The pause menu of Days Gone keeps track of the time since Deacon St. John was separated from his wife, Sarah, who was helicoptered away during the chaotic zombie outbreak. Since that day, he’s been living a life similar to his old one as a biker, eschewing mandated responsibilities and trusting his own code above all else.
However, no man is an island, and as the remaining human settlements fortify themselves against the zombie hordes and each other, Deacon is more tethered than he first thought. He might not totally buy into the anti-government paranoia, militaristic, nihilistic, or rigid philosophies of those around him, but he’s not entirely selfish, either.
Like Deacon, Days Gone sets off on its own path, landing between being a dynamic open world and a linear, physically constrained story. While its gameplay systems create fun and harrowing scenarios, the way Days Gone straddles the line between two extremes leaves me wanting more from both the story and open world.
Resources are scarce in the ruined landscape, affecting almost everything you do. You have to maintain repairs on your bike, you can craft lots of equipment, and your melee weapons break frequently. The situation isn’t all grim, however. Days Gone does a good job making you feel desperate but not frustrated, leading to improvisation like making the most of your equipment. If I ran out of ammo for my favorite weapon, I might use a sound emitter to attract zombies to enemies’ location. What about the subsequent zombie rush that inevitably follows? That’s a problem for another time. Hopefully I have some ammo by then, or maybe I switch to stealth or my crafted melee weapon – a baseball bat modded with a saw blade.
Dealing with hordes – massive gatherings of zombies – is its own tense, terrifying challenge that requires you use more of your environment to survive since you can’t simply shoot your way clear of the throng before they tear you apart. You have to use their rage against them, funneling them into choke points where you can set explosives or shoot flammables to take out chunks of them before running away and regrouping. The unpredictable horde A.I. adds intrigue in successive tries since you can’t always predict where they’re going to go.
You can buy better equipment and some supplies through human camp settlements, but only by earning their trust first by doing missions for them. These tasks, like clearing out a camp of Marauders or PCP-addled human Rippers aren’t novel, but Deacon’s dealing with the camps and their leadership help define him by juxtaposing him with each camp’s views on survival, such as Copeland’s anti-government conspiracy mindset. These camps also figure into your open-world activities; when you save survivors in the wild, you earn a big trust boost with the camp you send them to.
Rescuing survivors, hunting, and collecting random plants suggests an open-world structure ripe with possibilities, but Days Gone’s landscape is more dull than it appears. The map has a lot of land on it, but it’s not filled with intriguing side stories, characters, and situations. Instead, it contains prescribed missions and anonymous people to kill – and these tasks were not tempting or rewarding enough to draw me away from the main story.
Days Gone’s narrative is standard and sufficient, but it trips up when it leans on minor characters at multiple points for important and/or dramatic turns in the plot. This strains credulity, makes the world feel too small, and pads out the experience with filler missions using otherwise boring stealth gameplay mechanics. My least favorite was being asked to search for a guy’s MP3 player as the story was all coming to a head.
On the technical front it’s also worth mentioning that Days Gone lacks polish for a first-party title. The framerate can vary, and the loads are surprisingly long and frequent on the standard PS4 – something that shouldn’t be necessary at this stage.
Days Gone has good gameplay foundations. The scarcity of supplies and ever-present threat of zombies put me on edge as much as it gave me options to escape by the skin of my teeth. But the inability to fully deliver on either the story or open world fronts makes it a title of both possibilities and limitations.