Days Gone has perhaps the most technical flaws that I’ve seen in a major triple-A video game in recent years. Yet I finished the entire campaign and relished the main story about a broken man surviving in a fallen world.
I admire Sony for having the guts to stand by Bend Studio, which developed this single-player game over seven years. I played it for maybe 50 hours spread out over a few weeks, which is why I’m quite possibly the last critic to review this game. I’ve waited a long time for this game and wanted to be patient with my playthrough.
It has good things and bad. It’s buggy. And that’s a shame because it had so much potential to be the open world version of The Last of Us, as some critics have said. Bend Studio showed us the best part of Days Gone at E3 in 2016 when they showed off the anti-hero, former biker gang member Deacon St. John, taking on and running away from a zombie, or Freaker, horde.
You can play this scene, where you’re running away from hundreds of Freakers. It is a thrilling, unforgiving battle. If you make a wrong, the horde will catch you or trap you, as the Freakers find ways to come at you from different directions. That’s Days Gone at its best, but sadly we saw it so long ago, and it doesn’t offer anything that’s much better.
This review has some spoilers, but I’ve tried to keep that to a minimum.
What you’ll like
A story that keeps you engaged
At the beginning, you see Deacon St. John make a fateful decision. He chooses to stay with his wounded best friend, Boozer, during the middle of the viral outbreak at the onset of the apocalypse. He puts Sarah, his wife who has been stabbed in the abdomen, on an evacuation chopper.
Then she disappears, and Days Gone begins more than 700 days later. Deacon has become a bitter bounty hunter, but he obsesses over his past and constantly searches for any signs of Sarah. He hunts down Freakers or human criminals for the lords who govern the remaining human camps.
As such, he is one of the few who dares to go out into the open world, dubbed the Shit. That pretty much sounds like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, or World War Z. So many people have written the story of Days Gone off as nothing special. But Deacon is an interesting and flawed character. And despite the technically flawed game, it was good enough to keep me engaged for dozens of hours.
I wanted to know what happened, and I was willing to wander the forests and roads for many hours to find out Deacon’s destiny. That adventure took me into horrifying creature battles, motorcycle chases, hopeless horde battles, stealth missions tracking the secretive Nero agency, and just plain-old surviving in the wilderness.
Deacon starts as a bitter man, but his experiences change him, and he embodies the hope of a dying breed.
The story has a lot of side quests, and the interface is quite good at showing your progress through them and the rewards that will come when you complete the missions.
Huge battles with the hordes
Days Gone does a good job of working its way up to the horde battles. At first, you have to deal with smaller numbers of Freakers. But finally, the main campaign missions require you to take out a horde before you can progress.
The horde battles are tricky. You can play them very carefully and engage in a lot of choreographed moves to get the Freakers to run into traps or trigger explosives.
One false move, and you’re done for. This is why the stuttering can be a problem. But it’s also a matter of skill. I had to go back and replay some of the horde battles many times before I was able to survive long enough and turn the tide against the Freakers. Your job is to thin out the horde, picking off stragglers like predators going after a herd.
I spent a long time waiting to play the horde battle at the sawmill, which Sony teased in 2016. It was very difficult to beat, until I found one of the secret places that made the battle much easier to fight (see below).
A dangerous world with many creatures
I like the fallen world that the developers created. We only know fragments of what happened to trigger a viral outbreak, and we don’t much care about that. The task at hand is survival.
The infected Freakers are easy to pick off when they are alone. You sneak up behind them give them a knife to the skull. But when they gather in groups, or you take too long to dispatch one of them, a whole horde can come down on top of you. That’s terrifying, and the drumbeat of the music increases the tension. But the world of Days Gone has many more terrors, and everything tries to kill you.
The crows were something I didn’t expect. I was going to burn out some Freaker nests and the crows started diving on my from the sky. They did a little bit of damage at first, but then I realized they were infected. Soon enough, they had me reeling and eventually killed me. You encounter regular wolves and Freaker wolves, known as Runners, that can keep up with your motorcycle.
