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Just over a year ago i wrote an article on Days Gone – a survival horror action game in the zombie mode. Back then I was worried we’d seen too much of this kind of story in games and in TV, movies and literature as well. Turns out I was right but Days Gone has more problems than being just another game about a grizzled man with a supposed heart of gold. Days Gone has an identity crisis in terms of its world, it’s story and its game design. It’s the Frankenstein’s Monster of the modern AAA game with every strand of its borrowed identity threatening to pull it apart at the seams.
Further Reading: Days Gone and Why the Zombie Apocalypse Needs to Die.
Days Gone is set roughly two years after a virus devastated the world. Most humans have been turned into balding, shrieking and biting creatures known as Freakers. In the middle of all this is Deacon St. John and his friend Boozer, two bikers with dreams of heading north to escape the Freakers, gangs of marauders and the Ripper death cult that inhabit the wilderness of Washington state. In order to get himself and Boozer back on the road Deacon must deal with the Freakers, the gangs and his own tragic past.
In short it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. Nothing is truly special about Days Gone. It adds nothing new to the survival game formula. From its combat to its crafting to its characters Days Gone feels like its ticking boxes rather than trying to add something new. The two biggest influences on Days Gone whether implicit or explicit are The Last of Us and the Red Dead Redemption series. Days Gone draws it’s world from that of The Last of Us or it tries to at least. The fragile survivor camps. The neo-fascist remnants of the American government. The mutating virus.
The open world of Days Gone is really more of a hindrance than a help. Any side jobs Joel and Ellie ever did in The Last of Us were in service of their larger goal to deliver Ellie safely to the Firefly rebels. In Days Gone the side missions and bounty jobs picked up from various camps do nothing to advance a story that feels stuck in the mud from the get-go. The story missions involving the fragments of the American government are the worst part of the game. Essentially stealth missions chock full of exposition they force you to sneakily follow a government researcher flanked by unkillable soldiers. It’s an annoyance at first before it reveals itself as a bizarrely stupid design choice.
I will admit that at first the hordes of Freakers are impressive to look at and can be especially – if briefly – frightening when stumbled upon in a cave or abandoned mine. But 30 hours in these ravenous swarms of hundreds have been revealed to be easily avoidable and, so far, entirely optional to fight. Here’s the thing: massive hoards of flesh hungry monsters are nothing new. Just because they’re in the context of a game with a story doesn’t make them any more impressive than they were in Left 4 Dead or the newly released World War Z.
But the other influence, Red Dead Redemption, is at first more subtle. The Red Dead Redemption games were, by their very design, quite slow games. Days Gone is slow too but like its biker characters riding the cluttered, cracked highways you can tell it desperately wants to open up the throttle. Red Dead Redemption and its sequel were tragic stories unfolding at a leisurely, exact pace about doomed men leading a doomed lifestyle. I can sense that Days Gone wants to tell a similar story. A story about how no one can survive alone in the Freaker infested wilderness.
Red Dead Redemption 2 got its story across in every facet of its design. From the firing and cocking of your weapons to the animations dedicated to simple busywork to the way Arthur Morgan took care of his horse. Deacon St. John shares a relationship with his bike in much the same way Arthur does with his horse. Both require attention, fuel and repair. The thing is Arthur’s horse is a living creature capable of expressing pain and affection. When it dies near the end of the game Arthur runs back to it in the middle of a firefight and whispers his thanks as it dies. It’s affecting and, if you’ve played the game right, it’s a culmination of the beautiful, brutal world Rockstar has built.
As Deacon traversed the volcanic deserts and wooded slopes of Washington state his bike became as much of an annoyance as it was a form of transport. Driving it feels good and when I came upon a stretch of road that wasn’t cluttered up with abandoned vehicles or trees I let that massive engine roar. Until I ran out of fuel or a marauder trap nearly took my head off. In Red Dead Redemption 2 the in-game work of tending to my horse felt worthwhile. I was building a relationship with a responsive, emotive animal. In Days Gone when I fix up my bike or pump it full of fuel it just sits there, unmoving and ungrateful. Better to leave out the system of taking care of something than to half-ass it.
Further Reading: Finding Hope in Futility in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Everything in Days Gone gives a sense of deja vú of playing a better game. It’s frenetic, visceral combat was nothing I hadn’t enjoyed in The Last of Us. The same goes for its practically plot-less story and hard-bitten characters. Against all odds, even when I wrote that article last year, I was hoping Days Gone would at least be good. That there would be something more than the Freaker swarms that the developers made such a big deal out of as if they’d never heard of Left 4 Dead. Instead Days Gone may as well be The Colour Beige: The Game. I took no real pleasure in writing this just as I take no real pleasure in playing Days Gone.