Days Gone Review – Drifting Through the Apocalypse in Style
Days GoneApril 26th, 2019
If you asked a bunch of PlayStation gamers which of Sony's internal studios they prefer, chances are you'll hear lots of replies mentioning Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us), Sony Santa Monica (God of War), Guerrilla Games (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Killzone), or Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway, Dreams). Others might pick Polyphony Digital (Gran Turismo), Sucker Punch Productions (Infamous, Ghost of Tsushima), or even Japan Studio (Gravity Rush, Knack, and big co-productions like Bloodborne, The Last Guardian and Shadow of the Colossus).
With San Diego Studio, London Studio and Manchester Studio focused on three specific niches (MLB: The Show, Singstar and VR games, respectively), that leaves only Bend Studio, the developer originally funded as Eidetic in 1993 and purchased by Sony in 2000.
At that time Bend was fairly well known for his series of Syphon Filter stealth games. However, there hasn't been a new installment in that franchise since the PlayStation 2 era, and Bend was put on handheld development duty with Resistance: Retribution (PSP, 2009) and Uncharted: Golden Abyss (PS Vita, 2011).
Gamers who wouldn't mention them among the top internal PlayStation studios can be easily understood, then. However, the Oregon-based studio is planning to change all that with Days Gone, their first triple-A console effort in well over a decade.
After playing a few dozens of hours to review the game, I can happily say that Days Gone fully succeeds in putting Bend Studio once again on the map. No longer will they be ignored or forgotten, that's for sure.
For those who haven't been following its development, Days Gone is an open world game set in a post-apocalyptic rendition of Oregon, the studio's own backyard. It takes place roughly two years after a viral outbreak has wiped out most of the world's population, turning countless into pseudo-zombies referred to as Freakers. The main distinction from traditional zombies is that these aren't reanimated dead, but living beings who have suffered mutations through the virus.
Players step into the shoes of Deacon St. John, a former Army veteran turned 'drifter' after coming home from his Afghanistan tour. Deacon then joined a biker gang called Mongrels and found his place there, though his defining moment is perhaps the chance encounter with his future wife, Sarah. Their relationship is explored through a few playable flashbacks, too.
Keeping up with the ongoing tradition of story-focused PlayStation 4 exclusives, Days Gone's greatest achievements are undoubtedly found in the storytelling and character building components. There's every hallmark of a great story here: poignant moments, unexpected twists and well-written characters who are characterized through a veritable ton of dialogue (often optional and skippable, though I'd strongly advise against doing so).
For this, the writers at Bend deserve a lot of praise, but so do the actors involved for their remarkable work in bringing their characters to life. Sam Witwer delivers an amazing performance (highlighted even further by the great facial animation techniques used by Bend, as his trademark expressions in Days Gone will be quickly recognized by those who've seen the actor in other works such as Supergirl) that's bound to turn Deacon St. John into a beloved character, but there are several memorable characters beyond him, from Sarah (played by Courtnee Draper, Bioshock: Infinite's Elizabeth) to 'Boozer', 'Iron Mike', Rikki (played by Nishi Munshi), Skizzo, the Colonel and others.
If I could point out a slight flaw in this area, it's that there aren't enough written notes or text logs detailing the stories of the survivors. It's an area that post-apocalyptic games have been exploring increasingly well in recent years and for good reason, as it adds context and boosts the player's immersion into the fictional world. You do get to find and listen to NERO's audio logs and these provide some insight into the Freakers and the virus itself, though it's not quite the same thing.
Something that impressed me of Days Gone is the sheer quantity of story missions available. As veteran gamers know by heart, RPGs tend to be the longest types of games for a number of reasons. This is no true RPG, of course, even if you do technically level up Deacon through experience points and assign skill points to improve his melee and ranged combat or survival capabilities.
And yet, I reckon it's almost as long as one. Sadly neither the game nor the PlayStation 4 have any playtime tracking feature, but Days Gone can easily last completionists 40 to 50 hours without feeling drawn out.
Beyond the story missions, there's plenty to do here. Roaming the gorgeous countryside (more on that later) is very useful, as one would expect from a post-apocalyptic game, mainly to scavenge all sorts of materials. These can be found both in abandoned homes and abandoned cars and are required to craft items (which happens on the fly, as in The Last of Us) such as bandages, Molotovs, bombs, not to mention repairing the bike or melee weapons with scraps. Deacon will also need to keep tabs on his bike's fuel gauge, which can be refilled at gasoline stations or via the gasoline cans scattered throughout the areas. You wouldn't want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere without fuel.
The minimap alerts the player of nearby points of interest. There are a few 'dynamic event' types in Days Gone; for instance, you can rescue random folks from Freakers or (more often) human Marauders and the likes, and you may then send the rescued people to a nearby safe camp of your own choosing. This is important because it lets you boost your reputation with camps; there are three levels of reputation, each one providing access to exclusive weapons and bike improvements.
Deacon is also a bit of a tracker, again following in the footsteps of games such as The Witcher, Horizon: Zero Dawn and many others. His comments when tracking prints aren't quite as extensive or detailed as Geralt's or Aloy's, though that's perhaps a nitpick. Tracking can lead you to resource stashes, but beware of traps set by human bandits, who can capture Deacon for a little while; conveniently, though, he'll be able to escape imprisonment right away as the captors somehow always let him keep his knife.
