Days Gone two years on: Sony’s mistreated masterpiece or just another open world checklist?

All images taken in photo mode on PS5

On the second anniversary of Days Gone’s release, developer Bend studios is celebrating and anticipating the game’s upcoming PC port, with the looming shadow of last month’s news that Sony rejected the pitch for a sequel. In light of that rejection, and for months prior, it seems as if the gaming community has undergone somewhat of a shift in opinion on Days Gone- what was once fairly commonly accepted as a critical and commercial ‘miss’ for Sony is now being treated as some sort of overlooked, mistreated gem amongst Sony’s first-party catalogue.

To get it out of the way immediately and not mention it again, there is an observable correlation between the uptick in interest and outpouring of love for Days Gone and the release of last year’s polarizing The Last of Us Part II, and much of the online love for the game seemed for a while to be holding it up as a ‘substitute’ for a game that didn’t deliver for some. Whilst it’s of course not the only thing that sparked hatred for Naughty Dog’s latest title, it does seem like a lot of the online conversation at the time (including some of those featured in videogamedunkey’s hilarious video on it) held up Days Gone as a ‘politics-free’ alternative to it, featuring a good old-fashioned straight white guy as a protagonist. To be clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with Bend studios themselves or the vision laid out in their game, it’s solely a point of misguided comparison for angry online gamers. Days Gone features a fairly diverse and inclusive cast of characters of all races, genders and sexualities, and whilst its political beliefs are a little bit more muddled, it’s very far from the ‘politics free zone’ many online commenters refer to it as- anyone who considers Days Gone ‘apolitical’ is only telling on themselves of what exactly they consider ‘politics’.

As for the game itself, I will try my absolute hardest to avoid comparisons to The Last of Us and its sequel, but as the only other first-party Sony game this generation featuring a post-apocalyptic world full of zombies and human factions battling for survival whilst trying to maintain ones own humanity… it’s going to come up on occasion. Yes, Days Gone is an open-world title with a broader scope than Naughty Dog’s more linear and calculated journeys, and it’s hardly fair to compare Bend to Sony’s golden child in terms of budget and resources, but the similarities can be striking, and there are a lot of things it does significantly worse (and, to its credit, several that it does better).

The game’s story focuses on Deacon St. John, a ridiculously named character who is every bit as silly as his name prepares you for, and who was (and still is) a large focus of the game’s criticisms. Intended as a gruff, morally-questionable antihero both before and after the apocalypse hit, he comes off more consistently as an unhinged asshole. To some extent it’s intentional, but I never felt like the story’s attempts to humanize and ‘redeem’ him worked or came off as natural. He’s a thinly-written character with a bizarre moral ‘code’ that seems to consist of nothing more than “I don’t hurt unarmed women”, and if he weren’t played by Sam Witwer I wouldn’t give him a second thought. Witwer’s facial capture and voice work is about as high quality as you’d expect from him, though for a lot of the game (and I presume it’s more of a direction issue than his own fault), his performance can only really be described as unhinged. Deacon talks a lot, and whilst I can appreciate the developer’s attempts to keep us connected with him and prevent him from becoming a mostly silent, forgettable protagonist, he more often than not comes off as an insane madman rambling and screaming at absolutely nothing. His non-story voice lines in the open world range from distracting to genuinely (and unintentionally) hilarious, with Deacon deciding to scream at the top of his lungs that he’s out of ammo when sneaking through an enemy encampment, or engaging on a minute-long rant to his radio whilst trying to silently tail a horde. The game’s collection of other characters are fine for the most part, but they’re also thinly-written to the point that any of the relationships driving the story were hard to get on board with, including one of the most cringe-worthy romances I can remember in a game. With most of the game’s conversations taking place over radio, there’s also almost no attention paid to context or the passage of time- Deacon will scream into his radio as if he’s trying to drown out the sound of his bike, even if he’s sitting still right beside the character, and you’ll get chirpy radio calls from quest-givers moments after tragic or disastrous story beats, telling you they’ve got a chore for you. It’s incredibly apparent from the stilted and generally disjointed voice direction that the actors were likely very rarely in the same room as one another, which makes buying into the story that bit harder.

