When everyone was first going on and on about the first Covid lockdown only lasting two weeks, I bought a PS4. I’ve read and watched enough on apocalyptic historical events to know that even fully functioning, politically healthy countries have insane difficulty in controlling new disease. Since the United States is neither fully functioning or politically healthy, it was easy to tell we were going to be in for a long one.
One of the games I picked up with the PS4 was Days Gone, a game about what happens when the United States absolutely could not handle the outbreak and rapid spread of a new disease that turned the populace into mindless, screaming hordes ready to eviscerate the first person who stumbled into view. It wasn’t exactly distracting, but in this one I got a cool motorcycle and drove for hours all over the Pacific Northwest, so it was at least a change of scenery.
The game enjoyed a lot of hype at E3 in 2016 but wasn’t released until April 2019, a difference that could explain why more noise wasn’t made around its release. It’s hard to maintain excitement for years, especially when most of the news about the game revolves around delays and development issues.
Another reason there likely wasn’t more noise was its initial and inexplicable lukewarm reception. To name a few, IGN gave it a 6.5 out of 10, PC Gamer a 63 out of 100, Game Informer a 7.8 (an unusually low number considering how generous the magazine’s been with releases I’ve considered mediocre), and GameSpot a 5 out of 10. Getting mediocre reviews like that is almost more of a death sentence than rolling in excoriation. Mediocrity begets apathy which leads to a quick fade, whereas when games get slammed with angry 1s, 2s, or 3s, a decent number of people will buy it out of curiosity or to hate play it, and the game ends up with a cult following.
Days Gone seems to be shaking off that apathy, though. People have been slowly rediscovering this game and I’m seeing more recommendations for it popping up on Reddit. There’s also a healthy number of retrospective reviews that have come out since Days Gone’s release in 2019, and they’ve been glowing endorsements. They praise the open world, the complex character relationships, the satisfying combat, and the attention to detail, all of which I will also praise later in this article.
How Days Gone Plays
Your main mode of transportation in Days Gone is Deacon’s motorcycle and actually ended up being a sticking point for critics at the game’s release. They thought it was more monotonous and discouraged exploration. I think that’s exactly the opposite. I loved tooling around the zombified Pacific Northwest on my highly customizable motorcycle. What’s more, motorcycles are an excellent choice for an apocalyptic setting. They’re versatile, maneuverable, fuel efficient, and easier to maintain. Someone’s actually addressing the plot hole of apocalyptic vehicles and we’re going to nitpick them out of making better choices? Sure, you have to refuel the game bike way more often than you would a real one, but I’ll take some game mechanic impracticality over the suspension of disbelief that accompanies the gas guzzling convoys of other apocalypse stories.
Another great strength of the game, and probably the main thing that sets it apart, is the freaker hordes. The boss fights, for lack of a better word, come in the form of massive, genuinely terrifying groups of zombies. During the day, they’re generally confined to specific settings, as the freakers have a nonfatal aversion to sunlight. At night, they come out of their lairs to wander the game map. More than once, I spent nights picking off what I thought were single freakers, only to find out they were stragglers from a nearby horde, which then came to rip me apart.
Early in the game, you’re best off avoiding hordes. You’re simply not capable of taking them on. But eventually one of the game’s main objectives pushes you into a confrontation with one of the smaller ones and it’s a fight to remember. Hordes flow like water and will follow whatever path you take through the environment. That means you can lead them into chokepoints or prepared traps and take out satisfyingly large chunks of them with well placed molotov cocktails or explosives. They’re white-knuckle fights that never get easy, no matter how good your gear is, and end up being a nice balance in the mid to late game, when you would otherwise be untouchably powerful. The satisfaction of surveying the piles of corpses after the successful extermination of a horde is unparalleled.
A nice added touch after killing a horde is that it stays dead. It’s not like Skyrim or Fallout, where you can wage an all out genocide against bandit or raider camps, then come back a few game days later to the same camp and find it fully populated. In Days Gone, if you take on a horde and win, that horde stays gone and the location opens up for casual exploration or looting. It also felt like the surrounding areas get a little safer in that you won’t encounter as many solitary, wandering zombies, but I could be making that up.
This is another game with crafting, but I’d call it a little more fast casual than anything in depth. You’re really just gathering components for different improvised weapons and weapon upgrades, which helps reinforce the atmosphere and stakes of the game. There were times I did my share of straight running and gunning, but I quickly found what gadgets and weapons I liked the most and made sure I sought out those components. I was a huge fan of the molotov cocktail and its napalm upgrade, so I was constantly on the lookout for glass bottles and fuel. But that’s just my playstyle. I’m sure some of you will love planting remote controlled IEDs and leading hordes past that, while others will be firing two machine guns into the wall of pursuing flesh.
The Days Gone Story
Days Gone does admittedly tread some familiar, The Last of Us ground in its main character and initial setup. Deacon St. John is a rough-around-the-edges protagonist who’s had someone close to him, his wife, Sarah, taken in the chaos of the early days of the zombie outbreak (in this game, the zombies are mostly called freakers). In the time between losing Sarah and the start of the game, Deacon’s turns insular, where his altruism extends only as far as his close friend and fellow outlaw, Boozer. The two of them inhabit an apocalyptic world where the law is set by whoever’s still alive after the gunsmoke settles. Some factions are good, some are bad, some are insane cults that worship violence. But everything sounds bad if you talk about it in big general terms. It’s what a game does in its execution that sets it apart. In that way, Days Gone is undeniably a success.
None of the characters here fall flat and no one feels like a stereotype, with even smaller characters setting themselves apart. Again, in big broad terms, there are some of the same tried and true personalities, like Deacon St. John’s grizzled survivor wrappings. But once you get into the nuance, like him being a biker who still wears his colors and makes good use of dry wit, he sets himself apart. That extends to other characters as well. I’ve seen all these archetypes in other games and movies, they’ve just never had these nuances, so I’m more than willing to follow these people along whatever side quests and diversions they want to send me on.
A lot of that is accomplished through solid in-game dialogue. It’s amusing without being quippy, earnest without being melodramatic, and does a great job avoiding most of the more tempting cliches. And I mean that cliche comment as a major compliment. For whatever reason, the zombie survival genre has some of the worst, most cliche dialogue I’ve ever heard in my life (e.g. The Walking Dead, Zach Snyder’s zombie Netflix movie, the Resident Evil series). But in Days Gone, the people talk like real people.
By the end of the main story (don’t worry, no spoilers), there’s real change in Deacon. What’s more, it feels like change earned by good writing and character development. The people he meets have broken through his hard outer shell and gotten to the gooey sentiment in the middle. He doesn’t go around hugging everyone all the time, but you do get the sense that he’s back on board with the general necessity of community and society.