Of course, a large part of Days Gone has Deacon dealing with the Freakers. Reinforcing the developer's promise that they're more than just zombies, these voracious humans do behave more like animals. They hibernate in caves or large buildings (such as the sawmill demonstrated by Bend in previous footage) during the day while going out to feed at nighttime. In that, they remind the Darkseekers from I Am Legend though unlike them, the Freakers aren't vulnerable to sunlight.
While the Freakers are fast, dispatching one or a few isn't a problem. Hordes are, however, an entirely different matter and randomly running into them when turning a road or going over a hill is quite the shock. Taking them on isn't really advisable until you have enough horsepower in terms of weapon ammunition, Molotov and bomb stacks, not to mention strongly upgraded stamina for Deacon. Remaining always ahead of Hordes is in fact critical, as getting hit by two or three Freakers could stagger you long enough to be overwhelmed in mere seconds.
As if that wasn't enough, there are multiple types of mutated Freakers. There's the Screamer and the Breaker types, which we've seen plenty of times since Left 4 Dead, but Days Gone also introduces some new concepts. Newts, for instance, are mutated children and adolescents who exhibit an 'opportunistic' behavior; they hang on rooftops and stay away unless Deacon is wounded, which is when they'll literally jump at him. The virus didn't spare animals either and that includes almost unkillable 'Rager' bears, 'Runner' wolves who keep up with your augmented bike and may even kick you off it, and nasty infected crows. There are also wild, uninfected animals prowling the woods; these can be a source of meat, though you can't actually eat it, only sell it for reputation gains.
From a mechanics standpoint, Days Gone is sound, though not innovative in any substantial way. Its combat blends familiar elements of third-person shooters and stealth games, which makes perfect sense given Bend's portfolio. The stealth approach is generally something that's always worth keeping in mind since even when dealing with human bandits there's always the risk of drawing the unwanted attention of nearby Freakers. Melee combat feels satisfying when connecting your club or axe with your enemy's face, while vehicle combat on the bike is perhaps a bit undercooked compared to something like Mad Max. The majority of it happens during bounty pursuits and isn't quite as exciting as you would expect; for some reason, it's also not possible for Deacon to throw bombs or Molotovs when on his bike, even if NPCs can do it.
From a graphics standpoint, Days Gone looks fantastic. Unlike other PlayStation 4 exclusives produced by Sony's Worldwide Studios, this one runs on the Unreal Engine 4 and it's a reminder of how great games can look with the UE4 when an expert developer with a triple-A budget goes all in with it. In fact, it is so gorgeous to make me curious about visiting the real-life regions that have been portrayed in the game.
There's some pop-in, sure, but overall the result is often astounding and up there with the very best open world games available on the console. The game also features a great rendition of weather, from rain to snow and so on. Supposedly it's meant to influence the aggressivity and presence of Freakers across the world, though honestly, I couldn't notice any meaningful difference there during my playthrough.
However, all of this magnificence comes at a fairly high cost. Days Gone, at least when played at 4K resolution on a PlayStation 4 Pro, does struggle a bit more than I would have liked with the performance.
It's not just when a Horde of Freakers, with its hundreds of swarming pseudo-zombies, appears on screen either. Slowdowns are actually more prevalent when simply roaming the world on Deacon's bike, even if there aren't any enemies at all on screen. This must be tied to the streaming of new assets, which is evidently far more of a problem when riding at a high speed than going on foot.
Sometimes there would be nasty micro-freezes and stutters of 2-3 seconds as well, while most of the time the frame rate would simply drop below the 30 frames per second target, to 20 FPS or so.
To be clear, this didn't quite hamper my enjoyment of Days Gone. On the other hand, the performance issues can be felt even without having a clinical eye for frame drops, and they are a bit jarring when they occur. Days Gone also comes with its own share of bugs, of the kind we're used to seeing in open world games: once I fell through the world and another time the game wouldn't let me climb to reach my target location. Loading a previous save fixed both, of course.
Speaking of loading times, they aren't ideal; there are two big ones, the first just to get to the main menu and the second to load your save, just to get into the game (which takes roughly two minutes overall). Again, this is easily explained by the open world nature of Days Gone and the PlayStation 4's own notoriously slow hard disk drive. Luckily this won't be a problem anymore with the upcoming PlayStation 5, where loading times are said to be almost non-existent according to Sony.
Review code provided by the publisher.
Days Gone puts Bend Studio once again on the map of all PlayStation gamers after many years of oblivion. While it doesn't deliver any meaningful innovations in terms of open world and gameplay mechanics, it's a fun game that sports gorgeous graphics and a surprisingly great story/cast of characters, easily paving the way for a sequel to the stories of Deacon 'the Drifter' St. John.
- Days Gone looks beautiful on PS4 Pro and has large environments worth exploring
- Excellent plot, well-written and well-played characters make for a memorable story
- Strong longevity factor for a non-RPG
- Solid combat mix of third-person shooting and stealth
- Performance is far from ideal between frame drops to 20FPS, micro-freezes and stutters
- The open world and gameplay mechanics don't have any real innovations