The comparisons between Bend Studios’ Days Gone and The Last of Us from fellow Sony studio Naughty Dog are going to be inevitable. From the zombies-but-not-zombies that roam the devastated world to the darkness of mankind that has survived, there’s obvious parallels, but Days Gone and its open world setting, which blends roving Freaker hordes with human camps and factions, will hopefully be able to stand on its own two feet.
But before you can get to that, I don’t think the pacing of Days Gone’s opening hour does much to spark investment and excitement. It starts in the thick of the action, with the world going to hell in a hand basket as the Freaker infection (or whatever it is) spreads. The first thing you see is a woman bleeding from her abdomen, before Deacon, the protagonist and biker with a heart of gold, finds her. She’s his wife who, luckily, wasn’t bitten, but stabbed. Also quite lucky is the fact that there’s a chopper on a nearby rooftop and you’ve got Deacon’s buddy Boozer as backup. I grip my controller expecting to take control. I loosen my grip as it cuts to said rooftop and chopper. Where The Last of Us has an emotional, gut-wrenching opening 15 minutes full of fear and powerlessness to set up the world and the main character, here it’s 3 minutes in a hands off cutscene.
It still sets the scene as the game skips forward two years and Deacon and Boozer pull up on the side of a country road to find another woman stabbed and dying, uttering the name “Leon” just as Leon rides past on his own motorbike. It’s through this chase sequence and what follows that we get most of the game’s tutorials, from bike riding to shooting, from clearing Freaker nests to stealth, tracking and crafting. I’ll make an exception for the brief loading screens – this was a bespoke pre-release build, after all – but the way that it shifted between cutscene, gameplay, hands off in-engine and tutorials could have flowed better.
Thankfully, as it grows into the open world, it starts to get much more interesting. This is a story of survival in a post apocalyptic world dominated by zombies, sorry, “Freakers”. You might roll your eyes at the distinction, but zombies as a term are overwrought. Zombies are the blue painted shamblers of John Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, they’re the ‘Walkers’ of The Walking Dead, the slow moving impediments of Resident Evil and hordes of Dead Rising. Sure, sometimes they run now, thanks to 28 Days Later, but they don’t have much behind them except their simple existence and a desire to claw and bite you to death. Freaker behaviours make them a little bit different and distinct. They eat their own, they are hypersensitive to light, they like to nest, for want of a better term, in warm dark places, and are more active at night.
Obviously Days Gone features the show-stopping hordes with hundreds of Freakers rushing through the environment toward anything and everything they can chomp down on, but the way they’re attracted to sounds and light that means you can bait them to do your bidding, rolling through a barricade that you’ve broken in a bandit camp’s perimeter. The same works on a smaller scale. One camp I came across ended up with us in a big gun fight, until I heard the Freakers coming up behind me. I booked a ticket out of there, letting the bandit gunfire draw them in and have them clear the place out for me. This interplay between humans and Freakers, this emergent gameplay isn’t really tackled elsewhere.
There’s other quirks to the Freakers, with different breeds of them acting in different ways. Most of them seem to end in ‘-er’, from Swarmers to Breakers and Reachers, but freakiest of them all were the Newts, the children. One time I clambered up to the top of a petrol station, only to find half a dozen of these little infected kids and having to wade in there like Anakin Skywalker at a Youngling birthday party. Even the wildlife can be infected, leading to wolves that chased and knocked me off my bike and a fight with a bear where I literally only had Molotovs and a couple pipe bombs handy. It’s not quite the Revenant, but still pretty brutal.
Of course, the real point to zombie fiction isn’t with the monsters and the living dead, but with the human survivors and the extremes that they will go to. Deacon and Boozer are outsiders, and while that means they’re susceptible to roving bandits, can stumble into roadblocks set as an ambush, they’re also free to come and go as they please at the various factions and camps through the game world, taking missions to curry favour and gain access to increasing resources to improve your arsenal of guns or upgrade your bike.
It’s here that the game can toe an interesting line of morality. There’s no overt moral compass here, but Deacon is ready to brutally slit throats in a fight and get his hands dirty what he needs to. The opening scene with Leon? He’s mortally wounded and Deacon puts him down out of mercy for him being torn , but there’s still a pause where he considers if he can really do it. Much later on, another storyline sees him trying to rescue a girl that’s been holed up all by herself in a town for the last two years, and is now under threat from puritanically insane Rippers. The promise of safety that Deacon gives her is undercut when it appears as though you’ve basically handed her over to a slave work camp. Sure, she’ll get food and shelter, but it’s not exactly an idyllic commune.
A lot of Deacon’s personality comes from Sam Witwer’s performance. He’s got this very conversational tone to his voice that, while not the most obvious direction in certain situations, does help make Deacon feel a bit more relatable. He’s might be a biker, an outsider, but his simmering anger and obsession over his wife’s likely death at the refugee camp almost boils over when he finds Freaker nests and bandit camps – OK, so clearing Freaker nests does also open up fast travel routes for you. There’s a flashback to meeting Sarah for the first time that’s rather endearing – though sadly another instance where there’s an odd blend between player control, gameplay and cutscenes.
As with so many of its post-apocalyptic peers, the big question is how things got this way? Was it a random occurrence, a new strain of a familiar virus, something manmade? It would seem to be the latter with a biochemical company called Nero. Sarah is also mixed up in all of this by virtue of having been placed on a Nero chopper, and Deacon restlessly hunts them down. Again, it borders on obsession, and I’m eager to see how his character descends down this path through the game, hopefully colouring in his relatively blank slate.
Despite having had a few hours with the game, Days Gone hasn’t quite clicked for me just yet. The pacing of the opening and story as a whole probably need much longer to flourish, and skipping forward to later in the game won’t have helped either, but there’s also a lot of the open world gameplay that I’ve yet to see and experience. Days Gone might not have the most original premise (then again, neither did The Last of Us back in 2012-13), but it could shine with the emergent gameplay and how it grants you the chance to twist hordes of Freakers to your will.