When you meet one of the new creatures, they seem like insurmountable pains in the ass. I had to get up on a roof to take out a bear with Molotov cocktails. But later on, when I had to take on a Rager (an infected bear) on the ground, that was such a hard battle. I could only beat the bear by continuously running around a cabin or a car, firing as I could, and then tossing incendiaries at it from a distance.
Humankind, of course, is the most dangerous kind of animal that you come across. And they cause a lot more trouble than the Freakers or infected nature in the story. Every now and then, you’ll be riding on a highway and a trip wire will make you crash, or a sniper will knock you off your bike.
A nice love story
Deacon and Sarah are an odd couple. He’s a biker in the Mongrel gang, and she’s a scientist at a research facility. They turn out to be more than what you expect. Deacon is often angry — even to the point of muttering loudly too himself or screaming during stealth missions. But he has his limits when it comes to being a gruff killer. He saves children, won’t attack unarmed women, and shows devotion to his lost love that can be touching at times.
The dialogue between Sarah and Deacon can be pretty stilted, like when she asks him to promise to “ride me more than you ride that bike.” I liked how the story unfolded, as Deacon tries to stiffen himself and become unemotional to deal with loss and separation. It made him more interesting as a character.
Deke’s friend, Boozer, is also a welcome character who brings some levity and banter to the otherwise grim world of Days Gone.
The Oregon landscape is beautiful
Bend Studio set Days Gone in its backyard, and you can tell. The open world is well crafted, with beautiful trees, grasses, mountains, forests, small towns, and other scenery.
Sometimes, when you go inside the buildings, you don’t find much personality on the inside. But the outdoors is the real star here. You see a beautiful field of wildflowers, juxtaposed with dead bodies and burned out cars, and the occasional human camp. The weather changes from bright summer to snowy winter, and the landscape changes to reflect that. Driving your motorcycle through the mud and the snow is a lot harder than in the summer.
The open world has a couple of parts to it, allowing for some variety. The NERO military camps offer a lot of places to run and jump, resulting in mazes where humanity has a chance to survive.
Weapons that get better with time
The pistols and assault rifles are trash. They have very little range, didn’t feel good when you shot them, and were often inferior to using a melee club. Early on, life is tough when you close with the Freakers.
Later in the game, things got easier. Once I got the special weapons like a heavy machine gun or the highly lethal sniper rifle, things got much easier. I could take aim at a big Freaker like a Breaker and bring him down before he knew what was happening.
But sadly, once I picked up a heavy machine gun, the game took it away from me when the mission was over. But I earned another version of that weapon later in the game.
It took a long time to earn traps, which are explosive devices that you can trigger while on the run. Those were absolutely necessary in fighting off hordes. You have to work your way up to the traps.
When you drive over a mountain, it can be a long haul. Much like the cinematic scenes in Red Dead Redemption 2, you can spend a lot of time riding from one part of the open world to the next. And the developers give you good, haunting ballads to listen to as you ride the open road.
What you won’t like
Lots of bugs
The critics have been harsh on Days Gone’s technical problems. The load screens are often long. But the bugs include slow frame rates on the PS4 Pro and PS4, audio sync problems where the lip movements don’t match the spoken words, clipping, pop-in images that fill out as you approach them, cars that float, Freakers that get stuck in a corner, and many other things that take you out of the experience.
In one critical moment toward the end, I couldn’t hear any dialogue. On top of that, because I had experienced hours of audio problems, I had subtitles turned on. The subtitles didn’t appear. That was one of the points where I was learning about the cause of the Freaker plague.
I encountered story bugs, too. I never got to see one of the dramatic hostage rescues because I happened to shoot the bad guy with a sniper rifle before I approached the platform. So, I didn’t get to see a whole cutscene about rescuing the mechanic, Manny.
Lousy frame rate
The frame rate inexplicably drops low in parts of the game, making you feel like you’re looking at a cartoon flip book sometimes. This game has been in the works for seven years. Its launch was delayed a couple of times, and it showed up at three Electronic Entertainment Expo shows before its launch.
I played the game and soldiered through seven different patches. I thought by now it would be polished. But it clearly could have benefited from just a little more debugging, or whatever it takes to stop you from feeling that you are playing in slow motion. As I mentioned, I put up with bugs because I was engaged with the story.
