ones), the story generally petered out in the second half and failed to captivate.

The open world had your usual clearing out of Infestation Nests and enemy camps, hunting down bounties, and clearing out hordes. However, there were also mundane side objectives for the factions of the world, which were necessary for unlocking new weapons and motorcycle parts. The latter was especially important because maintaining your bike could get tedious in the early going.

Couple this with a myriad of bugs, constant loading screens and technical issues, not to mention an inconsistent frame rate, and Days Gone would end up one of the lower-rated first-party titles from PlayStation in quite some time. However, there was a sentiment from the player base – whatever size it may have been – that it had several bright spots and deserved more recognition, even with the issues.

If there was trouble behind the scenes regarding its reception, neither Bend Studio nor Sony showed it. The first of many updates launched in June 2019, adding a new Survival difficulty. It cranked the difficulty further by making enemies hit harder and also modifying Survival Vision, turning off Fast Travel and adding a more immersive HUD.

Days Gone_02

Players could earn a bike decal and two new Trophies for completing a playthrough on Survival. The patch thankfully contained multiple fixes for progression while adding some small quality-of-life features, like a tutorial for recovering your bike. Update 1.11 further refined Survival difficulty and brought forth more fixes, but it was the next update that brought something new – Challenges.

Debuting later that month, Challenges were separate from the main game and offered special conditions on maps to earn a high score (alongside the option to play as other characters). Depending on how well you performed, you would receive a Bronze, Silver or Gold rank, but the main appeal was in the patches and rings. These latter could only be equipped in Challenge Mode, but the former also applied to the base game and offered significant gameplay advantages, like 28 percent less stamina consumed, 40 percent extra durability to melee weapons, +3 bullet penetration and so on.

The Challenges themselves were also quite fun, ranging from Surrounded – which involved holding out for as long as possible against a never-ending Freaker horde and a replay of a late-game mission to taking down hundreds of Freakers with .50 BFG.

Throughout all of this, Bend Studio made improvements to the game, fixing bugs and even adding new features like New Game Plus. Players could start a new playthrough on higher difficulties like Hard 2 and Survival 2 and even utilize a killer new weapon – the BND-150, which fires multiple types of darts for poisonous clouds, stunning targets or just one big explosion.

Days Gone_ultra widescreen

The final features update for Days Gone would debut later that year, adding the option to reset hordes, camps and Infestation Nests in the base game. It also added several bike parts for Death Stranding to celebrate the title’s release. There would still be subsequent patches, including one in November 2020 that addressed bugs, low-resolution textures in cinematics and more while improving performance for texture loading and streaming. However, as far as new content was concerned, support on Days Gone was effectively wrapped up. The question is: What next?

As it turns out, nothing. Sony wouldn’t comment on the game’s success, and Bend Studio didn’t say if a sequel was inbound. In December 2020, directors Jeff Ross and John Garvin left the studio, which raised even more concerns for the franchise’s future.

However, something strange happened in April 2021 – Days Gone became a free title on PlayStation Plus. This opened it up to a much larger player base that either skipped out on the game initially or never even heard of it. Positive impressions subsequently began pouring in, with some wondering how it had been underappreciated. Sony also launched it on PC, which led to even more support from new fans.

It all spurred the question: Sequel when?

Unfortunately, it was unlikely. Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier reported shortly after the game’s addition to PS Plus that Bend Studio had pitched a sequel to Sony that would have co-op and a “shared” world approach. The first game’s long development process (roughly six years when it finally launched) and middling reception from critics ultimately led to the sequel’s rejection.

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The development team also reportedly worked on other titles, one being a rumored Uncharted game and the other on a multiplayer game from Naughty Dog (likely the standalone The Last of Us multiplayer title, which was subsequently cancelled). After voicing its displeasure at being little more than a support studio, Bend would start to work on a new IP, which will build on the “deep open-world systems that they developed with Days Gone” per PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst. It even has multiplayer.

Though official sales numbers are still spotted, the ransomware attack on Insomniac Games last December revealed that Days Gone had sold 7.32 million by February 2022. Overall, it’s not a disappointing number, especially for a new IP. Then again, what Sony would consider successful – and how that correlates to the budget spent on development and marketing – is a different matter.

Days Gone had its fair share of issues at launch – there’s no denying that or the problems with the story. However, it was also arguably a victim of poor timing. In 2016, Naughty Dog released Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, offering a linear campaign with larger maps that, while not quite open-world, presented a unique new formula for PlayStation. It would become a commercial and critical success.

In 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn offered a proper open-world action RPG and also became a massive hit. By now, the formula was becoming more defined – creating a large world with optional activities and content for players to spend dozens of hours with while offering a high-quality triple-A campaign with exceptional production values.

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I’m not saying that all of the PlayStation Studios heads sat down one day and decided to follow this format, but it popped up again in Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018. Even God of War in the same year, despite not having a seamless open world, still presented large regions to explore, backed by an incredible storyline.

Days Gone was never going to match up in comparison, and it shouldn’t have had to. However, its structure took a somewhat different route, especially in the storytelling. It emphasized multiple storylines that crisscrossed throughout the game, Garvin citing Netflix as an inspiration to GamesRadar.

“It’s just literally having the threads be like a Netflix menu, so you see them there. So [it’s] almost like each of the missions is an episode in a series; you can always kind of pick up and see where you are in that storyline. It was just a way of treating it the way people consume entertainment now, episodically, like through Netflix.”

One element that could have distinguished it from other first-party Sony titles (Horizon aside) would have been story choices. While present in the game’s alpha build, they were subsequently removed afterwards to “make the story progression clearer and stronger. The ability to make choices remains an important part of Days Gone, and focuses on gameplay: earning trust and credits at the encampments, how to upgrade your bike and weapons, how to spend points on Deacon’s skill tree, which storylines to complete and in which order.”

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You can argue that this wasn’t the worst approach, just that the implementation had left something to be desired, especially in the latter half of the game. However, Sony may have ultimately felt that it wasn’t worth investing tens of millions into another years-long project from team leadership with this kind of design philosophy.

There was already sufficient risk at the time – imagine how the publisher must feel now, especially amid studio closures and laying off employees from its high-profile developers like Naughty Dog and Insomniac. On the bright side, it sees something currently in what Bend is developing to continue supporting it.

So, while Days Gone 2 may seem impossible in the future, it is worth appreciating the title as it is today. Sure, it may not set new standards in the genre or offer the best story, but it’s still a unique experience with triple-A production values, not to mention a fun open-world title with zombies. And while it may have ended on a cliffhanger, Deacon St. John at least had a happy ending.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.

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