Sony has a bit of a thin slate of games this year, and Days Gone has been elevated to one of its major single-player exclusives for the PlayStation 4. The title was first shown via a riveting demo at E3 in 2016, but it has been delayed as developer Bend Studio has polished it. Now the title is in its final weeks of development, and the game is coming into focus.
Days Gone caught my attention because its hero, a bounty hunter named Deacon, had to try to destroy and run away from as many as 500 zombies (dubbed Freakers) in a horde that was pursuing him at high speed, as if it were a school of fish chasing after him. But the game is more ambitious than just that crazy scene, as Deacon must survive in the open world of the Oregon woods, with just some companion friends and his motorcycle.
The woods are dangerous, loaded with Freakers who will come running after you if you make a ruckus. You also have to deal with outlaw gangs, heavily armed soldiers, and backstabbing frenemies. The wildlife is also infected with the Freaker virus, which means you’ll have to go up against packs of zombie wolves and Freaker Grizzly bears. This makes for good gameplay opportunities. But it isn’t going to be riveting (like The Last of Us) unless it comes with story, deep characters, and some hope.
I listed this game as one of my favorite anticipated titles of 2017. But then I had to wait. And now I’ve put it on my list of the most anticipated titles of 2019. I’ve played a few more demos at the E3 shows, waiting patiently. And I went to a recent preview event in San Francisco and was able to play the first hour or so of the game. Then I jumped into the middle, about five hours into the game, where I could play with more weaponry and bike upgrades.
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After that, I saw down to discuss the game with creative director John Garvin of SIE Bend Studio. The game debuts on the PlayStation 4 on April 26.
What you’ll like
A story with deeper characters is taking shape
Deacon is a tough guy bounty hunter who is brutal and doesn’t care much for anyone in the world except his loyal friend Boozer. His wife, Sarah, died in the aftermath of the pandemic that brought the Freakers into the world. Sony recently released a flashback trailer that shows Deacon remembering his wedding with Sarah, before he became a hardened bounty hunter. I also saw the beginning cinematic of the game as well as another flashback that showed how the lovers met.
In the opening cinematic, Sarah was wounded and Deacon was taking her to an evacuation helicopter amid a panic about the onset of the Freaker hordes. The streets were chaotic and they made it to the helicopter, but it only had room for two more people. Deacon put Sarah on the helicopter, but he stayed behind because his friend Boozer was wounded and needed help. That turned out to be a fateful decision.
As I was traversing through the open world, I came upon an area where Deacon first met Sarah. He remembers what happened. Her car had stalled and Deacon came by on his motorcycle. He gave her a ride to get help and returned with her to the car, which was in the process of being looted by three goons. Deacon started to fight them, but they overcame him. They were beating him up until Sarah pulled out a gun and fired a shot. The goons fled, and Sarah and Deacon stayed together.
I’m not sure whether this is the complete memory of Deacon’s long-lost love. We know she’s gone. It feels like a trope that explains why he has become so hardened, brutal, and merciless. Boozer remains, and he understands Deacon and why he appears to have a death wish. To me, this is the beginning of a story, and I hope the game has more to show us. Garvin, the creative director, assures me that we’ve barely seen any of the story so far. But one thing is clear. We only get that story in bits and pieces, in flashbacks, and we’ll no doubt have to explore much of the Oregon woods before we get the full tale. I hope that Deacon’s great love is more than his motorcycle.
Dodging the horde
In previous previews, I played several episodes which earned me experience and helped me understand how to deal with the Freakers. In one early episode, Deacon needed a motorcycle part. He got Boozer to give him a ride to a gas station. Boozer drove through the station and got most of the horde to chase him. Then I went into the bushes and tried to sneak into the buildings. Plenty of lone Freakers were still in the compound, so I had to sneak up on them and take them out quietly from behind. One by one, I took them out and eventually got my motorcycle part.
Then I found Boozer, who had been ambushed by a crazy tattoo gang. I had to go in guns blazing to save him and then get him out of there. The gang members burned him, so I had to go out to find a bandage. In this sequence of events, I liked how one problem got solved, followed by a new problem created. That kept me moving forward all the time.
