Izak: I’m just going to hand this post straight over to Nile’s review. Here we go!
Thought zombies were a thing of the past? You thought wrong. Days Gone is the latest from first-party studio SIE Bend, otherwise known for the Siphon Filter games, and it looks to give the zombie genre a good kick in the heiney. So, does it succeed?
Days Gone is set in the sprawling Pacific Northwest after a massive outbreak of zombies (‘Freakers’ in this case) and puts you in control of Deacon St. John, a gruff, grizzled biker. You know the sort – blood is honour, loyalty above all, touch my bike and lose your kidney. His best mate, Boozer, is the same. During the first part of the game, after the establishing narrative shows your wife, Sarah, getting onto a government helicopter and towards her apparent doom, Deacon and Boozer decide to head north and away from their old home. But before they can get going, Deacon’s bike breaks down, the pair leave it to find spare parts and return to find it taken to a nearby survivor camp and completely stripped. Don’t worry though, a mechanic in the camp gives you a spare bike. It’s a piece of shit but that’s part of the game – I’ll explain later.
That motorcycle is the marrow of Days Gone. The world is enormous so traversing on foot is not ideal unless you like walking simulators. It can run out of fuel and be damaged so keeping an eye out for jerry cans and extra scrap is a must. It also acts as a quick-save point.
Freakers, bandits and other enemies are all alerted by the rumble of its engine so you need to approach dangerous areas on foot while still keeping your wheels close enough to make a hasty escape if need be.
The first bike is intentionally bad to give you the opportunity to upgrade the machine as well as letting you experience the world around you at a slightly slower pace. As a rider myself (humble brag) I do have a few gripes about the bike – the engine looks like a big single-cylinder but behaves and sounds like a typical Harley Davidson V-twin and the tyres have road tread which would make any dirt riding essentially impossible, yet Deacon can hoon up muddy hills with ease. Other than that it’s pretty good. Handling at the start is sluggish, just like a proper American cruiser, and drifting is a fun mechanic, if somewhat unrealistic.
Early missions consist of vanilla bounty-hunting and rescue jobs which slowly push the story forward. This game is really long. If you like zombies and have a lot of time to kill, you can pretty much stop reading now. Diving deeper into the storyline offers more character development for Deacon and Sarah, which mainly comes through flashbacks and scenes where you walk slowly and talk about stuff but not feelings because men don’t do that, apparently. It’s when you encounter the first NERO helicopter that things get really interesting. NERO is the government group tasked with studying the Freakers and the stealth missions involving its scientists reveal juicy lore that is essential to any good zombie narrative.
Elsewhere, two camps emerge as the initial choice-driving forces; Copeland’s conspiracy theorist camp and Tucker’s forced-labour camp. Copeland houses the aforementioned mechanic who can upgrade your bike while Tucker can get you better weaponry. A third camp, Lost Lake, comes about later in the game which, weirdly, has a better mechanic and better guns.
Speaking of, gunplay is surprisingly satisfying in Days Gone. Enemies take a few hits to go down – remove the head or destroy the brain – but ammo is exhausted fairly quickly. Looting cop cars will give you a few extra rounds but it pays to have a decent melee weapon on hand too. The better ones have a health system applied, meaning you get a dozen good hits out of them before they break.
When you beef up your hog and kit out your weapons a bit, the world opens up much more. Ambush camps no longer trouble Deacon and Freaker nests are easy pickings. Unfortunately, the side missions you’ll come across while exploring don’t really vary much from these two. There are abandoned NERO medical sites which sometimes give you a boost in stamina, health or psychic bullet-time-like focus ability.
Learning more about NERO and Freakers will eventually introduce you to new variants of the zombie. At first it’s just the standard zombie, alongside zombie kids, which is a cool new addition, but eventually you’ll come across berserkers and shrieking female Freakers that attract more flesh-eaters your way. On this, SIE Bend has made some software magic happen. Up to 500 individual freakers can be on screen at any given time, something I believed when I saw the first horde. Remember Left 4 Dead and how mental it was when a Boomer exploded and summoned what felt like every other zombie in the city? It’s like that but magnitudes more. You’ve got to be careful with your ammo, chuck Molotov cocktails in choke points to shave off numbers and not get yourself cornered or you’ll be ripped to shreds. The game even talks about it at one point, with a NERO scientists saying hordes could be “upwards of 460 individuals.”
Incredibly, the game doesn’t suffer much in terms of performance when lots of entities are on screen. I’m playing on a bog-standard PS4 and while it certainly gets hot and loud, framerate doesn’t drop too drastically when I’m fighting four hundred Freakers. Graphically, it looks good but not great. It runs on Unreal Engine 4 which is a great engine but nothing particularly stands out, in the way God of War did.
However, for all the things Days Gone does right – Freakers, weapons, a huge world to explore – there are an equal number of things it does wrong. Deacon is selfish, only caring about his “ol’ lady” and Boozer, to an extent. Narrative threads are dropped as soon as Deacon wants to move on, regardless of what the player may want, like when he reveals he doesn’t kill unarmed women to let a female bandit escape and Boozer says it’ll get him killed one day. Nothing else happens with that after the encounter, at least nothing I’ve found yet.
The foundations of a great game are there, which are often the hardest part to get right. Personally, I’d like to see a female biker’s point of view, if the game were to stick with that part of things. What can I say? I like seeing women do typically male things better than the typical male. I could write a thesis on how excited I am for the next Spiderverse film, which is rumoured to focus on Gwen/Spider Woman. But I digress. If Bend can keep building on the base it has, Days Gone could be the single-player experience the current video game climate needs right now. It all depends on what comes next.