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Days Gone Review – A Great Love Story, A Great Game

Let me preface this rambling review of Days Gone by saying that I haven’t completed the game. Since no review code from Sony came in I went out and bought Days Gone, and so because that means I’m not on any official timescale as such I’ve just been taking my time with Days Gone. And I’ve been loving it. It’s a lengthy, sprawling game packed with content and a host of problems, but at its core is developer Brand’s obvious passion for their creation.

Let’s give this review context, shall we? Days Gone is an open world action-adventure game that takes place in Oregon a few years after a mysterious virus surfaced that infected millions of people, turning them into Freakers. On its release Days Gone didn’t get glowing reviews, and since then the gaming community at large has shown their disagreement. Numerous reviews have received strong backlashes, and Days Gone’s user score on Metacritic has continued to creep upwards.

Platforms: PS4
Reviewed: PS4
Developer: Brand
Publisher: Sony

I think there’s a lot of correlation between Sony’s newest singleplayer title and one of the biggest games of the decade: Red Dead Redemption 2. You see, as I talked about in my lengthy review of Red Dead 2 Rockstar’s masterpiece also has some massive flaws in its gameplay, from the clumsy combat to the basic movement. But those things were superseded by the incredible narrative, amazing characters, beautiful world and the sheer size of it all. Days Gone also suffers from clumsy combat and sometimes awkward moments. It also doesn’t have the best gameplay. Yet like Red Dead 2 it does have a strong story and likeable characters and an interesting world. Reviewers, though, haven’t been so forgiving. Perhaps that’s justified by the weaker writing in Days Gone. This game isn’t on the same level as Red Dead 2. But it’s still interesting to see how one amazing aspect of a game can sometimes skew opinions massively.

The Story Of Days Gone

Much like Arthur from Red Dead Redemption 2, Day’s Gone protagonist Deacon St. John is a gruff man, rather rough around the edges, a bit of a loner who doesn’t like chatting and willing to get into a fight. He’s quick to anger and constantly acts like he doesn’t care. And just like Arthur, Deacon also has a heart of gold underneath the tough exterior. He’s fantastically played by Sam Whitwer who makes Deacon sound like someone on the very edge of breaking into a million pieces. Best friend Boozer is the only thing Deacon has left in the world, and he’s struggling to care about other people. He views attachment as a weakness, an easier way to get killed. The way Sam plays Deacon in conversations makes it sound like Deacon is always looking for the quickest way to stop speaking to the other person. He fumbles his words, doesn’t hesitate to say harsh things. In other words, this personality traits along with his military experience and biker gang lifestyle make it easy to understand why Deacon would survive an apocalypse.

Deacon has good reason to be struggling, though. At the start of the game we learn that Deacon has lost his wife, Sarah, during the onset of the virus. Throughout the story various flashbacks give us glimpses of their relationship, from their initial meeting to their marriage and more. This is easily where I found the writing to be the most compelling: Deacon and his wife’s relationship feels genuine and believable, even if their initial meeting seems like it would have sent most women running for the hills. They care about each other, and I found it to be a shame that Sarah didn’t get more screen time, especially as she’s voiced by the excellent Courtney Draper who also played Elizabeth in BioShock: Infinite.

“Promise to ride me as much as you ride your bike.”

Sarah to Deacon, Days Gone

It’s not a spoiler to say that Sarah’s connection to the plot is deeper since it was strongly hinted at in the promotional material. Her part in the story is fun, but frankly at its core I think Days Gone is a love story. Sure, there’s a whole plot about the Freakers and the camps each get their own little plot lines and its all fine. It’s fine. It’s okay. The writing can be a bit iffy and it’s…okay. But at the heart of everything is the story of a dude just trying to find his lost love. I like that. It’s perhaps an overused cliche, but the fact that Deacon hasn’t been able to move past the loss of his wife for two years makes him even more sympathetic.

And if that wasn’t enough Deacon’s best bud Boozer gets his armed messed up, too. This is what spurs Deacon to start interacting with the various camps of survivors more than he normally does. While Deacon and Boozer have done runs for the camps in the past they’ve always kept a distance, maintaining their drifter ways.

I liked the themes Days Gone initially seemed to be going for, of a drifter finding a home and being able to reconnect with humanity. Various characters in the story are about this, pitting Deacon’s nihilism against their own desire to build camps, help people and eek out more than just an existence. Iron Mike is a good example of this, a man who has forged a treaty with the savage Rippers in order to end the bloodshed. The Rippers are a vicious bunch who almost worship Freakers and will happily torture people. Deacon has a real problem with these guys and so naturally him and Iron Mike butt heads. The point is that each camp leader has a personality and you can understand where they’re coming from. Tucker might work her camp hard but that’s because she views slouching or laziness as a potentially fatal problem.

There’s also some questions surrounding Deacon’s sanity, at least to my mind. You see, Deacon likes to speak to himself a lot. It’s actually a brilliant idea, because so often the characters we play as don’t react to the things going on around them. Deacon, though, is completely happy to comment on things, mumble under his breath and unleash a savage string of semi-coherent word vomit when the bloodlust starts to kick in. Sometimes it can be a little irritating, but most of the time I welcomed Deacon’s rants or passing comments. It made him feel more real, more believable. But, of course, sometimes I also wondered if his grip on reality was slipping a little.

