Late to the Game: Days Gone

Late to the Game: ‘Days Gone’

Gaming Reviews Videogames

I didn’t have much interest in Days Gone when it was released back in April 2019. This apathy had nothing to do with the lukewarm reception the game was getting from the gaming media, and I didn’t have anything against the game. I’ve just become very resistant to buying new games over the years. Too often I’ve spent $50 or more only to be disappointed (I’m looking at you, Way of the Samurai). So I passed by Days Gone with nary an afterthought.

During the pandemic year, I’d settled into a routine of playing Red Dead Online and Borderlands 3. But those were both starting to get a little stale. So when Days Gone was offered for free on Playstation Plus in April 2021, it piqued my interest enough to warrant a download and trial play session.

And I loved it.

Days Gone: Outrunning a Freaker Horde

Days Gone

Days Gone is an open world zombie survival game set in a post-apocalyptic Oregon after a global pandemic. It treads the same narrative territory as Resident Evil and The Last of Us with a little Sons of Anarchy thrown in for spice. It shares many of the hallmarks that come with open-world games — story-driven quests, random encounters, a plethora of items to harvest, a fast-travel system, and plenty of places and landmarks to explore.

You play as Deacon St. John, a ne’er-do-well biker with a heart of gold (well, maybe bronze) from the Mongrels, a Farewell, Oregon motorcycle, club (MC). St. John is an army veteran, having served with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. We don’t know much about him at the beginning of the game, but his story slowly unfolds in a series of cinematic backstory scenes (one small criticism here: some of these scenes run a bit too long).

Deacon St. John, protagonist of Days Gone.
Deacon St. John.

Many game critics didn’t like Deacon — citing his lack of a character arc and a dearth of personal growth. I have to wonder if these critics played the game much past the first few missions. I agree that Deacon comes across as a jerk in the early part of the game. But he’s been in an extreme survival scenario for more than two years — his attitude feels as much a defense strategy as a personality flaw. And while he maintains a healthy cynical streak throughout the game, he does show his softer side as the story unfolds.

In the game’s opening cinematic, we see Deacon, his wife Sarah, and Boozer (his best bud for life and fellow Mongrel) on the run from a fresh zombie outbreak. Sarah is suffering from a mortal stab wound — we don’t yet know how that happened — and Deacon puts her on the last helicopter leaving the overrun city while he stays behind to help the wounded Boozer who, as he puts it, “… won’t make it without me.” So Deacon finds out where the helicopter is going and gives Sarah his prized Mongrels ring as a promise he’ll make it to where she’s being taken. Then he and Boozer watch as the copter flies off into the sunset. Fade to black.

The playable beginning of the game picks up two years later. We learn it’s been 731 days (gone) since the rapidly growing zombie population caused the collapse of civilization. The action begins in media res with Deacon and Boozer chasing down a gent named Leon on their motorcycles. Days Gone uses this introductory scene to run the player through the mechanics of the game: running, crouching, gun shooting, melee combat, gathering collectibles, crafting materials, and driving a motorcycle.

Chasing Leon in the opening scene of Days Gone
That’s Leon in the front.

Along the way, you pick up on the politics of post-pandemic Oregon. We learn there are two camps where people band together with differing ideologies and concepts of civilization, and we learn Deacon and Boozer are Drifters, individuals who eschew this camp life and choose to eke out an existence on their own. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of ill-intentioned human enemies (Marauders, Rippers, Drifters) undertaking foul deeds at the expense of these camps, so there are plenty of bounties for Deacon to hunt down.

Outside Copeland's Camp
Entering Copeland’s Camp. Deacon will undertake jobs for the camp but doesn’t agree with the politics.

The camps, of course, are where Deacon can also resupply using that camp’s credit system (each camp has its own scrip). The camps offer Deacon new guns (always essential in a zombie situation) and parts for his motorcycle. As Deacon completes jobs for each camp, his approval with them grows, and this unlocks better weapons and upgrades for his bike.

The Post-Apocalypse Is Made for Bikers

The roads and highways of post-pandemic Oregon are clogged with broken down cars, trucks, and big rigs. The most efficient way to travel is by motorcycle. Deacon spends many hours in the saddle, and there are a few places you can only reach with a souped-up engine or boost of nitrous. So it pays to upgrade your bike early and often.

