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Review: Days Gone is a Long, Slow Burn That is Surprisingly Good

 

Screenshot: Days Gone

Very minor story spoilers follow:

When I first saw the announcement for Days Gone at last year’s E3, I immediately thought, “why do we need this game?” I mean, it’s an open world zombie game—and that’s been done to death—and it didn’t even look particularly original. But after spending a lot of time with Days Gone, I started to realize that I was enjoying myself. My first impressions weren’t great, but by the end, and despite its occasional misstep and glitch, I was trying to experience everything I could in Days Gone—and I realized it’s a pretty damn good open world zombie game, even despite my initial reservations.

Screenshot: Days Gone

Days Gone is an open world, third person zombie game that takes its inspiration from almost every open world game, zombie game, and every other game I can think of. There are even slight survival elements—though you don’t have to eat or drink. Even your relationship with your motorcycle and reliance on it, while unique, turns Days Gone into a sort of zombified Red Dead Redemption 2.

Screenshot: Days Gone

The biggest thing  I have to be up front about with Days Gone is the time commitment involved to get to the “good stuff.” I played for about 10-20 hours before I really got into Days Gone. I initially hated everything about it: the characters, the motorcycle controls, the generic zombie “freakers,” etc. I think the only initial redemption was the inherently fun gunplay, and compelling open world. The characters I ran into were all your typical post-apocalyptic “only the assholes survived” type jerks, or religious nuts. Ho-hum. And that isn’t to mention the clichés in the gameplay mechanics. But all of these elements ended up coming together in a way that’s actually pretty fun, and interesting.

Screenshot: Days Gone

Just like in almost every other post-apocalyptic zombie story, the humans are the real antagonists, while the zombies (freakers, in this case) are a force of nature—a constant background threat, and occasional obstacle. But the freakers in Days Gone turn out to be one of the best, open world implementation of “zombies” I’ve encountered in a video game. The freaker variations are generic (big strong one, fast one, small ones) making the most common freaker you run into the threat. Noise attracts them, and it’s hard to fight more than one or two at once early on. The large, roaming hordes of freakers are a constant (and sometimes sudden) threat, and one that could mean death if you can’t get to your motorcycle fast enough.

Screenshot: Days Gone

Your motorcycle is one of the main characters, and your constant companion through your adventure. You’ll be upgrading it, refueling it (quite a lot before upgrades), and repairing it. If you get knocked off of your bike, there’s the real chance of becoming swarmed. With the constant threat of human ambushers setting traps (like wires across the road) getting knocked off of your bike will happen.

Screenshot: Days Gone

Weaponry in Days Gone is handled a little like games like The Division or Destiny—just without the gear score. You can have a sidearm, a main weapon, and a “special weapon”—usually a heavy machine gun or sniper rifle.

Screenshot: Days Gone

The open world in Days Gone is compelling, and it feels worthwhile to explore. Its representation of post-apocalyptic Oregon wilderness is a pretty setting to ride through. The open world takes cues from the Ubisoft-style of open world—with outposts to capture (called “ambush camps” most of the time) and lots of other things to explore and find. There are several main camps, all of which have their own characters, vendors, and currency. I can’t remember the last time I’ve played a game where the currency isn’t shared between different factions. It’s an interesting touch that requires some thought, but ended up not changing the gameplay in any significant way.

Screenshot: Days Gone

Endearing yourself with these camps will give you access to better motorcycle upgrades, as well as better weapons, etc. There are three tiers of trust with each camp, but trust tier 3 is something you won’t really have access to until near the end of the game. You can turn in freaker ears for bounty—money and reputation—but without the firepower you have access to in later games, this would be a long grind.

Screenshot: Days Gone

Sam Witwer (from Force Unleashed) plays Deacon St. John, the rough and mumble biker protagonist that always has something to say—even mumbling to himself constantly while he’s alone. He rides motorcycles, didn’t care for the law much before the outbreak, and cared about nothing more than his bike and his “old lady.”  He’s certainly a “badass with a heart of gold” type that is just another cliché in an ocean of them. But, it works. And let me just say: what a fucking name. Deacon St. John sounds simultaneously like a religious figure or a professional wrestler. Or even a place? I don’t know. He hails from Farewell, Oregon and was (is) part of the Mongrels Motorcycle Club. His best friend is a buff dude named Boozer and he mourns the loss of his “old lady” when the outbreak first happened.

Screenshot: Days Gone

The story is actually good. It REALLY doesn’t seem good at first, and with the way it is first introduced, it seems like a version of Last of Us with bikers and a more convoluted storyline. Deacons St. John’s wife is injured during the initial freaker outbreak. Knowing his wife would die from her wounds, St. John sends her away on a helicopter, which lands at a rescue station that is almost immediately overrun. St. John spends the next two years mourning his wife, only to discover that her fate wasn’t quite what it seemed—and he navigates the politics of post apocalyptic camp life while following the clues that will uncover the fate of his wife. It’s a story that’s full of interesting characters, with twists that kept me hooked the whole way through.

Screenshot: Days Gone

The story essentially feels like three pretty good seasons of a zombie TV show. The first season is an introduction to the world, the freakers, and the camps you help. The second season introduces the  “Lost Lake” camp, which propels the story forward by introducing characters that will be recurring throughout the game. And the third season changes the formula up in significant ways, which I don’t want to spoil those who might take the 20+ hours (or more) to get there.

Screenshot: Days Gone

And that’s the thing. I mentioned it earlier, but Days Gone really takes a HUGE time commitment before it even starts to get good.

Screenshot: Days Gone

Despite all of the moral quandaries the game presents, you don’t really get any choices in the matter. The narration is on-rails, despite its open world nature.

Screenshot: Days Gone

While the freakers are pretty generic, the lore built up around them is intriguing. They’re not undead–rather, they’re people affected by some sort of virus. They talk about how the virus is transmitted—something about young people and old people being more susceptible—but a lot of that is told in background narration. Still, they’re an interesting force of nature, if not a little inconsistent. The freakers build nests made of excrement and sticks, and they cram themselves together in these small spaces. But they come out at night or during inclement weather, so what are the nests even for? They sure are fun to burn out, though.

Screenshot: Days Gone

The freakers move in hordes, and one of my favorite late-game activities was hunting down every horde and eliminating them. Some hordes only have a few dozen freakers in them, but other, larger hordes remind me of something out of World War Z. In fact, the in-lore recordings have people describing the hordes climbing over each other and tearing people apart, much like World War Z style zombies, even though that actually doesn’t happen in-game. In fact, if you are overrun by a horde of freakers, or you pull a bunch of freakers into an enemy’s camp (one of my favorite things to do)  no one gets torn apart at all. I mean, I’m not one for gruesome violence for its own sake, but there are so many references to people getting torn apart by hordes, just watching them knock people down to death was disappointing. Despite this, the roaming hordes of Days Gone were one of my absolute favorite parts of the game. These hordes also gave the open world a significant feeling of danger when they exist—and it feels a lot safer when they’re gone.

Screenshot: Days Gone

While not perfect, and even occasionally bad, Days Gone is worth checking out. While it takes a significant time commitment to get to the good parts, those good parts are pretty damn compelling. I enjoyed the story, and actually find myself wanting to know what happens next—especially after a crazy twist that’s revealed once the main story is concluded. I really didn’t think it would be something I needed in my life, but now just find myself wanting more Days Gone.

Days Gone is available now on PlayStation 4.

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