It’s not unfair to say that Days Gone is a flawed game, one that shows the signs of regular chopping and changing throughout development, as well as it clearly cutting it a little fine for its release date with there being a cavalcade of bugs that QA must not have had time to address. In truth, its first ten hours almost begged me to give up the ghost owing to how poorly it made an impression, but once that “click” came, I had trouble playing or thinking about anything else.
You play as Deacon St. John, a protagonist to rival Ceaseless Discharge in the bad video game character name stakes. Not only do you have to contend with his odd moniker, but his character is also a little hard to love in the early goings with him only seemingly coming alive when he’s bashing Freaker heads in. Muttering to himself constantly (and also randomly shouting because the game thinks you’re on your loud bike when you’re not) and just generally being a butthole to everyone apart from his best friend, he’s not someone you instantly warm to. However, it soon becomes clear that this is by design: loss has turned him an anti-social weirdo, which Sam Witwer conveys superbly. When he tries to assimilate within a community again instead of just doing odd jobs to drift along, that’s also when Days Gone itself really starts to bloom.
The reason for his ennui is the same as pretty much everyone left in the world: a virus has turned the majority of the population into crazed “Freakers” (read: zombies but not zombies) with the survivors split into different gangs and communities. Deacon begins the game as a drifter, reflecting his “past life” as a member of a biker gang, someone who goes from camp to camp and collects bounties, human and otherwise. He doesn’t really concern himself with the ethics of what he’s doing, which includes effectively selling a deluded girl into the slave trade. Again, not the greatest of dudes.
You start the game with a souped-up motorcycle, but Days Gone wastes no time in swapping that out for a trash can with wheels that moves at the speed of a Romero zombie. On a similarly frustrating note, Deacon also has no stamina at all for the initial hours, meaning that he can barely run for long without needing a breather. I always hate when games make characters almost inhumanly incompetent early on to make it a more noticeable improvement in ability, and Days Gone is one of the worst offenders for this. You will wonder how Deacon survived for two years in the post-apocalypse.
The end of the world has left a large open world for you to explore, one that’s certainly a little more arid and “spacious” than its contemporaries. You won’t find something to tick off your list every five seconds; there actually isn’t a huge amount of busywork in Days Gone at all. Sure, you have your customary “map towers” here (coming in the form of a map in a bunker) which unravel portions of the play area, but by and large Days Gone’s content is all meaningful. There are even random encounters: I came across a guy trying to steal my bike a couple of times, as well as an ambush that flung me from my bike. Story missions are varied and offer a good insight into Deacon’s evolving psyche, whereas side distractions like clearing out Freaker nests allows players the chance to take part in the game’s satisfying combat, which, again, actually isn’t all that hot in the beginning.
Players start out with the total basics: guns that fire bullets but not very well and melee weapons that are like hitting Freakers with soft pillows. This does admittedly make encounters more primal and tense as a result, your absolutely gigantic crosshairs making headshots an uncertainty, not helped by the speed of the Freakers as they dash towards you with their teeth gnashing away. While it’s certainly more challenging and arguably more exciting to depend on what feels like a twig and a rock to defend yourself with, unlocking the better weapons and perks is when most will likely really start to gel with Days Gone.
The currency and upgrade system is, like the game itself overall, a bit unusual. Rather than collecting money throughout the world, the player earns “camp credits” for individual places based on what they did for that settlement, whether that’s killing Freakers, harvesting meat, or completing missions. The more work you complete for a settlement, the more lucrative gear you unlock to buy; there are different items and upgrades from different places. It’s an interesting system, but one that may frustrate when you have to grind for a considerable time to improve your standing per camp. The distribution of these unlocks is also a little odd: I couldn’t use anything other than a pistol, a slightly better pistol, or a mostly ineffective shotgun as a sidearm for about 95% of the game.
You can also buy things like ammo and silencers from these vendors to suit different playstyles and tactics, particularly when it comes to clearing bandit camps and hordes, the latter being possibly the brightest spot of the game. Clearing camps isn’t a walk in the park, but hordes are where Days Gone really shines in its combat and depth. Hordes can range from a few dozen to several hundred (if not more), but none of them should be taken lightly. One particular horde encounter at a sawmill features a wide range of tight spaces to funnel the Freakers into with few opportunities for environmental destruction, whereas another fight at a mass grave site offers almost no respite but about a million different ways of racking up the kills. On their own, Freakers are barely a worry, but if you come across them in numbers, it’s time to panic — my heart would often race when I heard the sound cue of a nearby swarm.
