Days Gone is an engaging but thoroughly generic and flawed experience.
The ascent of Sony’s first party thanks to the excellent games put out by Worldwide Studios has been spectacular these last few years. There’s a certain brand of game you associate with a Sony product—accomplished gameplay, great storytelling, and a high degree of polish. By and large, Days Gone fails at meeting that watermark across all three metrics to various degrees. This isn’t to say the game isn’t engaging or even fun a lot of times, because it is—but it’s definitely the least accomplished flagship game we’ve seen come out of the Sony stable in years.
Days Gone is an open world survival action game set in a post-apocalyptic world where society is overrun by Freakers. If that made you yawn or groan inwardly just at the description, I can’t blame you. It’s generic to a fault, and first impressions do not lie—the game’s setting and story are all tired and trite by now, and that colors your experience with the title from the get go. You play as Deacon, a biker who lost his wife in the Freaker outbreak, and now mostly subsists in the wild by his lonesome, along with Boozer, his brother in arms, choosing to not engage with any of the camps or settlements that still survive except for when strictly necessary. Deacon’s character is every bit as boring as the game’s setting is banal—he’s a gruff protagonist with a “code” about how to act in a world without rules, who is motivated by his lost love.
To the game’s credit, Deacon’s character actually does begin to go to some interesting places the more you get into it. However, you have to spend more than half your time with Days Gone playing as a character who’s simply unlikable, from his conception to his execution.
"Deacon’s character is every bit as boring as the game’s setting is banal—he’s a gruff protagonist with a “code” about how to act in a world without rules, who is motivated by his lost love."
The same credit cannot be given to the game’s story, which never does come together. It tries its hand at a fair few things, but ends up bungling almost all of them—sometimes unintentionally, as it seems to have its heart in the right place. But it is just a victim of cringe-inducingly poor writing, while other times the script simply seems to lack the maturity or direction to actually do justice to the heady, if overdone, plot points it’s trying to work with.
It doesn’t help that the storytelling in Days Gone is shoddy and shockingly poor—consider the level of facial animations, cutscene direction, or seamless blend of storytelling with the interactive portions of the game in something like The Last of Us or last year’s God of War. Days Gone feels extremely amateurish next to those games, like one trying its best to be like them, but lacking the chops to be as remarkable as they are. Camera work is sloppy, cutscenes are awkward, dialog feels put on, and there are very short, but very noticeable, black screen transitions from gameplay to cutscenes to gameplay, which is the kind of thing that used to be standard about ten years ago, but has since been dispensed with and overcome by most big budget games that focus on storytelling.
Even outside of the actual cutscenes, the storytelling never actually feels convincing—the dialog, as mentioned, is extremely affected, and I suspect that’s the primary reason why. So when Deacon is speaking to Boozer over the walkie talkie, or when he is listening to an audio log from a long-dead NERO doctor, you get that the game is trying its own hand at the kind of banter that Uncharted had, or at the environmental storytelling of Horizon—while being acutely aware that it’s not as good.
"You get the feeling that the game is trying its own hand at the kind of banter that Uncharted had, or at the environmental storytelling of Horizon—while being acutely aware that it’s not as good."
The game’s attempts to be like its Sony brethren are transparent in other ways as well. For instance, Deacon suffers from what I like to call the Sony Protagonist Syndrome, in that he just cannot shut up. Much like Nathan Drake or Aloy, he’s constantly mumbling to himself, with extremely obvious observations about what’s going on around him, some wisecracking quip that’s often ruining the mood, or as a reminder to lost players about what they’re supposed to be doing. I don’t appreciate this needless monologuing in Days Gone and it stands out worse because of how much it contrasts with and detracts from the mood, or the atmosphere the story and world are very clearly trying to establish, or the tension the gameplay wants you to feel.
But by and large, that’s one thing the game achieves well—the world and atmosphere. Bend has created a beautiful, vast, well realized rendition of the Oregon countryside. If you’ve ever been to Oregon, you’ll enjoy seeing how well its beauty has been captured in the game, but even if you haven’t, it’s still very evident, and is added to by the sense of bleak desolation that Bend’s post-apocalyptic take adds to it. It’s also a world that constantly keeps you engaged and moving.
Bend has deftly sidestepped the issue that most first-time open world developers often run into—their world here has a whole lot of interesting things to do. Whether you’re running into the occasional Freaker stragglers, or finding nests of them to clear, or old NERO outposts, or enemy camps to take out, or hunting animals, or scavenging for plants to craft ammunition and supplies, or, of course – the cream of the crop of the Days Gone experience – taking on giant zombie hordes, there’s a lot to keep you engaged with the world.
