Days Gone has taken its sweet, merry while to arrive – with its promising debut at E3 2016 now a distant memory. But, after a few delays along the way, it’s finally arrived at just the right time.
Not only are zombies still “on trend”, the game is a PS4 exclusive when many of PlayStation’s other big-name titles are still on the far horizon. And, it provides a post-apocalyptic, story-driven action-adventure that will sate the appetite of those frothing at the mouth for The Last of Us Part 2.
That doesn’t mean it’s merely an appetiser, however. Indeed, in many ways it’s a headlining new IP that capably holds its own amongst many triple-A peers already released this year. We’re also sure it’s the start of a new, high-production value franchise in its own right.
Paying lip service
Part of the reason is that Days Gone pays lip service to some of the greatest open-world and action-adventure games around, making it both familiar and instantly playable.
There is a dash of Last of Us, a smidgen of Red Dead Redemption, even the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series spring to mind for some elements of the game. However, its biggest influence is Uncharted – which is hardly surprising considering in-house Sony Interactive Entertainment developer Bend Studio’s last two games were Uncharted related, including Golden Abyss on the PS Vita.
Character and graphical design smacks of Uncharted, while the voice acting and scene setting are of suitably high levels. Even the 3D-rotating loading icon in the bottom corner of the screen is Uncharted-esque.
The biggest comparison, however, comes with combat. It feels very similar to the duck-and-cover/stealth mechanics in Nathan Drake games. But, as they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery and, in this case, it works well with the subject matter and helps thrust you into the heart of the action quickly without you needing long-winded tutorial missions first.
Certainly, the keenly-refined stealth aspects are well suited to sneaking around and backstabbing zombies and human enemies alike. Both are usually best avoided in a head-to-head confrontation, so hiding in long grass or ducking behind cover are helpful tools while you wait for one to wander past to dispatch quietly.
It’s a tactic that stood us well in Uncharted 4 and does so here too.
The shooting mechanics seem familiar as well. When you have been spotted, human enemies tend to run behind nearby cover themselves and it becomes a game of popping your head up occasionally to fire off a round or two. The big difference here though is that, as this takes place in a relatively sparse post-apocalyptic landscape, ammo is a resource that you will soon run out of. Lengthy fire fights are not only ill-advised, they are rare.
Of course, combat styles and outcomes also depend on the enemy types, which vary greatly.
Get your freak on
The main threat throughout comes in the form of virally-infected armies, called Freakers, that just-about populate every inch of the large open world environment. There are four main types you encounter near the start: Swarmers, Newts, Screamers and Breakers. Others are best left as surprises to discover for yourself.
Swarmers are the most common, slowest and dumbest of them when isolated, especially when they haven’t yet spotted you. Be ready to run when they do, however, especially if there are several together.
They can group into large hordes and attack at pace and with what seems to be a hive mind. You don’t really stand a chance if they see you and pelt at you en masse.
Newts are as sad as they are scary, being as they are zombie kids. They usually scurry around on roofs and will generally leave you alone if you don’t attack them or get too close. But are nasty if you do.
Screamers let out hideous wails that will bring every other Freaker around upon you. While Breakers are brutes you really don’t want to get close to – they will, well, break you.
This is all compounded by the fact that your lead character, Deacon, has limited stamina alongside health – as represented by two bars on the bottom-left of the screen. You can only run for so long, therefore, or swing a melee weapon so many times before you physically tire and get munched.
You can improve those stats – plus an Assassin’s Creed Eagle Vision-a-like focus mode that highlights items to scavenge, tracks and other points of interest – but only by collecting booster injections from Nero sites discoverable around the map. So, the first few hours of the game will be a little harem scarem as you get to grips with what your character can and can’t do.
Thankfully, a plentiful supply of weapons help. Melee weapons can be found in the back of pickup trucks or just lying around in disused buildings. And, they can be modified as you progress and find crafting recipes, to be deadlier and more durable.
The latter is of vital importance as all melee weapons will break after relatively few uses. You can repair them if you have found enough scrap, but once they are down to zero per cent, they are done completely.
Guns and your crossbow are more permanent, although their ammo is obviously not. They are also not as effective as you would like – at least those that you have access to for the first part of the game. It can take up to five or six shots to take down even the most basic Freaker or human foe, so you have a keen aim or a decent stash of ammo around the next corner.
Thankfully, when you’ve killed an unfriendly human, they tend to drop a weapon to swap to, plus carry ammo or crafting items if you search them. This includes the strange, bald-headed Rippers that look like Freakers but are a cult gang of nutters that get in the way often.
You can also purchase guns and ammo, plus upgrades for your motorbike – an essential form of transport around the large map – from survivor settlements. They are also a good source for side missions that will earn the trust of each camp and open up more powerful supplies. As you are effectively a freelance bounty hunter come gun for hire, they don’t immediately respect you, but trust can also be earned by saving strangers in random encounters, sending them to the settlements to bolster the numbers, or clearing nearby areas of Freaker infestations.
There is therefore certainly plenty to do in Days Gone, even though some of the side missions can feel like a grind at times and are repetitive. The main story is different though, with plenty of variety in campaign exploits and a heart-warming thread of love and friendship apparent from the start.
While Deacon is a badass biker gang dude, with his best friend and fellow chapter member Boozer by his side, his journey is driven by his quest to find out what happened to the love of his life, Sarah, and the role the sinister corporation Nero has in it all.
It works well and is tightly scripted, although some of the cut scenes are rather jarring in how they are edited at times, while loading screens can often take enough time to pull you out of the otherwise fully immersive experience. Nonetheless, these are minor caveats and the overall, overarching theme works as a great contrast to the dirty, extreme violence required by much of the gameplay.
Days Gone isn’t quite Last of Us, but it’s got heart and soul to go with its entrails.
It also looks great – like a Naughty Dog game, in fact, as we’ve alluded to previously. There are moments where you notice foliage popping up while travelling along dirt roads on your motorcycle, but detail is generally superb. Ruined houses and other buildings look suitably distressed and it naturally looks best on a PS4 Pro.
We’re not 100 per cent sure, but it looks to be using a dynamic 4K rendering technique. HDR is optional too, although, if we’re being honest, it doesn’t seem to make that much difference to the colour gamut when active. Maybe more during the night-time than day, but those without an HDR compatible TV aren’t missing out on that much.
Days Gone is a massive game all told. In depth, in scope, in heart. As soon as the open world map opens up (after the first few missions), you realise that the game setting is finely tuned for exploration and action in equal measure.
It is partly a survival game, with crafting and scavenging, partly an action-adventure come RPG. And this strikes it apart from the likes of The Last of Us, to which it will be mostly compared.
Bend Studio has combined many gameplay types from some of the best titles around, plus several key zombie genre tropes and wrapped them in a heart-warming, complex tale of relationships and human connectivity.
In many ways, it’s the same clever trick pulled by The Walking Dead comic book and TV series, exemplifying humanity's finer moments with its apparent collapse. For that reason, we can’t help but feel Days Gone would therefore have made a better TWD game than any of the officially licensed efforts so far.
In the current world of zombie entertainment, there is seldom higher praise and, caveats aside, this is a solid first outing for what will undoubtedly be a continuing franchise for years, not days, to come.