The world of Days Gone itself can also play a part in your survivability with it featuring one of the most amazing weather systems I’ve ever seen in a game. Your bike is hampered by harsh conditions with the Freakers also acting a little differently based on the weather, which is always worth going into Photo Mode for a closer look at the stunning detail provided. The splash of mud as you rev through it is always quietly impressive, but it’s the game’s usage of snow that always gives me pause for admiration. After clearing out a town, snow began to fall and it wasn’t long before the dead Freakers were caked in snow and a peaceful scene — as if nothing had just happened — soon took shape. Days Gone is a constant visual delight: whether it’s the depth of facial animations or its gorgeous landscapes, it’s a screenshot factory if ever there was one.
World traversal also feels great once you have upgraded your bike enough, Deacon’s highly customisable ride handling like a dream once you’ve spent some time on it. Drifting around the wasteland with the purr of the bike engine as your soundtrack is cathartic, even if you want to hop off every so often to bash some heads in. From the colour of your bike and its decals to what kind of “fork” (something I still don’t understand) you use, Days Gone really wants the bike to feel like your own. It reminded me a lot of Mad Max, another open world game that divided opinion at release.
This comparison extends to the fuelling system, but while I found Mad Max constantly asking you to fuel up just irritating busywork for variety’s sake, it actually serves a purpose in Days Gone. You really don’t want to have to come off your bike in Days Gone, it offering a crux for you against the bad guys and beasts wandering around. Knowing that you’re low on fuel without any idea of where you can find a pump or can is seriously unsettling, especially with the way that making noise works. If you are too loud — say, have a shootout with some bandits — the noise could attract any nearby bears, mountain lions, or, worst of all, hordes. I had a breathless confrontation with a small camp of naughty people and was a mid-looting when I noticed a curious horde coming over the hill. I could have hopped on my bike and cheesed it for an escape, but I had next to no fuel and the noise would just attract them right to me, meaning that I had to take cover and wait them out.
For as many interesting ideas as Days Gone brings to the table, it doesn’t help itself with the amount of glitches it also provides, so many that I am almost tempted to make a compilation video set to Monster Mash. I’ve had the broadest range of bugs imaginable, from bandits flying up in the air after a single pistol shot, to attacking bears just vanishing in front of me, to Freakers getting stuck in windows and taking part in some kind of ritualistic dance. Typically, this wouldn’t bother me in isolation, but when they crop up with such regularity, it’s hard not to get distracted. Post-launch patches have helped, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Days Gone could have done with at least a month or more in the oven.
This is further evidenced by the hard-to-shake belief that certain aspects of Days Gone have been stripped back to get it out the door on time. The choice system showcased in a pre-release gameplay video has quietly been shelved, which is just a shame, but there are also transitions between cutscenes and gameplay that make no sense or are just plain awkward. At one point, Deacon tells a girl to run as fast as they can, but once the player is back in control, the girl is just dawdling along without a care. The transition between gameplay and cutscenes can also be a bit wearing thanks to the amount of loading, which feels too slow and constant for a game of this ilk when compared to its peers.
These are all signs of a game having a troubled development, which crops up again with just how the game “feels” at times. It’s been in the works for a good few years and does play a little clunkily as a result, which reminded me a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2. Deacon has the responsiveness of a fridge at points, especially when trying to interact with something on the ground, but just like Red Dead, this doesn’t detract too much from the experience overall. The weapon and crafting wheel could also do with a second look, but again, it isn’t so bad that it brings the whole things down.
Despite Days Gone’s awkwardness and early frustrations, things take a dramatic upwards turn in terms of quality about halfway through, which coincides with the growth of Deacon as a character and also the toolbox at your disposal really starting to get interesting. There are excellent performances throughout Days Gone, but nobody nails it as much as Sam Witwer as Deacon, who has every inch the arc that someone like Arthur Morgan does. Witwer somehow portrays Deacon just as passionately as Roger Clark did as Morgan; you can really tell that he lived and breathed the role. The great writing doesn’t hurt, either. Characters have fantastic chemistry — especially Deacon and Boozer, who also share a charming repartee — and the story offers a surprisingly emotional connection the deeper in you dive. I didn’t expect to care so much about Deacon and his happiness as much as I did by the end, but I seriously pulled for him.
I also didn’t expect Days Gone to turn my overall opinion around as drastically as it did. It reminds me a lot of the recent World World War Z, which I also reviewed and became charmed by despite some clear flaws. Perhaps I expected too much of Days Gone as a PS4 exclusive based on Sony’s recent history, but this imperfect game still has a lot to offer. With a seriously dense amount of content, an evolving protagonist, and a stunning spectacle or two on offer, don’t let Days Gone go by.
Sure, it's clunky at points, has enough rough edges to cut someone, and is perhaps too slow in getting to the good stuff, but give Days Gone and Deacon a chance and they will win you over.