The games overarching plot is fine for the most part, dealing with fairly generic zombie genre tropes in a competent fashion, but the pacing of Days Gone’s story might well be the worst I can ever remember playing. It’s not an abnormally long game, clocking in at around 36 hours for me to the credits (between half and a third of the size of the last few Assassin’s Creed entries), but thanks to its absolutely glacial pace it felt significantly longer than even the most enormous RPGs, and took me far longer to eventually complete. You’ll hear a lot about this game that it ‘takes a while to get going’, but it’s hard to overstate just how excruciatingly dull and uneventful the first half of the game is, and I don’t know if a single significant story beat emerged for about twenty hours after the opening few missions. Whilst you do sacrifice some level of control over the narrative’s pacing and delivery in an open-world game (I realized far too late that the ‘jobs’ that the game’s main characters constantly give you have zero bearing on the actual story missions), the story itself is bafflingly dull for at least half of its runtime. The only major antagonist in that section of the game is built up solely through dialogue, then unceremoniously killed off within an hour of being introduced, leaving the whole first half feeling entirely pointless by the time you move on. The opening hours focus on your ‘jobs’ between two camps who never again appear in the story and have no lasting impact outside of side quest chores, and it’s baffling that they weren’t made completely optional to begin with. Days Gone also makes the fairly ambitious choice of literally separating the two halves of the story, moving to a new location with totally new characters for the back-end of the game, and leaving you unable to return to the initial open world or its associated quests until you finish. This second half is, thankfully, far more eventful and is at least competently told as a story, even if the initial ‘starting from scratch’ moment filled me with total dread of doing it all over again.

Even if you have a different take on the game’s writing though, the presentation of the game’s story is undeniably far less streamlined than the likes of Naughty Dog or Sony Santa Monica’s titles. Outside of some lip-synching issues and bugged character animations, production values are still fairly high and cutscenes/facial animations are well-presented, but even the most pointless five-second cutscenes are both preceded and followed by a lengthy loading screen, and every major story beat, no matter how tragic or dramatic, is punctuated by a chirpy music cue and an un-skippable progress bar telling you how far along you are in each ‘storyline’. I don’t think every game needs to pretend to be a movie, but Days Gone absolutely assaults you with loading screens, constant XP updates and reminders of ‘gaminess’ that not only interrupt any semblance of immersion, but also severely contrast with the tone the game tries to establish. Especially in a game that doesn’t even have any visual customization for its player character’s awful outfit for the sake of ‘authenticity’ (though rolling into a cutscene with the Death Stranding baby in your bike instead of a fuel tank is allowed), I’d expect at least some commitment and respect for the grim-dark tone they’re going for.

Many of the game’s core features and aspects of its presentation are what I’d hesitate to call anything more than ‘functional’, though to be fair they also rarely drop below that standard. The open world is clearly lovingly crafted after Bend Studios’ own Oregon wildlife, but under the refreshingly beautiful coat of paint (which provided me with some gorgeous photo mode shots), there’s not much to the world itself in terms of points of interest or actual places to go. For the most part it’s just a vast swathe of gorgeous wilderness, one which you have very little reason to explore. There are human encampments littered around the landscape, which you’re tasked with either mowing down through brute force or cutting through with rudimentary stealth mechanics and an arsenal of half-baked traps and ‘distractions’ that are made completely redundant when you find your first weapon silencer. Some of these, called ‘ambush camps’, did exactly that and were initially pretty refreshing in their dynamic interactions with the player- they’d often snipe me right off my bike from across a canyon, or pull a tripwire between two vehicles on the road to incapacitate me. Outside of the initial surprise of these encounters though, they quickly became tiresome, and the human enemies offer little enjoyment for most of the game, thanks to fairly poor AI that made stealth tedious, and never really made clear when or how they knew your location. There are the obligatory collectibles and plaques (with some neat bits of local history) scattered around the game’s two open world areas, but there was never really any urge to discover another tiny settlement of identical houses. A proper urban area and some more distinct landmarks would’ve gone a long way toward diversifying the map and making it feel a bit less monotonous.

So in addition to its usual open-world zombie apocalypse grab-bag of stealth mechanics, side quests and crafting that were all more than a bit trite by the time it rolled around, what sets Days Gone apart? For one, the game’s focus on motorcycles is fairly novel, even if it never really explains how we ended up in this alternate reality where everyone has unanimously agreed to use bikes, and not a single other type vehicle still functions. Deacon is an ex-biker who still considers himself a part of his long-dead club, and to the game’s credit, the bike mechanics are really terrific. I grew more than a little bit weary of the whole biker aesthetic and story beats between Deacon and his surviving brother-in-arms, but when you’re actually on the bike, drifting around dirt roads and weaving between crashed cars, there are moments when you just get it. The handling is incredibly satisfying though never too easy to control, and different weather conditions affect your grip. Your bike needs to be fuelled and repaired constantly, and the game even ties several mechanics, including saving and fast travel, to your bike’s condition and fuel tank. This does come with some trade-offs, like being killed of at the end of a massive journey only to load back to the last time you stopped the bike, or being unable to fast travel because of nearby enemies, despite being on a bike doing 70MP/H and well capable of outrunning anything in the game.