"If you’ve ever been to Oregon, you’ll enjoy seeing how well its beauty has been captured in the game, but even if you haven’t, it’s still very evident, and is added to by the sense of bleak desolation that Bend’s post-apocalyptic take adds to it. It’s also a world that constantly keeps you engaged and moving."
However, a lot of this sense of fun and engagement is self-driven. Unlike most Sony games, which thrive on great prescriptive game design that relies on either an excellent story or some fantastic quests, Days Gone is a “make your own fun” kind of game. This has a lot to do with its failings, as much as it has to do with its strengths—as I mentioned, the story in this game isn’t much to write home about, but the quest design is equally banal. A lot of it is very fetch-questy, or has you going across the map for a short transition screen followed by a cutscene, followed by you having to trudge across the map again.
The actual mission design seems like it comes from an era before modern open world games, complete with warning screens blaring at you that you are “leaving the mission area” if you stray too far from where the game wants you to be. In other words, actually engaging with the quests and story can often be the least fun part of Days Gone—rather, going out into the world, and figuring out your own ways to tackle the various problems and encounters the game throws at you is where it is at its best, and where it shines brightest. Days Gone has a lot of flaws, but it is truly a well done example of emergent gameplay.
In that sense, Days Gone shines in a way a lot of Sony first party games don’t—it’s driven by mechanics and systems, and it relies on the player’s ingenuity to figure things out. There are a lot of systems to wrap your head around, including the likes of weapon durability, bike fuel, weather, time of day, stealth, and even a version of Witcher-Sense (that I personally feel could have been excised from the game, but which works well enough, especially once you invest more skill points into it). Which reminds me- yes, there are full fledged RPG mechanics in the game as well, with skill trees, XP, leveling up, and the like. In terms of mechanics, Days Gone’s blend of open world, survival, action, and RPG mechanics makes it feel like AAA Game: The Game. But that’s not a bad thing when it’s done well- and in Days Gone, it’s done well.
"Days Gone shines in a way a lot of Sony first party games don’t—it’s driven by mechanics and systems, and it relies on the player’s ingenuity to figure things out."
It also helps that the game’s controls are great, and become second nature after a while. The one baffling, perplexing, bizarre exception to this is the game’s frustrating reliance on holding buttons. You have to hold a button to do almost anything, even dismissing dialog boxes, and I cannot for the life of me understand why things are that way, and why I can’t toggle that off in the controls.
So to my surprise, the strengths of Days Gone lie squarely in its gameplay and mechanics, rather than its storytelling—which is a surprising deviation from the Sony first party norm. What is also unlike most Sony first party games is the level of technical polish involved—in that there isn’t as much of it as there is in other games. Days Gone feels distinctly janky, and in some cases, unpolished. It feels like a game that needed a few more weeks in the oven, but didn’t get them, because it’s a game that’s rife with technical problems. Initial loading screens are interminably long, reaching launch-Bloodborne or The Witcher 3 levels at times. Happily enough, once the game loads, in-game screens are never as long, but the initial wait can be frustrating.
What does mar the experience in the game is the performance, which tanks on the base PS4 model completely—especially when larger hordes are on the screen, but even unprovoked. Random jittering is not uncommon to encounter, but run into a large horde, and your game might slow to a crawl outright. There have been multiple patches pre-launch to address the performance, and while there are improvements, as of right now I can’t say in good conscience that the game’s technical performance or polish is good, or even acceptable.
"What does mar the experience in the game is the performance, which tanks on the base PS4 model completely—especially when larger hordes are on the screen, but even unprovoked."
In spite of the extent of my issues with it, I quite enjoyed my time with Days Gone. It is undeniably flawed in a multitude of ways, and never quite comes together in ways that its developers surely intended for it to, but especially for fans who like the emergent aspect of open world games, this is a satisfying experience. With that said, in spite of my enjoyment of the title, it’s also hard for me to recommend it wholesale—at the very least, you need to know that it’s a disappointment in areas that Sony games traditionally excel at, and it fumbles the ball even in areas where it’s good. It’s painfully generic, and at times it seems to border on self-sabotage, but in spite of itself, I think Days Gone is an engaging game with a lot of potential—if there is a follow-up, I can’t wait to see where Bend takes it from here.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4.
Rewarding systemic gameplay; Mechanically very dense; Beautiful open world; Looks fantastic; The world is full of things to find and do.
The story never goes anywhere meaningful; Deacon is largely an unlikeable character; Writing is poor, and storytelling is sloppy; Dialog is at odds with the tone the game is trying to establish; A distinct lack of polish.
Despite being painfully generic, Days Gone is an engaging game thanks to its emergent gameplay.