Once in a while, you’ll find that you need to go into a huge horde and challenge them. That’s where this game shines. You set up a bunch of traps and lead the horde through them once the action starts. You can whittle down the horde little by little, and hopefully survive. You can also take the action to them, I found, by burning out the nests that you find. If you do that, you clear an infestation in an area and open that area for Fast Travel.
Taking down a bear
In one of the towns, I came across a bear that wasn’t infected. It was huge. The first time I took it on, it charged at me and killed me. Then I tried to run from it and it chased me through a restaurant and finally brought me down.
I ultimately took the coward’s way out. I found a way to climb on the roof. I took out a few of the kiddie Freakers on the roof, and then I waited for the bear. I dropped my Molotov cocktails on the bear each time he came back. That took his health down low, and he couldn’t get to me. I took him out with my machine gun.
But it wasn’t entirely so simple, as I had rescued a girl who was hiding in a house. I had to fight off some freakers and a whole gang of skinhead-like outlaws. She somehow managed to hide from the bear while I was on the roof.
A role-playing game
In the latter part of the preview, I was earning points for missions and using them to get better capabilities. You can do this with your motorcycle, which is a kind of character unto itself. Or you can do this with Deacon’s possessions and weapons. Either way, the more time you spend in the open world getting experience and doing side missions, the stronger you become for the main missions in the story arc. You can explore the woods, collect stuff, and get better at the game as a result.
What you won’t like
I saw significant loading screens in between the cut scenes and the action. That was frustrating, but Garvin said they’re working on improving those. If anything shows the PlayStation 4’s age, it’s this kind of wait. I hope these will be gone by the time the game ships, but I’m not holding my breath.
Major gaps in the story
Sony and Bend Studio are holding back on the story. I got a chance at a relatively short cinematic from the beginning of the game, as I mentioned above. It was dreadfully short, and I hope we get to see more of it. I’m not opposed to having long cinematics, having played all 105 missions of Red Dead Redemption 2. If the story justifies it, that’s great. But with the short cinematics and flashback style of storytelling, I’m still not convinced we have a game with an outstanding narrative.
So far, I don’t see the kind of story that we celebrated in titles like The Last of Us or God of War. I hope it’s there, and I don’t mean a mission where I have to go out and get a bandage for my buddy’s burned arm.
Some things I don’t know: Who are these elite military guys that come dropping in from helicopters? Do the survivors have any hope to evade the growing hordes of Freakers? Is the story of Deacon and Sarah more than just a trope that gives Deacon a mission of revenge? I guess I’ll find out more when I play the game properly.
In the mission where I had to rescue a young girl and kill the bear, the enemies were quite stupid. They stood out in the open and took their shots from me. They were kind of spongy, taking two or three shots before going down. I want the enemies to be deadly, but not because they are hard to take down.
Do you have enough ammo?
When Deacon goes after a horde, he has to use a ton of traps and ammo. Is it ever worth it to waste all of that ammo, when you might need it for the next mission or to take on a group of humans? Garvin said the team has studied this problem a lot. Figuring out just how much is key. If you have too much ammo, it’s too easy, like in games like Wolfenstein. If you run out of ammo, it’s not going to be fun. You don’t really want to be stingy with bullets. This means that every scene in the game has to be properly stocked with ammo. And it can’t be too easy to find things like rocket launchers.
My colleagues continue to be skeptical about this game, even though they’ve played a lot less of it than I have. Days Gone has some challenges because we have so many zombie games out there, and one of the greatest was also published by Sony — The Last of Us, from Naughty Dog. The Last of Us Part II is in the works, and it is setting a high bar. But Garvin made a good point in a previous interview. Just because we’ve had one good zombie game doesn’t mean that the market is saturated, as that is like saying “superheroes are played out.”
I’m more than willing to give Days Gone a chance to be great. I expect it to be so, based on what I’ve seen. The hordes will make it seem different from every other zombie game (save maybe World War Z), and the story and characters could elevate it, giving the player both a great single-player narrative and a lot of action.
But every preview I play leaves me wondering whether Days Gone has more to offer, in terms of that story or action or characterization. I hope it’s going to all come together as a great narrative experience with fine gameplay action. I’ve got my fingers crossed, as I know many people could be ready to dismiss this game as one more zombie apocalypse title.
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