Days Gone Hands-on Preview – Emergent Open-world Zombie Action

Days Gone Hands-on Preview - Emergent Open-world Zombie Action 1

Days Gone has been on my radar since they first showed it off at E3 2016. You would think that taking the freedom of the open world genre, mixing in the excitement of zombies, with a pinch of biker culture for good measure sounds like a winning combination. Combine that with a swarm AI that makes that an interesting tool, along with a real threat, and Days Gone, on the surface, offers players something exciting. Yet after playing a good 20 minutes of it at a pre-E3 event in LA, I have a few, significant concerns for the title. 

For anyone not in the know, Days Gone, built by the developers at SIE Bend Studio, is an open-world action game set in a post-zombie apocalypse where players take the reigns of Deacon St. John (Sam Witwer), a biker, former bounty hunter, and all around ‘cool dude’. Played from the third person perspective, Days Gone has the feel of many other open-world action games from Sony, most notably Infamous: Second Son, and while there are no powers to be seen, the biker outlaw angle more than makes up for it, giving Deacon, plenty of “character”

Now, don’t get me wrong, the world of Days Gone looks good. The short demo I played (along with the hour or so I watched) made the game look stunning. The Redwood area is rendered beautifully on the PlayStation 4 Pro, making each tree, each character, and even each zombie look striking. It gets even more interesting when you add in the weather effects, with the rain pouring on your characters, making the world gleam with a melancholy sheen that adds to the bleak setting players find themselves in.

Days Gone Hands-On Preview - Bikers Meet Zombies 1
Days Gone – Gameplay Images Provided by Sony

For me, the biggest issues with Days Gone rests on the characters and the universe SIE Bend Studio is trying to create. I enjoyed Sons of Anarchy as much as the next guy (I even stuck with the show ’til the end credits rolled for some inexplicable reason), but even with this in mind, I can not get behind the character of Deacon. From what I have seen, and the demo I have played, he is just not that likable.

Granted, Sam Witwer is a fantastic actor. His work on Being Human and The Force Unleashed fit the part well, yet there is something off about his performance here. I never felt a connection with him, his goals, or any of his rationale. He also talks about ‘the man’ a lot, conjuring images of a long lost verse of that famous Lonely Island ditty, Threw it on the Ground. I am sure it will work for someone, but at least at this point, I am not buying what Deacon is selling.

While I found the main character detestable, I did notice the attention to detail throughout the cutscenes, along with all major story segments. The budget is on full display, as one would expect from a Sony first-party release. While it may not rival God of War it does stand as one of the best looking games currently on consoles. With another year or so of development, I am interested to see if another coat of polish will help or hurt the end look of the game.

Days Gone Hands-On Preview - Bikers Meet Zombies
Days Gone – Gameplay Images Provided by Sony

Now that we got that out of the way lets discuss what makes Days Gone unique; the meat and potatoes of why you would be picking it up over all other titles hitting in that window. It all comes down to the moment to moment gameplay, the ability to discover and utilize the world around you to achieve objectives. While the missions are serviceable, it is not until chaos reigns and things go south do things get interesting. In the short demo, I only managed to see this happen once. As I managed to lead a group of zombies into a group of humans and stand back as I watch the mayhem unfold, I got a good sense of why Days Gone could be fun. Much like Far Cry, it all comes down to building a ridiculous, murderous Rube Goldberg machine and watching it all work.

Combat and stealth is another area that I loved during my demo. Utilizing the environment, and all the tools at my disposal led to some of the most fun, and brutal actions taken by a character in gaming. The ability to take any problem in a variety of ways was a nice touch. I would love to say I always went the stealth approach, alas I would be lying. While I did try one segment, being as sneaky as possible, the rest I went all-in, baseball bats a-swinging. I would have loved a bit more time with the game, as it seems these emergent moments make for some of the best, and more fun segments of the overall experiences.

I do question the level of brutality within Days Gone, though. With The Last of Us, God of War, and now this game, I question if some higher up at Sony enjoys watching the pain and suffering of digital characters. Deacon, within my playthrough, managed to not only cause major damage to characters with pieces of wood, pipes, baseball bats, and even bear traps, but he does it in some of the most decidedly violent ways possible. I am not necessarily saying this is bad, and it honestly fits the world Bend Studio is trying to create, but it can be a bit much after a while, fighting countless enemies.

Days Gone Hands-On Preview - Bikers Meet Zombies 3
Days Gone – Gameplay Images Provided by Sony

In the demo, the main mission is to find medicine from a science facility, and while this was not overly difficult, it did give a clue to how the world will work. From collecting gas to use on a generator, to dealing with a swarm of zombies as you make your escape, if you have played Infamous or many other open-world titles, you will feel right at home with Days Gone. In all honesty, all the main story missions felt detailed and forced you, as the player, to explore the world, try new ways to attack problems. It is while doing these main missions I managed some of the most fun chaotic fights. Granted none of these fights had much to do with the missions themselves, most were caused by me getting in fights by driving through hoards of zombies, but still, they managed to work, and made me excited to see what was next.

Now don’t get me wrong, none of that mayhem and chaos would work if the core game did not feel tight, and give a set of tools that worked. I am happy to say everything in the game worked as one would hope. Guns felt precise, melee combat felt as brutal as one would hope, and riding bikes was fun, if not a bit tedious at times. Days Gone feels like a game that had it come out a year or two ago would be groundbreaking, but at this time it just feels ‘good’. It managed that fine balance that open worlds do not always achieve, giving enough freedom to test our your limits, but just enough structure to push you in the right direction. I just question if there is enough new to draw people in.

The aforementioned bike, being a staple of Days Gone, also comes with its own problems. While yes, it gives you an easy way to traverse the backwoods of Redwood County, it also demands a lot of your attention. In the short demo I played, I managed to crash the bike once so that it needed major repair, to run out of fuel, and to bail out in the middle of an escape. Granted the last on that list is fully my fault, the rest often felt like busy work keeping me from the action. I like what the team is trying to do with the bike, and I feel if given the time to play in a proper setting and experience things, it would have felt more natural. But in the short demo, these minor issues hamper the game from showing it’s best possible side. There was clearly a lot of love and care put into Days Gone but when you are spending five minutes of a 20-minute demo dealing with your bike, these good concepts get lost.

Days Gone Hands-On Preview - Bikers Meet Zombies 4
Days Gone – Gameplay Images Provided by Sony

Days Gone is a game that feels like it needs to be played in longer sittings to get the full impact. There is a lot of attention put into this title, some amazing moments, and don’t even get me started on the zombie hoards. But with such a vast title, you need to take your time, explore and get to know the world. I feel there is a good game within Days Gone, one that uses it’s setting, characters and visuals to full effect, but, that potential is buried under an open world that needs time and effort to be explored. There is a lot to like about Days Gone, and as more of the game is demoed closer to launch we will see more of that. Until then, I will be cautiously optimistic and hope the sliver of greatness I saw is a sign of the greater picture, rather than just a fleeting gem in the distance.

Days Gone is slated for a 2019 release exclusively on the PlayStation 4 platform.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more of Brendan Frye’s work such as his interview with EA Motive about Star Wars: Battlefront II, and his in-depth look at the Equifax Hack!

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