Days Gone Review: Open, Empty Roads

Days Gone's road to releasing as a PlayStation 4 exclusive hasn't been the smoothest one. It stars a rough protagonist named Deacon St. John who’s trying to find answers about his wife and a deadly virus that wiped out much of the population and turned people into zombie-like enemies called “Freakers.” Tepid excitement for the game was done no favors by a delay, and compared to Sony’s other exclusives seemingly of the same caliber, it felt out of place as a generic-looking, open-world zombie game. After spending quite a bit of time with Days Gone, it appears those hesitations were warranted.

That’s not to say that Days Gone is a bad game, because saying so would be an injustice to the world Bend Studio has created. Days Gone gets some things right and others wrong, but one of its most unfortunate shortfalls is that it doesn’t do anything exceptionally well. Days Gone shows its hand early on with its protagonist going through a very familiar gameplay loop. Fetch quests, escorting or following NPCs, stealthily sneaking around enemies to avoid restarting at a checkpoint, clearing out various factions’ camps for resources and fast-travel locations, and hopping off your bike sometimes between all of this to hunt the occasional deer or pack of enemies is the essence of Days Gone. It makes for a bland experience, though it at least set in a world that's graphically impressive.

If you overheard this description without context, you’d be forgiven for thinking someone was talking about Far Cry 5 or Red Dead Redemption 2. You could probably think of several other games this applies to, and that’s where part of the problem lies: any game that shares similarities with Days Gone seems to do the job better. It’s not as gritty as Rockstar’s new game nor is it as boisterous and charming as the world of Far Cry. After a few hours of Days Gone, it seemed like I'd been playing for much longer just because it felt like a game that's been experienced dozens of times before.

days gone
(Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

To Bend Studio’s credit, the Freakers they’ve created are excellent enemies to go up against. Ignoring the painfully generic names for various Freaker types like Swarmers, Breakers, and Runners, the enemies are diverse enough to make you plan for things differently. You can’t fight a Breaker like you could a small group of six or seven Swarmers, though none of them are particularly difficult in low numbers on the game’s normal setting. Where the Freakers shine though is when they show up in Hordes, a type of enemy that focuses on quantity over quality. Foreshadowed by eerie music and the sound of dozens of grumbling, guttural noises, the Hordes will make you re-evaluate your sense of confidence the other enemies lulled you into. There’s a strong chance taking out a Horde will consume all your resources, but the satisfaction’s worth it.

Blasting apart these enemies is just as fun as clearing out the Hordes. Early-game fights aren’t too rewarding due to your limited arsenal of weapons in poor condition and blunt melee tools, but as your options grow, so does the carnage. Taking off heads and limbs with guns and gruesome weapons that have to be ripped out of Freakers after getting stuck feels as brutal as it sounds, and it makes for the types of gore and combat you’d expect from a zombie game. Melee combat isn't too dynamic at the start when you're performing the same combo multiple times just to drop one enemy, but place a few points in the melee skill tree and you'll be knocking some heads.

Deacon also makes for a likable protagonist even though he’s also on the generic side, and his relationship with the bike players ride is an interesting one. Deacon will grumble to himself while performing mundane but essential tasks like picking up supplies and refilling his bike’s gas tank and will sometimes shout over the roar of his vehicle to let off some steam while riding around. These actions and his tendencies for rash decisions and violence make him seem like a gruff hothead, but it’s more understandable when you look at it from the lens of someone trying to maintain their sanity in a world that's so indifferent to their existence.

But for its redeeming qualities, Days Gone seems to have a concerning amount of performance problems for the level of a game it’s trying to be. Numerous problems occurred when playing, but one of the most persistent is the frame rate drops. One of Days Gone's bike customizations increases its top speed, and the game also features dynamic weather like rain and snow that fall at random. You can imagine these combined systems would warrant some beautiful, fast-paced rides through Oregon. The only problem with that is the game apparently can’t keep up with everything that’s happening at once. Playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro, high-speed rides with precipitation coming down and enemies around Deacon resulted in some serious drops in performance. Frame rates plummeted and caused the game to completely freeze at one point, and my console sounded louder than Deacon’s bike. This was a particularly frustrating problem to experience because, like Marvel’s Spider-Man, it’s way more enjoyable to travel around the map and see what it hides yourself than fast-travel to a location.

That’s the most glaring issue, but it’s not the only one that plagues Days Gone. While corralling a group of about 15-20 Freakers so that I could turn and lay into them with a machine gun, they all simply disappeared. They never even left my sight and were just there one moment before vanishing in thin air. After completing a main story quest once, no new task appeared, which is not at all the norm in Days Gone. The only "active" quest in the log was the one I’d just completed, but it gave no map marker since there was nothing more to do. Nobody called me and nothing came up, so after riding around and trying to trigger something to no avail, I simply went to sleep in-game hoping to find a solution. The problem fixed itself when Deacon awoke with a voice on the radio yelling at me to complete a quest that I'd never committed to.

Other issues like funky animations happen periodically where Deacon instant transmissions out of a cutscene’s view, and instant-kill animations sometimes make a weapon totally miss a Freaker but kills them anyway. I’ve also currently unable to equip rocks or Deacon’s binoculars, though Bend Studio has said the rock issue at least should be fixed in an upcoming patch.

If you average out Days Gone’s shortcomings with its redeeming moments, you’re left with a game that's just perfectly alright in every sense of the word, nothing more though perhaps a bit less. There are certainly those who are hyped for Days Gone and will no doubt enjoy everything Bend Studio and Sony has to offer while patiently awaiting the free content and bug fixes that are to come. For those who held a casual or tentative interest, though, it’s a game best bought on sale or used to hold you over until your next big purchase.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Days Gone releases exclusively for the PlayStation 4 on April 26th. A physical review copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.