In Days Gone you play as middle-aged biker named Deacon. What kind of character is Deacon? He's Nathan Drake with a beard, a bike and a dead wife. Days Gone is a 3rd person, post-apocalyptic, open-world game with light-RPG mechanics set in rural America with fast not-zombies called Freakers. Think Far Cry meets The Last Of Us, and you're there. God knows, all the hyphens should probably tell you we're in mids-ville.
The design here is not unusual, but hits the usual checklist of open-world games. Unlockable fast travel points, various side missions, collectables, plants to be picked, animals to be skinned and of course, multiple skill trees. It's all here as the formula demands; the only deviation is in the setting.
As easy as the jokes about playing another bloke motivated by a dead woman are, I still laughed every time Deacon's emotions were tied back to that singular motive. For example, after your bike is stolen and stripped by a friendly camp for parts, the protagonist confronts the mechanic and shouts in rage “What about my custom gas tank, huh?! The one I got from my dead wife!” Can Deacon be angry that his greatest tool for survival was just stolen and destroyed? No, god dammit, my dead wife gave me that shit!
A lot of the scenes involving Deacon have an overly casual air about them. When faced with a young girl who has been traumatised by the infected hellscape her home has become, Deacon’s cavalier interaction with her is almost comical. He brings up her probably-dead parents and then admonishes himself, as if she’s not in the room, before deciding to take her to what appears to be a slave camp. The mission sees you stealth-escorting your new charge back to your bike (the objective beforehand designed to expend all of your resources), which is helpfully parked at the opposite side of the town. Upon arrival, your quest to give the teenage girl to a labour camp is hampered a final time by a giant semi-bulletproof bear boss.
The combat is satisfying enough. Headshots are as always, king, and you have a limited “focus” gauge (bullet time) which helps you line them up. The Freakers are quite unpredictable when charging and, as has been marketed, their true strength is in their numbers. The hordes that roam the world are not to be trifled with, a lesson I learnt the hard way while hunting some animals in a ravine. My bike was parked close at hand when I was set upon. Instantly cut off from my vehicle, with not nearly enough firepower to fight the small army, my only option was to run and try to circle back around. It turns out you can't beat a zombie horde in cross country. The added element of chance the horde introduce could create some exciting moments.
Days Gone's biggest selling point is in its emergent gameplay, in how you can utilise and direct the infected Freaks to eliminate human enemies. It's all very 2009’s Prototype. However, I never got the opportunity to see this in action myself. Probably bad luck on my part.
Unlike the mindless Freaks, human enemies do adapt to your strategies. Pushing forward together on your last-known position, allowing you to sneak around and start stabbing some necks from the back line. A necessary strategy considering the ammo scarcity. Because of your reliance on stealth, the enemies awareness is short ranged and very forgiving, “freaks” and humans alike. Out-manoeuvring a heavily armed squad and taking them down without firing a shot is wonderful.
The bike riding itself is kind of a mixed bag, there isn't a great sense of speed, especially on an open road, but it does have some great instant acceleration. The bike riding is at its best when off-road, swerving around trees and enemies, accelerating through tight turns and squeezing through narrow gaps at top speed. You have great control over your vehicle, and the ever-depleting fuel gauge adds a significance to every rev of your engine. Releasing the throttle and letting your bike slowly roll down hill to conserve fuel is a quaint but wonderful feature. Hopefully there's more moments like this to be found in-game. The on-bike combat is bare bones: you can fire your gun via a lock-on system, but throwing molotovs is not allowed. This felt a bit restrictive because, if you were allowed to toss molotovs, it would ruin the clear-infestation-to-unlock-fast-travel side missions, which from my time with the game felt like busywork.
Days Gone is cutscene-heavy, some of them separated by mere feet of in game movement. You'll go from a full cutscene to panning the camera around for 2 minutes while another character drives a vehicle into yet another cutscene. It's a little jarring in its storytelling, but hopefully it comes off better in the context of the full game.
Another merit to Days Gone is that it has one of the most user-friendly crafting systems I've seen. Most games you have to pause and navigate through various different menus, but here it's streamlined. Holding down L1 opens up the crafting wheel, slowing down time. Navigating through the sections and crafting nearly any item only takes 2 or 3 button presses all the while you're kept firmly in the action.
After my time with Days Gone, as it is... I'm not interested in playing more. I didn't find any of the characters particularly compelling and the combat is nothing you haven't seen before. I hadn't come to care for Deacon's dead wife as much as he did, largely because he's such a panto dame about it, yet this is what his entire character is built on... I mean, who cares?
As intriguing as discovering the truth behind this Not-Zombies outbreak is, there's only so many different ways you can tell that old story. Days Gone is a game that feels like it's building on old formulae, but with a slight twist in flavour. There's nothing really different or better here. just a ride through the same old AAA elements that are hopefully enough to make everyone happy. So: if you enjoy 7/10s with a bit of cinematic flash then, well, Sony has a treat in store for you.