The game’s other unique mechanic, and by far its biggest marketing and selling point pre-release, is its hordes. For the most part, the game’s zombies are pretty standard fare, though aesthetically they’re more animalistic and almost avian in their behaviour than most other portrayals, leaving trails of broken branches, blood and shit on the way to their ‘nests’, which you’ll often be tasked with burning out. There are also a few variations you’ll (rarely) run into, like incredibly fast zombified wolves or near-invincible zombie bears, but it’s in its massive hordes of freakers that the game sets itself apart. When it works, it works, and the sheer number of enemies on-screen is overwhelming, terrifying, and ultimately incredibly satisfying to conquer. Even this marquee feature though, unfortunately, has its share of issues. I encountered my first ‘proper’ horde at around 31 hours in, only about five hours from when the credits rolled on my playthrough. The story acknowledges but never engages with the horde mechanic until this late-game point, and then throws you in the deep end with four or five horde encounters one after another- they’re great encounters, some of the most well-crafted in the game, but why the hell weren’t they spaced out throughout maybe the most agonizingly boring opening 20 hours I’ve ever played?

You can technically seek out the hordes of your own accord in the early game, but not all of them are present, and most of them will be much smaller, manageable ‘swarms’ wandering the wilderness that won’t result in a full-on ‘boss fight’-level encounter like in the late game. You’re also generally shit out of luck when it comes to the required weapons, skills, ammo and equipment needed to efficiently take them down until at least the game’s half way point, so for most players, the hordes will be encountered one after another as an end-game ‘hunting’ exercise. In the late game, you’ll be able to track all the major hordes in areas you’ve unlocked, giving you three ‘gathering points’ per horde that they’ll move between. Most of the time they’ll be ‘nesting’ in the mouths of caves or just wandering in open fields, which unfortunately makes the majority of the encounters blend together. Some of them have well-crafted obstacle areas you can lead them through, but the randomness of their cycles makes it difficult to face any particular horde in an exciting location. There were some stand-out experiences in that randomness too, like getting lost in a pitch black labyrinthian cave system with hundreds of zombies on my tail and only my muzzle flashes to illuminate them, or leading a horde crashing through an ambush camp that had been harassing me on my approach, but far too many of the late-game horde clear-outs just felt like a chore.

Interactivity and combat between enemies and freakers was a refreshing change of pace, but it was almost never done intentionally by the game in interesting encounters- a section shown off in a pre-release trailer wherein you could detonate a wall separating a human camp from a small horde was the only implementation of such a mechanic I could find in the entire game, which is a shame. The game also enforces invisible ‘boundaries’ on where each horde can travel to, so even if you get some grand ideas for a dramatic battleground to lead them to, they’ll likely turn around and lose interest in you after a few hundred metres- I was pretty disappointed when I couldn’t lead a horde to a nearby settlement to see if my allies could take them on, or when the ‘Chemult Community College horde’ couldn’t even follow me into the actual community college area. The saw-mill encounter in the game’s reveal trailer is the most impressive in the game by far, but even that vertical slice didn’t make it in unscathed with all the interactivity and obstacles of the trailer, and no other encounters are anywhere near as detailed.

Weapon handling at the start of the game takes a page from The Last of Us in its unsteady aim, limited ammunition supplies and fairly low damage output. Scavenging for ammo, melee weapons, fuel, crafting supplies and salvage gave the opening hours a little bit of that frantic feeling of desperation at first, and made me wish the game’s survival mechanics were a little bit more focused and maintained. It’s also one of the few games I’ve experienced on PS4/5 that utilizes the controller’s gyroscope to allow for motion aiming, which was immensely useful and satisfying for pulling off distant headshots. Once you get your first military-grade weapons though, any feeling of tension in combat goes out the window, and it goes from a full magazine to down a single zombie to one body shot per kill. It’s understandable from the perspective of arming you to slaughter entire hordes, but it takes away the feeling of vulnerability the early game encounters gave you, where freakers could dispatch of you in just a few hits and it’d take a dozen of yours to do the same.

