The statement I’m about to make will probably turn out to be a lie weeks after this review goes live, but it’s a wish I would love to come true, even if the chances of that happening are extremely slim: I’m taking a break from open-world games. This comes after months of playing and reviewing a bunch of them pretty much back to back. I’m approaching the state of mind one gets to when a base concept is repeated so much in a variety of seemingly different things one can experience that everything nearly gels together into a mushy entity that I’d later realize turns out to be my tired brain.
All of that aside, I tried to come into Days Gone with an open mind. Seeing the sheer negativity surrounding the game in the years and months nearing its release, I wanted to give it the benefit out doubt, especially a somewhat entertaining demo of it that I play at last year’s BGS, where I tried to and absolutely failed to make an analogy to the opening song of Sons of Anarchy, a show that I started loving and by the end, was anxious to see gone from my playlist. After having played through many hours of the final build of Days Gone, I can say for certain and reiterate my opening statement that I indeed need a long break from games that make use of open-world.
Out of all the reviews that I got to do lately of anything with a broad map and missions peppered along as icons on it, Days Gone is easily the one that took me the most time going through, and that’s not to say that its world is bad or anything. In fact, Oregon makes for a weird dichotomy, since it’s gorgeously portrayed in the game and quite enjoyable to ride across on protagonist Deacon St. John’s hog, and at the same time, it feels sparse and repetitive, because, well, I had to ride by the same things over and over again while I was playing the game. That isn’t to say that Days Gone is a game with very little to do, quite the opposite in fact: there’s a bunch to do in it, but it’s a lot of the same activities that are recycled under a thin coat of paint every time.
Basically, the world has gone to even deeper shit than we are now, thanks to a virus that’s mutating people into flesh-eating lunatics that like to run around in packs, don’t really like bright lights and are more keen on going bonkers at night. The survivors who just happened to make it through this ordeal without getting infected have bunched themselves into communities, or into gangs that roam the roads of countryside Oregon. Days Gone does a poor job setting up just how bad things are outside of that section of the state, let alone the country or the rest of the world, safe to say the United States government is not doing much to help folks out, other than flying spooky yellow suit clad and armed to the teeth agents around in helicopters and leaving cryptic recordings around for you to find in their deserted research camps.
You play as Deacon, an ex motorcycle club member who’s apparently lost his wife during the outbreak, when she was stabbed and put into one of those helicopters and flown away to what people thought was safety. It’s been two years, and Deek and his pal Bozer have craved a living as drifters, guys who ride around doing all sorts of dirty work for the surviving communities. Along the way, as you bike from fetch and destroy quest to simply destroy activity, you start running into evidence that things might not be exactly what they seem, and that there’s more to Deacon’s sob story that it was initially let on. That’s become nothing much about it is told to you as you start the game, and bits and pieces of it are played back to you in extremely hamfisted fashion all throughout Days Gone. Even though he and his buddy have ridden through Oregon back to back, weirdly enough they make their new living out in the same place they were back when the world resembled some sort of order, so in extremely convenient fashion, Deacon keeps running into familiar sights, now in a complete state of disarray, giving him an excuse to recall back on memories with his wife.
All the while, the both of them keep talking about moving up north all the time, but wouldn’t you know it, just as they’re about to finally set off, St John’s chopper is stolen and stripped for parts, forcing him to do when more odd jobs for the local truther anti-establishment nutcase and co, and leading on Days Gone morosely paced story and character development arc for Deacon. Make no mistake, he starts out as a cookie cutter gruff videogame protagonist, boringly performance and motion captured by Samuel Witner, from Star Wars The Force Unleashed and Battlestar Galactica fame, and doesn’t really go anywhere other than showing a little more emotion past sheer bumblingness.
Seriously, Deek turns out to be one of the most annoying protagonists I’ve ran into this year. He never really shuts up throughout the game — it’s like he feels compelled to remark (usually to himself?) about everything that you do during the game, be it finding one of the game’s miraculously bottomless tanks of gas to fill his bike up, or simply picking up a random herb he can sell off to raise ½ percent of his trust level with whatever camp he wants to impress. It almost made me mute voices and turn off subtitles, but I persevered as I continued on my quest of trying to please the group that held the parts that I needed in order to make my custom chopper look and perform great, the sole quest that I had going on in my mind while playing Days Gone.
