Sony has been on a roll of late. The company has published some of the most acclaimed single-player blockbuster video games of the last few years, ranging from the superhero adventure Spider-Man to the surprisingly emotional reboot of God of War to the vast, intricate open-world of Horizon Zero Dawn. While many publishers have primarily shifted to the more lucrative space of live-service games, Sony has become one of the last bastions of support for lavishly produced story-driven titles — which is what makes Days Gone so disappointing.
Coming out of Sony’s Bend Studio, the team behind the early PlayStation action series Syphon Filter, Days Gone has a lot in common with the aforementioned blockbuster games. It’s huge and beautiful, with an impeccable attention to visual detail; everything from falling snowflakes to blood-spattered spiked bats to the actual human characters has just the right weight and sheen to it. It’s a world that looks real, with a layer of history and thought behind it, and the game itself is a largely competent, well-crafted experience.
The problem is that it’s all wrapped around a painfully generic zombie story, one that ultimately plays out like a dozen games you’ve experienced before. All of that effort feels wasted, especially in a world where Sony also publishes the brilliant The Last of Us, which took a seemingly straightforward post-apocalyptic zombie narrative in interesting new directions. Meanwhile, in Days Gone, the end of the world is somehow incredibly bland.
Days Gone takes place in Oregon, though, aside from the constant rain, it could really be any zombie-infested place. It’s set a few years after a mysterious outbreak that has turned most humans into
zombies freakers, which are essentially feral animals that just want to kill everything. (In a nice touch, whenever you pause the game, you’re shown the number of days that have passed since the outbreak.) You play as a biker named Deacon St. John, or Deek for short, who was forced to separate from his girlfriend, Sarah, the day things went to hell, and he has spent the 700-or-so days since simply surviving with his best friend and fellow biker, Boozer.
Once you dig in a bit, there’s actually a lot going on in Days Gone’s story: Deacon’s quest to find out what really happened to his girlfriend, a government conspiracy concerning the zombies, and the various surviving human factions figuring out how to coexist, and largely failing. These are all collected into various story threads that you’ll explore throughout the game, but the problem is that few are actually very interesting or original. It’s pretty easy to predict the fate of multiple main characters, though it’s likely that you won’t care much either way.
The cast of Days Gone is entirely forgettable, aside from its grizzled lead, who is notable primarily for how much of an asshole he is. I get it. It’s the end of the world. But it’s hard to relate to a character who yells at kids when he’s rescuing them and whose first plan of action always seems to involve murder. Aside from a few more personal storylines — particularly one involving a young girl who Deacon “rescues” and then struggles to find her place in this terrible new world — I couldn’t summon much interest in either the characters or what they were doing.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t offer much respite. At its core, Days Gone is a standard third-person, open-world action game, the kind where everyone around you seems to need something. You’re essentially riding around on a motorcycle, running errands during the zombie apocalypse. You might have to rid an area of zombies by burning off their nests or clear out some camps full of violent religious zealots. There are lots of shootouts with cover to hide behind and an unfortunate number of forced stealth missions. The shooting feels fine, and the melee combat has a nice heft to it. But the best that could be said of Days Gone’s missions is that they’re competent; there’s nothing particularly wrong with them, and occasionally, you might even have fun, but they’re just so bland. There isn’t anything here you can’t experience in other, better games.
Now, there are a few aspects that do give Days Gone a somewhat unique flavor. Chief among them is your bike, which might actually be the ideal post-apocalyptic vehicle. It lets you get around quickly without making you feel too safe, which would rid the world of much of its horror. Like your horse in Breath of the Wild or The Witcher, Deacon’s bike is almost a character itself, one that’s an integral part of the experience. You can customize it, and you have to take care of it, regularly fixing it up and refilling the gas. The latter can be tedious, but it also forces you to really plan out what you’re doing. I once ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere on a rainy night, a time when zombies are out in full force, and it was probably the scariest moment I experienced in the game.
The other distinguishing feature is the sheer number of undead you’ll go up against. Early on, you’ll mostly be clearing out small groups of zombies, but eventually, you’ll come up against what are called hordes, which are essentially vast herds of murderous monsters. That first moment when you spot a horde is terrifying, as it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever contend with them. But that feeling doesn’t last long. The undead in Days Gone are particularly dumb, even more so, it seems, in large groups. You’ll discover the best tactics for taking them out very quickly. Eventually, they just become a nuisance, rather than a strategic challenge.
What’s especially frustrating is that there are a number of good ideas buried under Days Gone’s tepid exterior. I loved the way individual story beats were presented as distinct threads so that you always knew what mission to follow next, and the game makes great use of ambient dialogue to highlight things in the world you might otherwise miss. You’ll also encounter various settlements, each with its own distinct vibe; one is run by an NRA fanatic who thinks the outbreak would’ve been contained if America had fewer gun laws, while another is a seemingly peaceful place run by a former prison warden. The more you help each camp by running errands, rescuing civilians, or killing zombies, the more they’ll trust you. Those relationships grant you access to more weapons, gear, and mods for your bike. It’s a great structure that forces you to make decisions about who you want to help.
In a lot of ways, Days Gone reminds me of the original Watch Dogs. Both star a terminally unlikable character and offer players a huge, open playground full of incredibly dull things to do. Days Gone has the skeleton of a good game, but the rest is so forgettable that it ultimately feels like a tragic waste of resources. Not exactly bad, just boring. But if Watch Dogs 2 is any indication, it’s also the kind of experience that could potentially be redeemed with a sequel — hopefully one that finds a better way to stand out among the sprawling horde of zombie fiction.
Days Gone launches on April 26th on the PlayStation 4.