There were times, especially in the early game, where the game’s systems and initial scarcity of supplies combined to create some genuinely memorable moments, like freewheeling my bike down a mountain with no gas to preserve fuel, only to find myself right in the middle of a horde just as the tank ran empty, or when I ran completely out of ammo in the middle of a combat encounter and needed to drop smoke bombs and scamper around rooms desperately searching for a few bullets, a plank of wood or even a drum of kerosene to make a molotov with. Those moments though, even at the start of the game, were far too seldom, and disappeared entirely when your skills, arsenal and bike upgrades essentially morph you into a zombie terminator. I was excited to see that a ‘survival’ mode was added post-launch, but it mostly just included features that should’ve been an option in the main game (a lack of HUD, less reliance on the Arkham-esque ‘survival vision’, disabling fast travel), and I regretted not starting my playthrough in this mode (though enemy damage output was plenty high enough on hard mode, I’m not sure more damaging freakers would have done anything other than increase frustration in the early game). I would’ve loved to have seen a proper survival mode in the vein of Fallout 4’s, that introduced more systems that forced you to hunt, scavenge, eat, sleep and live off the wilderness without just zipping between encampments for your next side quest of mowing down more enemies.

So what exactly is the point of the renewed vigour for the game, and was it really ‘wronged’ by critics on release like many say? I’ll say that I never read much into the reviews at launch and wasn’t particularly interested in the game at all until it was offered for free on the PS+ Collection when I grabbed my PS5, so all the above comes from a fresh perspective over a year after the game’s release. None of those issues with the story, characters, pacing or general gameplay have changed since launch, and I fail to see how people have become more forgiving of them over time other than just nostalgia filling in the gaps. The game faced a lot of criticism at launch for its bugs and instability, but to its credit it seems like pretty much all of that has been ironed out- I ran into a couple of character bugs in cutscenes and a few instances of my bike clipping out of the map, but other than that it ran like a charm. It really has been given a new lease of life on PS5 too, running at near-native 4k and a pretty much flawless 60fps (save for some stuttering in the latter game area), all of which will hopefully help the PC version too in being a more compelling product than what was offered to PS4 owners at launch two years ago. There has also been some more content added, like the aforementioned and under-baked survival mode, a New Game + option, and a pretty fun series of ‘challenges’ that range from bike time trials to a crazy taxi rip-off in a golf cart to infinite horde survival challenges. They embrace the fun side of the game, and are the main reason I haven’t yet uninstalled it, genuinely compelling me to come back for a few more challenges before I hang it up for good.

As far as accusations of journalists getting their political ideologies mixed up in the game, I’m not sure how much water that holds at all- Deacon faced criticism for being an unlikeable, inconsistent character, not for being white or straight. The game’s politics are fairly centrist but it’s far from apolitical, depicting a camp of anti-government libertarian recluses, an ex-military neoliberal religious zealot, and a group of literal slavers, all of which are genuinely interesting and compelling groups to dig into on an ideological level in an apocalyptic setting. Some of the camps’ ideologies can be explored a little bit more through side-quests, and one of them has a consistent pirate radio broadcast that prompts some interesting ideological clashes between their leader and Deacon. The game doesn’t really come down hard on any of them, and some have seen the refusal to vilify some factions (mostly the slavers) as a mistake for the game, which I can understand- you get XP and money for sending weary travellers to near-certain misery or death at the slavers camp, and Deacon never really atones or apologises for sending a character there and essentially ruining her life. Another criticism has also focused on the ‘newts’, presented at first as just another type of infected, but explicitly acknowledged to be turned children. Personally at first, I found it pretty daring of the game to depict such a sensitive topic up front, but again, you’re literally rewarded for killing as many of them as possible, and even when a story mission focuses on capturing one with a tranquilizer to ‘cure’ it, you’re not given enough darts to deal with the whole group and need to gleefully bash your way through a horde of dead children, with XP notifications pinging the top of your screen all the while.

I will say though that despite all that, I really enjoyed Days Gone, definitely far more than I thought I would based on how much I had to will myself through the first half. The story is charming enough by the end, the bike and horde mechanics are genuinely terrific, and there was something cathartic about the monotony of checking off the list of camps and hordes to mow through as an unstoppable killer by the end. It isn’t, however, some sort of underappreciated masterpiece that was unfairly trashed by a corrupt media, nor is it any sort of comparison to the incredibly polished stuff Sony usually puts out from its first-party studios. Days Gone is a solid seven out of ten blockbuster, and that shouldn’t be the insult some see it as. It’s a decently entertaining game that does what it does fairly well, presents some unique mechanics it’s pretty much unmatched in, and if you’re looking for an open world distraction, there are far worse titles to go with.