That’s to say there’s a whole lot more to do, quantity-wise. The map in which the game takes place in is absolutely littered with groups of not-zombies that require exterminating, and for the bulk of my time playing, I rode around trying to find these nests in order to clear the way for fast travel, since as long as these guys stuck around in the middle of the way, I couldn’t click on my map and just instantly be ported around like I would in say a Fallout or in The Witcher 3. Sadly, finding them is not that easy, even though they’re shown on Deacon’s map as red mist. For just about every section that I came around to clear, after the initial spot, nothing else popped up to indicate where to go next, and lo and behold, I had to rely of Deacon’s rambling to point me to the general area where the next pip on the map I had to throw a Molotov into. Things got so bad that I ended up just giving up and riding around manually since I got sick of picking through every single dilapidated building in my way and just made peace with the fact that once in a while I had to stop and find more gas for the bike — it was a slow, not nearly as frustrating, but still annoying sure way of making progress.
Days Gone is also weird in how inconsistent it is. For a world as terrible as the one of it tries to portray, there’s sure a lot of conceits that are there just for the sake of artificially limiting you. For instance, you can’t hold a whole lot of ammo for your weapons, but a ton of it is given during specific combat encounters, meaning that you’ll find more than you can carry, and eventually run out when simply out and about exploring. Gas is ridiculously available, so why bother paying for it at any of the settlements? You can pick up new guns from dead enemies, but you can’t store them into your cabinet, that only occurs when you spend cash buying them, and those are locked behind the painfully slow trust progression system that forces you do churn away at the repetitive activities throughout the game. Days Gone is the sort of game that would have really benefited from having someone from the outside coming in, playing it, and going “why do this the way you’re doing it, for Pete’s sake?”.
Then there are the multiple issues with simply playing the game and having it respect its own established rules for engaging with its world. The mobs of monsters that you’re supposed to try and avoid don’t seem to act within the same set of tenets that you do, so even when doing exactly what I needed to be doing to avoid them, it was a toss up whether or not I’d attract them, and same went with single enemies or small groups. Shooting feels also uneven since Days Gone is really finicky with how it treats shots to specific body parts. Even when making use of Deacon’s cliché slow motion aiming and tracking, some shots I’ve landed have had a myriad of results, be them instant kills, barely stopping a rushing grunt in their tracks, or simply having them go flying up to the sky in spectacular fashion. Simply running down not-zombies with his bike also becomes a gamble, since the enemy behavior and the results of their reactions is so goddamn wonky, I ended up developing a fear of even riding past them, carefully avoiding any sort of close distance as I drove past them on my way and back to objective to objective.
My notion of a good open-world game lies in having a variety of things to do that feel rewarding, incentivizing me to keep building towards whatever new goal it sets me up for in entertaining and new ways. Days Gone does at least one of those right by giving a whole lot of possible things to do, albeit in boring and not at all varied ways. You can do what I mentioned before and destroy mutant hives around the map, but you can also eliminate human ambushers, kill whatever is left of the wild life, and go after bounties, all for the sake of collecting more stuff to turn in and watch your reputation tick up with whatever group you decide to give those to. Sure enough, Bend Studio injected the game with a bunch of activities to partake in, but nothing felt substantial in doing, other than stuffing more and more hours into what could have otherwise been a decent linear exploration game, in favor of bloating your experience extra hours it didn’t really need.
In the end, I really wanted to get to the end of Days Gone and confirm for a fact what I already suspected from the opening hours in regards to whatever happened with Deacon and his spouse, but I decided to stop and write this instead, so my impressions don’t sour even more than they already have playing this on and off before, during, and after E3 season rolled around this year. I came in with trying to give this game a chance, and sure enough, I tried to carve out what it did best.
The end result is me sitting down to write this and trying to express more positive points to Days Gone besides the really well made environmental visuals and the initial theme of having somewhat of a videogamey Sons of Anarchy to develop between the cast. Having played through The Last of Us years ago and the countless games that have since come out that tried to play off or surpass it, Days Gone feels like it tries to carry that sentiment and tone with little actual substance, as it stumbles into an open-world structure it has no business going for.
I’m sure many players will find Days Gone to be a really great buy to play for hours on end, but for me, the more I play this type of overly fatty game, the further I get from the notion that I used to value as my younger self, that more hours of play equals a better excuse to drop cash buying a game. That’s simply not the case anymore, with the more of these games I play for review. The older I get, the more thankful I am to developers who craft a clear, concise gameplay experience that doesn’t waste my time. Days Gone sure is fantastic at spending a bunch trying to extend its existence, when it should’ve instead tried to refine its core experience and deliver a better overall game.