I needed some explosive chemicals from the old sawmill on the edge of town, but hundreds of freakers were gathered there, feasting on a mass grave. So I set explosive traps around the building’s edges, planned a course through its twists and turns, then tossed a napalm-filled molotov cocktail into the building. They were on me in an instant — hundreds of hungry monsters ready to rip me limb from limb. I ran for it, hoping not to blow myself up with my own bombs or become the freakers’ next meal. After an hour of fighting, dying, and trying again, I was finally victorious. I was out of ammo, explosives and medical supplies, but the horde was dead.
It was an exhilarating moment that shows the potential of Days Gone, out April 26 for PlayStation 4 from developer SIE Bend Studio. Unfortunately, this epic fight happened exactly once, and only after a whopping 40 hours of playtime. Days Gone has been pitched as an open-world zombie game challenging players to fight hordes of the living dead. In reality, it’s less about killing zombie swarms and more about fighting other humans. And while this narrative-driven open world game has earnest hopes of reaching the heights of TV’s golden age, the writing sadly comes across like a TV show an intern pitched after back-to-back binge watching The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy.
Days Gone tells the story of Deacon St. John, an outlaw biker and Afghanistan vet. At the onset, zombies — called “freakers” here — have overrun everything. After Deacon’s wife Sarah is wounded, he puts her on the last government helicopter out of town, hoping she can get medical treatment somewhere safe. Fast forward 2 years, and St. John is cruising the wilderness running errands for various human settlements, avoiding freakers, and mourning what he can only assume was his wife’s death.
Here we come to Days Gone’s first big problem: Deacon St. John is an unlikeable jerk. He has two modes: yelling at the top of his lungs or sarcastically muttering under his breath. He often says one thing, then does the opposite. Early in the story, St. John, in need of medical help for a wounded friend, has to negotiate with a settlement that wants him dead. He knows the situation is delicate, and success means putting his best foot forward. But mere seconds into negotiations, he pulls a gun.
They don’t teach that one in Conflict Resolution 101.
Later, when a scientist is trying to give St. John valuable into about the freaker threat, St. John criticizes the “mumbo jumbo” and tells him to shut up. When people ask him how he’s feeling, he lies and tell them he feels nothing. He listens to radio broadcasts from a local Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theorist and yells at him like an elderly parent ranting at the talking heads on TV. After 40 hours with St. John, I wished the freakers would finally finish him off.
When St. John isn’t yelling at or otherwise irritating other characters, he’s out in the wilderness — “the shit” as the folks of Days Gone call it, giving the game a wartime feeling — collecting helpful items and killing people. The enemy humans are all either murderous bandits or zombie worshipping cultists, people who threaten the stability of the more peaceful camps for which St. John works. Days Gone, like The Walking Dead, repeatedly reminded me that humans are the real villain in this story.
Similar to Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, Days Gone presented me with a large map and multiple points of interest. I cleared infestations of zombies to make the roads safer, rummaged through government sites collecting information about the infection, and murdered hundreds of fellow humans in dozens of encampments. Collecting items allowed me to craft weapons, explosives, and potions that kept me alive in “the shit.” Clearing out the camps earned me experience and boosted my reputation with various factions. I used the experience to make St. John faster, stronger, and harder to kill. I used the reputation to make his bike tougher, faster, and more fuel efficient. Still, Days Gone doesn’t feel as refined as similar games, like Fry Cry and The Division 2 — the shooting mechanics don’t feel as good, and Oregon, though beautiful, isn’t a particularly interesting setting.
Then there are those huge mobs of freakers. Nearly 40 different hordes roam Days Gone’s open world, but you aren’t asked to kill them until the story is nearly complete — and even then, it’s only an optional side quest. In my 40 hours of playtime, I encountered just three of these hordes. It seems they don’t come out to play until Days Gone’s final hours, an unfortunate saving of the best for last that turned the lead-up into a drag. It’s a bummer because Days Gone is a concoction of concepts borrowed from other, better games, and the hordes could have made it distinct. But with so few encounters, and only then so late in the game, it’s too little, too late. (And even then, my PlayStation 4 Pro struggled mighty during horde encounters, an added but supremely un-fun challenge.)
I would’ve gladly dealt with choppy gameplay if it meant more horde encounters, as they were truly the highlight of Days Gone. SIE Bend Studio at least reignited my interest in zombie-fighting, a genre with little gas in the tank after years of movies, TV shows and video games dealing with the living day. Sad, then, that Days Gone saves its best moments as a kind of reward for slogging through a cliche-ridden journey across post-apocalyptic Oregon, tied to a sullen and angry hero.