The normal weapons are pretty much trash. You only get the one-shot, one-kill sniper rifle and the heavy-duty machine gun late in the game. Once you have those, you don’t really need anything else unless you are out of ammo.
And here’s another thing. Why can’t you shoot backward when you are on the run?
When you’re riding on your motorcycle, wolves known as Runners will chase you. They’re zombie wolves that are fast enough to catch you. You can keep driving your motorcycle but shoot backward with a pistol in your hand. This is nice for fending off the wolves.
But why can’t you do this when you’re being chased by a zombie horde? The Freaks are fast. They can run maybe as fast as Deacon can when he isn’t winded. But to shoot the Freakers chasing you, you have to stop, turn around, take aim, and then shoot. You have to either run forward without knowing who is chasing you, or you turn around to make a stand and possibly face an early death.
You run out of fuel often. If you crash into something, you have to fix your bike. You have to scrounge for a can of fuel, find a working gas station, or get scrap metal to repair the bike. These tasks and advance planning are crucial to your survival. But they make you do a beeline on your missions. That means you won’t explore the great open world that Bend Studio has created. This should have been tuned better, considering the disastrous consequences of running out of fuel in a dangerous world.
I enjoyed crafting weapons, earning credits to buy new gear, and upgrading my motorcycle as if it were my baby. But I also hated living in a kind of over-starved world, where bullets were precious.
The easy way out
Some of the horde battles have easy ways out. In one case, you can use a tunnel. In another case, you can climb up on a roof where the zombies can’t get you. That makes the battles a little too easy. I would have been happy to have more napalm grenades or explosive barrels to take out a bunch of Freakers all at once. But these key salvation spots are kind of an easy crutch for what otherwise seem like impossible battles. You can see in my own video of the sawmill battle, I leaned on one of these salvation spots a lot.
An unfinished story
Even when you find out the mystery of Sarah, when you find out how to take on an entire horde and survive, you still have some loose threads. I won’t give it all away, but the main narrative ends without some resolution to a couple of the main mysteries in the game. Maybe some DLC or a sequel is coming, but Days Gone leave some major questions unanswered.
Puzzles are supposed to be hard. But a number of times, I was clearing out Freaker infestations. If you do this, you make the world less dangerous and you can fast travel between locations. But it takes time. You have to find hidden nests. You might uncover a half-dozen nests in a town.
Visual cues show you the direction where you can find the remaining nests. But I had to search wider and wider areas to find some of the last locations. It was annoying, and not because the puzzles were hard. It was because these were non-essential tasks when I had better things to do. It seemed like the point was to stretch out the game to make it longer.
Once, I was really annoyed to scour an entire station that belonged to NERO, the mysterious government entity, only to be stymied for the lack of a gas can. You need the gas can to turn on a generator, which has to be operational to turn on the automated doors so you can get inside. After a lot of time searching for that gas can, I wound up getting on my motorcycle and driving off.
The sad thing is that Days Gone has so many flaws that most critics haven’t noticed the good parts. I would guess that many chose not to finish the story. But it’s a good one. It had the potential to be as good as The Last of Us, but it lost its way. It’s worth playing, especially as Bend Studio stamps out the bugs.
Were it not for the technical problems, my rating might have been more like 90. I don’t think I’m being too punitive. Problems like lip-syncing are really disruptive to the gaming experience. The average score by critics on Metacritic is 72 out of 100, though fans have been kinder, giving the game a rating of 80.
Perhaps the game is pushing the PS4 to its limit, and it is a justification for the coming launch of the PlayStation 5 in 2020. Sony should really think about remastering this game for its future console — and stamp out those bugs.
If we want to get more of The Last of Us, it looks like we’ll have to wait for The Last of Us Part II. The game has weak shooting systems and some bad weapons, much like Red Dead Redemption II. But while the other games have been highly rated, Days Gone has had its legs cut out by the bugs.
Days Gone is now available for the PlayStation 4. Sony sent us a digital code for the purposes of this review. But they sent it to the wrong email first and cost me four days of play, which is one reason this review is so late.