Days Gone Preview: Ride or die

I went into my preview of Days Gone with a lot of questions. The handful of trailers PlayStation had released since its announcement gave me neither a feel for the game, or what it was setting out to do. The short time I spent with it answered quite a few of them, most positively. I could see that it was trying hard, that it had heart where it mattered and that its team were driven and passionate. But, if I’m honest, neither did I see a massive amount that felt wildly different from other games in the same genre.

Much of what we got to play was set during the early game. In protagonist Deacon St John, actor Sam Witwer (Supergirl, Being Human, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed) is given a tough job, walking a hard line between unlikeable anti-hero and sympathetic lead. We were given a look at Deacon during two very different points in his life — before the global pandemic that took everything from him, and after.

Before the outbreak Deacon had made an art of his bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold act. Charismatic with just a little dangerousness about him, he is a far cry from the deranged, ground-down shadow of himself you play as. The end of the world drove Deacon slightly mad and in the slice I played, Witwer embraces the chaos in the character’s head with abandon. “Huh. Meat,” he says after butchering a downed wolf, the surprise in his voice suggesting meat was the last thing he expected to find in a carcass. He mutters and grumbles to himself constantly, his emotions erratic and always near the surface. Deacon puts on a civilised face when he’s around other people; its what he says and does when he thinks no-one’s listening that indicates how unhinged he’s become. Good character work is something we’re used to in PlayStation exclusives so it shouldn’t come as a shock to know that Days Gone is no different.

So what does the game’s open world have to offer? Days Gone is set in the American north-west. Rugged hills covered with dense pine forests and dusty roads litter the landscape. It was pretty to be sure, but not on the level of something like God of War. In God of War, the game’s own environments formed the backbone of its narrative, each new realm a stand-in for the emotional turmoil its characters were going through. Though it played at being one, it wasn’t really an open world title which meant it could get away with its wild aesthetic. Days Gone has emotional turmoil to spare, but its thesis on world building is far simpler: make a world that’s fun to ride a motorcycle around in.

Deacon’s motorcycle has been one of Days Gone‘s major selling points since it was announced, and I can see why. It’s the easiest part of the game to recommend — initially I found it a touch unwieldy and spent my first few minutes running into things while hurtling down a patch of uneven dirt road. However, before I could become too frustrated with it, I discovered that pressing circle threw the rear tyre into a drift, letting me more easily tackle corners. Once I figured this out, everything about riding the bike fell into place and I spent the bulk of my time enjoying how it felt to hoon about on it.

Though our demo didn’t have the functionality available, the bike is fully upgradeable. Additionally, and this is the wrinkle I really like, it must be maintained. Your bike has separate percentage ratings for Damage and Fuel. If you run out of fuel or stack it too often, the bike will break down. It gives you a reason to stop and explore when you find a new town or patch of abandoned property. Fuel stations are where you’re most likely to find fuel canisters. Garages and mechanics are a great spot for parts and scrap you can use to conduct repairs.

This inner loop of scrounging and crafting bears some similarity to survival titles like State of Decay 2. but where those titles present a hard simulation of survival and expect you to really scavenge for resources, Days Gone never made it too difficult to find supplies. I had more than enough bits and pieces at my disposal to keep the bike running, and I didn’t seem to be running out of health and stamina items either. It’s worth noting that we were playing on Normal and the devs indicated that the experience was rather different when moved up to hard. I didn’t get a chance to try it on hard and I wonder if that would have changed things.

On a related note, though Days Gone felt like it was trying to keep things as realistic and grounded as possible there were still a few very Video Game mechanics and logical inconsistencies getting through. An example: there are abandoned cars in highway tunnels that still have active alarms. Mechanically, their purpose is to create a loud noise and attract a horde but realistically there’s no car battery in the world that’s going to hold a charge that long. Another is Deacon’s Witcher-esque ability to enter a focus state and track foes through the woods. On one hand, the game explains that Deacon learned to track while hunting with his father as a child. On the other, the first time I performed the move, Deacon took a sharp sniff through his nose and barked “He went that way,” like he’s actually been Wolverine this whole time and it’s never come up.

I only ran into two kinds of zombie enemy during my preview — the freakers, who are your garden variety 28 Days Later sprinters, and newts, opportunistic undead children that crawl spider-like across rooves until they sense you’re low on health. There’s nothing wildly different about the freakers from any other zombies. They’ll shuffle toward you to begin with and break into a run to keep up with you if you try to bail. They chitter and howl as they move about and, if you aren’t careful, can call a horde down on you. Hordes are a huge packs of roving freakers that move at a sprint, chasing down any living thing and tearing it to shreds. A portable moshpit of decaying flesh charging you down is full on and I found myself on the wrong end of it a couple of times.

My weaponry was a fairly standard array of pistols, shotguns, rifles and crossbows. Everything felt pretty good in terms of punch, the shotgun a personal favourite for freakers that got too close. Your weapons, throwables and consumables are all selected from the radial menu on the shoulder buttons. It’s here I’d like to offer Days Gone some unreserved praise — it gets its radial menus right in a way Red Dead Redemption 2 flat out failed to do. It was always clear what I was selecting, equipping attachments and upgrades is a matter of holding the left stick for a moment and selecting to craft or to use an item is set to the R1 and R2 buttons. It’s a really well-thought-out piece of UI design and the team behind it should feel very proud of themselves.

After spending 5 hours with Days Gone, I’m still not totally sure what to make of it. The demo we sat down with very much adheres to what I would (warmly!) call The Ubisoft Style Guide — it feels like it knows the parts of open-world action titles that work and wants to focus on those aspects rather than deviate meaningfully from the form. Where it innovates, it does so in ways that are small but important only to its core ideas. Days Gone feels a bit safe, and safe is the last thing you expect to feel in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. I look forward to getting my hands on the finished game and cranking the difficulty up because I think that might make all the difference.

Days Gone launches April 26, 2019, exclusively on PlayStation 4.

David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.