Travel by car is all but impossible.
The roads are impassable for any large vehicle. But motorcycles can go almost anywhere.

I’m terrible at driving in video games (my Rocket League career was painfully short) but these controls seemed to be relatively forgiving. Not forgiving enough for me to not run into trees, rocks, and abandoned vehicles, however.

Who put this trailer here?

There are a few missions that require Deacon to chase down a bounty on his bike. If you, like me, are horrid behind the handlebars, don’t worry. After failing to close the deal a few times (I swear that trailer jumped right in my way), the game asked if I want to skip ahead to the story content. I’m not ashamed to admit (well, maybe a little ashamed) that I said, “Why yes I do!” and eagerly accepted the offer. (If Battlefront II had this kind of system, I wouldn’t still be stuck trying to fly that silly Bespin Cloud Car.)

Guns. Lots of Guns. (And Other Weapons)

Days Gone offers the discerning post-apocalyptic consumer a great many guns to choose from — assault rifles, machine guns, shotguns, pistols, submachine guns, sniper rifles, and crossbows.

Some of the better guns though, like the Rock Chuck (with its sweet built-in suppressor), can only be obtained by completing story missions. After an early mission, Deacon gets his hands on a Drifter Crossbow (à la Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead ) which is a devastating piece of ordnance — a fact balanced by its slow reload time and the need to constantly craft ammunition for it. This continues to be my favored weapon for silently and safely taking out enemy camps.

Using the Drifter Crossbow
The Drifter Crossbow, an effective weapon in many situations.

Melee combat is also a big part of Days Gone. Deacon is always armed with his trusty boot knife, even when captured by enemies (you’d think they’d search him better). But the knife is pretty weak. Fortunately, the game world is riddled with the detritus of pre-pandemic life that can be fashioned into makeshift weapons — items like baseball bats, 2x4s, table legs, fire axes, and machetes. Deacon also learns to combine items to create more effective melee weapons, like the spiked bat or the truly devastating 2×4 Axe for one-hit kills.

Deacon cleaning up with 2x4 Axe
Deacon can use a piece of lumber and a saw blade to craft the brutal 2×4 Axe.

Additionally, there are a wide variety of throwables — pipe bombs, grenades, Molotov cocktails — that can cause huge damage to tightly packed crowds. If those fail, Deacon can always throw a rock to distract enemies, helping to set up stealth eliminations.

Speaking of Stealth …

Let’s talk about stealth. I’m painfully bad when it comes to stealth in games. I don’t have the patience for it, and quite often the mechanics are wonky (I’m looking at you, Red Dead Online). All that leads to frustrating gameplay. But with Days Gone, I rather enjoy the stealth missions. There are only about ten or so, and they’re just challenging enough without being tedious (I’m looking at you, Assassin’s Creed).

That armed guard can't see Deacon's guns poking out of the bushes.
Deacon hiding in the bushes.

I’ve failed at being stealthy a few times, certainly. But that has more to do with figuring out the enemy’s route (typically Deacon has to follow someone without being seen) or forgetting to turn off Deacon’s flashlight than bad mechanics, like an enemy who can seemingly notice you from around corners and down stairs.

Freaking Hordes of Freakers

A post-pandemic zombie survival game must have zombies. And in Days Gone, those zombies are called Freakers. There are a few different types with varying strength and abilities, but most of the time, they’re easy to take out one-on-one or in small groups. But in a great many places on the map, a massive (200 to 300) Horde of Freakers hangs out. Sometimes you’ll stumble across them in a cave (usually during daytime) or moving around a general area en masse. Hordes operate as a single entity — not at all unlike a hive of angry bees.

On the run!
Run, Deacon!

Once the horde takes notice of Deacon, he’ll quickly have a massive group of fast-moving Freakers swarm over him and tear him to pieces in seconds. I tend to play in the dark with headphones on, and the first time I encountered a swarm, it was absolutely terrifying. I was trying to sneak into an abandoned mobile medical unit for some supplies and made a little too much noise. Okay, maybe a lot of noise. I knew I’d messed up the moment the Horde spotted me, but that didn’t matter. I couldn’t run fast enough and the outcome wasn’t pretty.