Ultimately I don’t think Days Gone will be winning awards for its story or leaving you amazed by the quality of its writing. The overarching plot is fun fluff. Really, though, everything is carried by Deacon. I wanted to know more about him, and what was going to happen to him.

I Love My Bike

Whereas Arthur Morgan had his trusty horse Deacon has his motorcycle for getting around Oregon. While it’s a bit strange that everyone uses choppers to travel it’s amazing how attached you become to Deacon’s bike. The world may not be huge but its certainly big enough to warrant a set of wheels to navigate the hills, woods, snow and lakes. Like a real bike, though, fuel is needed to keep the engine ticking over. It’s like a survival game, except instead of food and water you need to hunt down cans of fuel. With about 5-minutes of riding before needing to refuel it could have been a frustrating mechanic that brought the action to a screeching halt, but when combined with the limited ammo supply running out of fuel creates some of Days Gone’s best moments. In fact, I’d say Days Gone is too generous with the placement of fuel and so running out typically isn’t an issue.

Over the course of the game you can spend camp credits to upgrade your precious bike. A bigger fuel tank, for example, or a more powerful engine or a sturdier frame. The bike can even be given fancy new paint jobs, because even in an apocalypse you have to look cool, man. I found myself looking forward to every new upgrade, and was happily willing to complete side-quests to earn the credits and trust needed to unlock even more parts. I did this because I liked my bike, just like Deacon did. I just wish there were more personalization options so that I could have truly made it mine.

At first the bike’s handling feels awkward and clumsy, fitting for a chopper attempting to navigate off-road terrain. But after a while I got the hang of its weight and using circle to powerslide around corners like a pro. It still often felt like trying to herd the Hulk through an antique store in tight spaces, but in more open terrain I had loads of fun cruising around. So much so, in fact, that I would often avoid using the fast-travel system to get around. It sounds weird to say about a world swarming with Freakers that want nothing more than to eat your face, but some of my fondest moments in Days Gone came from just driving from point A to point B.

Speaking of fast travelling, the game bases it around using your bike. You can only fast travel as far as you have fuel, and Freaker infestation sites will block you from fast travelling through them. I like this idea, especially since it means you can’t just fast travel all the time.

Plus, riding around gives you the chance to hoover up items for crafting. The system isn’t particularly deep but you can snag beer bottles and rags to make Molotov cocktails, for example, which are dead useful for tackling big hordes or burning out nests of Freakers. You can also modify melee weapons by doing things like sticking a bunch of nails in a baseball bat. Although it is kind of hilarious that Deacon needs to find a recipe before he can do that. I guess nails in a bat was too advanced for him.

Scrap is another resource to scoop up whenever you can because not only can it be used to repair mellee weapons it’s also needed to fix up your bike. Ram the motorcycle into too many things and it’ll need a bit of TLC.

Are Freakers Just Zombies In Days Gone? (Kind Of)

So, Oregon is fun to ride around and it looks beautiful as well. I also view the fact that it isn’t covered in a million different markers as a massive positive. Days Gone doesn’t present you with dozens upon dozens of cut and paste “content” to complete or lock off chunks of the story until you’ve levelled up. However, the downside to this is that Days Gone also doesn’t have much reason to venture off the beaten trail. Missions will typically send you to enemy encampments anyway, and there’s very few secrets or cool things to find out in the wild. Meanwhile, crafting components and fuel can almost always been found on the main roads that you use when travelling from mission to mission. I’d have liked for there to have been new crafting recipes and rarer materials to be scattered around, giving me a reason to head off-road and fight the Freakers.

Ah yes, the Freakers. It’d be easy to write these once human beasts as zombies, and to be fair there’s good reason to view them as the shambling undead. However, Freakers aren’t dead, rather they’re a result of a viral infection which grants the infected being superior strength and agility, but they also become feral, aggressive and seemingly incapable of much intelligence. Individually they aren’t really a threat, and even a few of them can be handled with a mellee weapon and a few rolls. Combat rolls, not bread rolls. That’d be fucking stupid.

No, Freakers only become a problem when there’s a lot of them. Roving groups can overwhelm you if you aren’t careful. Then there are the massive swarms which march across the landscape and can encompass hundreds of Freaks. Taking these on is an absolute blast. It also requires some literal blasts, as well as luring the horde to other explosives so you can whittle it down. I liked how attempting to destroy a swarm meant placing my bike smartly, laying down traps and figuring out chokepoints. Fighting them was consistently the best part of the game, and ironically the clumsy combat mechanics actually feed into the panic.

For individual Freaks it’s best to stick to mellee attacks so that you can save ammo. While the melee system is no deeper than whacking the attack button like a chimp gone mad there’s a satisfying level of feedback in wedging an axe into a Freaker’s skull.

It’s a real shame that the game waits for a long time until finally introducing new Freaker types to shake things up. For a substantial chunk of the game you’ll deal purely with the standard Swarmers. Later hulking Freakers, infected bears and Screamers start appearing and provide some much needed variety.