Fortunately, there are no real penalties for dying and the game has a generous auto-save system. After being brutally dismembered by Freakers, Deacon pops back into the Oregon wilderness a few moments before his grisly demise, ready to try again.

Later in the game, as Deacon levels up in health, stamina, and — most importantly — firepower, he’s tasked with taking out entire Hordes. There’s something like 25 hordes scattered across the map, and hunting down and purging them becomes a late game series of missions. Once Deacon has the right gear, eliminating these hordes is a lot of fun — though it can be very resource intensive. I’ve found a combination of the Chicago Chopper (a Thompson submachine gun) and the Russian-made RPD with an extended magazine — along with a handful of well-placed bombs and Molotov cocktails — proves to be most effective at mowing down Hordes.

Clean-up on Belknap Road.
A job well done.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Days Gone got a bad rap for having repetitive gameplay. This isn’t unwarranted, but it’s no worse than what I’ve come to expect from any other open-world game. But one type of mission in particular gets a bit silly, and that’s the random rescue mission.

Every so often as Deacon is tooling down the highway, he’ll notice someone in trouble. They might be under attack from Freakers or tied up by one of the game’s enemy factions. After rescuing these poor folks, Deacon tells them he knows of a camp — and the player can choose which one to earn a small reward from that camp. These encounters are a nice way to bolster Deacon’s rep with a particular camp. Which is nice.

I know, I know.
Yes you were. Just like the last guy.

The problem with these missions comes in with the dialog — it’s always the same. So after performing a few of these rescues, they become rather bland. Yes, that’s a small quibble, but adding a few different conversation options to these encounters would make them feel less generic.

A Story-Driven Zombie Tale

While I found the Days Gone gameplay to be a lot of fun, I also very much enjoyed the story. Early on I had a few “Okay, wait a minute …” moments where the story seems a bit too far-fetched. But after the cinematic backstory scenes began to unveil the overarching plot, the story made as much sense as any modern zombie film. Maybe more so.

I found the ending to be very satisfying, and there are a few resolution missions that bring closure to some side missions after you’ve completed the main plot. I may have even teared up a little bit at the end. Fortunately, I play in the early morning before everyone is up, so no one knows that.

A big reason I became emotionally invested in the game has a lot to do with the other characters whom Deacon interacts with. Each is imbued with their own distinct personalities, flaws, and rich backstories. You can’t help but like them — even the ones you’re supposed to hate.

All the voice work in Days Gone is stellar. Standouts for me were Nishi Munshi as Rikki Patel, Eric Kramer as Iron Mike, and Debra Wilson as Addy Walker. They really brought these characters to life.

Deacon is voiced by Sam Witwer (who also provides motion capture), and his work on this game is nothing short of fantastic. Deacon often talks to himself and speaks in asides to enemies as he engages them. This allows the player the opportunity to better understand what makes Deacon tick, and Witwer really sells it.

I also particularly liked Jim Pirri’s performance as Deacon’s buddy William “Boozer” Gray — he made his friendship with Deacon feel important. I genuinely cared what happened to old Boozer, which is an important part of being invested in the game.

So, yes. I enjoyed playing Days Gone mightily. I’m currently in the midst of a New Game+ play-through — a feature that lets you play the game again from the beginning but with all the gear, motorcycle upgrades, and collectibles you obtained in the first play-through. And I’m still enjoying the heck out of it, even the second time.

Days Gone, the Sequel?

There’s a petition running to get Bend Studio and/or Sony Interactive Entertainment to work on a sequel to Days Gone. As of this writing it has almost 113,000 signers. The efficacy of online petitions is dubious at best, but I would absolutely pay full price for and play the heck out of a Days Gone sequel.

Days Gone: The road continues?
The road never ends.

All images courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment and Bend Studio. All were taken by the author using the game’s robust photo mode. Days Gone is available on PlayStation for $39.99. It was released for PC on May 18, 2021 and retails for $49.99

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