The Mission Structure Camps

A lot of the game revolves around several different camps of survivors who Deacon does jobs for in return for camp credits and to build up trust. It’s these camps that the limited side-missions stem from, but the game smartly gives you reasons to go and do them. Each camp’s credits and trust are separate from the others, so to get better parts for your bike or get kitted out with stronger weapons you need to do the jobs. It also helps that the side-missions, which include hunting down bounties and clearing camps, are dished out at a nice rate, almost always appearing just when I fancied a break from the main story.

Outside of side-missions trust and credits can be built up by clearing out Freaker infestations, murdering your way through humans that prey on others and by collecting Freaker ears. Finally, hunting animals for meat and gathering up herbs will also earn you some bonus sway with whatever camp you take them to. Actually earning a new trust level by doing hunting and claiming Freaker ears, though, is a lengthy process as you get relatively little credits and trust for them. Missions, Infestation zones and encampments remain the best way to curry favor.

As for the main missions it’s fair to say that you are typically doing the same few basic things over and over again. A bit of sneaking around and probably a fair bit of shooting, plus some bike riding is the standard formula. But Days Gone is good at changing the narrative context for what you’re doing and thus making each mission feel fun.

The exception to this are the NERO missions where Deacon has to eavesdrop on NERO scientists who are conducting research on the Freakers. These are missions which make stealth mandatory, and while they are fascinating missions because of how they expand the game’s story and lore they are utterly dull from a gameplay perspective. While I did enjoy them from a story perspective I almost always found myself wishing they just played out in a cutscene.

Shooting Sneaking

Stealth is kept basic and generously easy yet still reasonably satisfying. Deacon can hide in patches of fauna, and while the game states Freakers are sensetive to sound you can actually move up to them quickly provided you’re crouching before stabbing them in the head. On top of that the enemies all have a very narrow field of view, which does lead to some comically dumb moments. If that wasn’t enough Deacon can toss rocks to lure specific enemies away, with a handy-dandy glowing outline informing you of exactly which baddie will trundle away to investigate the sound. It is, to be honest, pretty stupid to watch just one enemy in a group trundle off to investigate the sound.

Much like the stealth gunplay is simplistic, though unlike the stealth it’s much clumsier. Deacon has a military past but when it comes to aiming it feels stiff and loose all at the same time. Making quick, small adjustments is a real challenge which in turn makes nailing headshots tricky, but not tricky in a good way. There’s a cover system in place, but again it’s awkward. Crouch Deacon behind a wall and he’ll pop up to take shots. Try to take cover at the edge of walls and peek round, though, and Deacon will often fail to use the cover properly. Still, once I got used to the way guns handled I never resented getting into a firefight in the same way that I often did when playing Red Dead Redemption 2.

Everything you kill and every mission you complete earns Deacon experience points which can be spent on the Ranged, Melee and Survival trees. There’s a good feeling of player progression here, especially since the enemies don’t get stronger or level up themselves. That means you really do notice the difference in melee damage or increased bullet penetration. The upgrade that lets Deacon carry more ammo makes a whopping difference, almost too much since the scarcity of ammo is something I loved about the early game. Later on ammo is still somewhat valuable and you’ll find yourself running out, but I do almost wish I could take the upgrade back and return to feeling like every bullet counts.

Technical Issues

There are a lot of technical problems with Days Gone, although developer Brand have been consistently putting out patches to address them and thus the state of the game now is considerably better than at launch. Still, the seems to push the PS4 to its limits. On the PS4 Pro the console was revving up its fans frequently to combat the heat it was generating. Even then framerate dips were a common problem, especially when riding through areas with high numbers of Freakers, during certain cutscenes and even in the menus, which was rather strange.

I also encountered a lot of bugs, including a friendly NPC riding repeatedly into some rocks like they had somehow offended her personally, Freakers appearing out of thin air and so much more. However, Days Gone was much worse at launch and the rate at which Brand have updated and fixed the issues has been impressive, although that obviously doesn’t mean it should have launched in such a poor technical condition.

The Verdict On Days Gone

It’s hard to say exactly where Days Gone make me realise that I loved it. It doesn’t do itself any favours in the opening hours. The story takes some time to really get going, as does the gameplay. I was enjoying riding around and stabbing Freakers but I couldn’t find what had made so many people declare that the critics were wrong. Somewhere along the line, though, I came to love my bike. I become completely invested in Deacon and Sarah and Boozer and Rikki and the world. It hooked me, and I’m still not sure how it happened.

On launch Days Gone got a fairly lukewarm reception from critics, and I’d have to say that many of the issues they raised are perfectly valid. The combat is clunky, the stealth is basic, the enemies are essentially just zombies again. It also doesn’t do anything particularly new or innovative. There;s really no single thing I can point to and say, “that, that’s what makes Days Gone good.” But the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts, and while Days Gone does have its issues it’s also shitloads of fun. I doubt you’ll regret picking up this latest in a long line of strong Sony exclusives. I, for one, have certainly loved sinking dozens of hours into Days Gone and plan on playing many, many more.

4 out of 5

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