Days Gone Preview: A motorcycleogical thriller?
Days Gone doesn't exude the same "PlayStation greatness" of its first-party stablemates.
Sony's first-party studios have been on an unbroken gold medal streak lately. Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted: Lost Legacy, God of War and Spider-Man – there's just never been a better time to own a PS4. That said, the more I see and experience of the forthcoming Days Gone, the more I think perfect runs can't last forever.
A recent three-hour hands-on I had with it was a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster ride. I'd heard stirrings of Days Gone being a less-than-polished entity, but I'd put that down to whispers and the fact that pre-release code, by its very nature, isn't meant to be flawless. That was my attitude going into what I (quite highly) hoped would be a survival shooter that might be The Last of Us with a helluva lot more on-screen "zombies", a motorbike and just a general increase in sandbox latitude for tactical attitude.
It was a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster ride
Sony's Bend Studio ticks a few of those things off the checklist, for sure. It's similarly set in a post-pandemic world filled with more mutated freaks and cutthroat survivors than you can poke a boomstick at. The shorthand explanation is that you're Deacon St. John, an ex-bikey trying to survive in a baddie infested landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Deek's flanked by a chapter brother named Boozer and they both eke out an existence as bounty hunter/mercenaries. Beyond that day to day of collecting the ears of "Freakers" (think: the fast-zombies of this piece) our anti-hero spends his time tracking a company called NERO (read: Umbrella Corp) as they had a hand in the disappearance and likely demise of his wife, Sarah.
After a small wall of cutscenes, and an initial load that's long enough to make me wonder if my demo machine has stalled, I'm dropped into the world of Days Gone proper. The game feels great in my hands and is certainly more complex than The Last o Us. Going with Hard difficulty disables the usual snap-to-target aiming for me and along with the standard third-person shooter controls, I notice my touchpad and d-pad are bristling with extra doodads, too.
Directional finger flicks on the former will let you zip straight into menus like Storylines, Inventory, Skills or your rather sizeable Map. Meanwhile, the digital pad handles things like your flashlight, binocs, healing and remote detonators for explosives.
Along with a three weapon system handled by the triangle button (tap to cycle between your two workhorse faves and hold the button down to access a "Special" weapon) there's also a Survival Wheel on L1. This screen-consuming inventory overlay slows the game world to a crawl, giving you a window of opportunity to select specific weapons, throwables or let you equip silencers, extended mags or craft ammo on the spot with the crap you've scavenged. Doing all that while watching eighty slow-mo Freakers bear down on you in the background is...well, the stuff of puckering bungholes. That said, those "en masse swarm" moments seem to be pretty specific events in the demo that I played. I feel like expectations need to managed for the lethality and supposedly hive-minded nature of the Freakers in this game. I went in on edge, deathly afraid of going too loud. I figured one major slip up was all it would take to trigger a screeching shout of alarm and soon after a veritable tidal wave of stinking flesh would pursue me across this expansive Oregon sandbox. My only escape, surely, would be to make it to my trusty motorcycle and ride off.
As the demo progressed, my fear for scattered, singular Freakers dwindled
It doesn't go down like that, friends. First of all, the Freakers (and indeed the uninfected marauder survivors) aren't much chop when it comes to spotting you or calling in backup. Even on Hard, I found their cones of vision to be ridiculously small. Chain-shanking an outpost of half a dozen enemies can be done without breaking a sweat and they're surprisingly chill when they notice their comrades dead on the floor. As the demo progressed, my fear for scattered, singular Freakers dwindled to the point where I was lazily weaving around their obvious patrol routes at full crouch-walk speed.
I had much more respect for Rippers, blue-eyed religious half-Freakers who have the ferocity of their mutant brethren but also more than enough smarts to wield guns and use cover effectively. Alerting a squad of these psychos can be a hassle, which is why I had to break my own moral code and hit teenage Freakers (called "Newts"). Those little jerks are much more willing to call out your position and love to scramble up to higher lookout points. Initially, belting them with a chunk of 2x4 feels pretty dastardly. But in no time you'll probably be like: "meh, I'm keeping youth off the streets and 25 XP is 25 XP".
Speaking of hybrids and odd emotional u-turns, my DG demo was a curious mix of scripted, claustrophobic levels and open sandboxes where the blinkers came right off. The first type delivers a decent amount of low-light environments and heightened tension, but it isn't on par with something like Resident Evil 2 Remake. None of the bestiaries here will haunt your dreams like a Licker or [shudder] Mr. X.
The open-world experience is a lot of fun, too, but the addictive loot game and the thrill of shifting between stealth and gung ho assaults is marred by a few things. First of all, I don't think motorbike handling is much chop. It's stiff and getting too radical results in the need for expensive repairs. Also, when infiltrating settlements by giving wide berth to hazards, I'd sometimes be slapped on the wrist with arbitrary "leaving mission area" warnings. Bit of a pain.
There were lots of things I did like, however, like Days Gone's addictive loot scavenging and crafting loop. Greed constantly lured me out of my comfort zone to go snoop around infested buildings that might hold resources, precious ammo or better attitude-adjusters. It's also worth noting that Bend Studio has done some stellar work with the UI here. You can instantly discern if a gat has better damage, range, accuracy, rate of fire, penetration or stopping power. I can also see myself becoming invested in the ramshackle settlements that include merchants with "trust levels" that offer Deek better bounty rewards, sweeter motorcycles or just a place to convert the crud he finds into sweeter gear.
Days Gone doesn't offer anything particularly revolutionary but it includes some hooks that'll no doubt latch into me. But it has to be said that I've played my fair share of preview code in my day, and what we have here is rougher around the edges than I'd expect at this late point in development. I hit a number of odd bugs that needed checkpoint retries, one of which involved an AI follower getting stuck on geometry. My hope was a Freaker would spot and kill this idiot friend of mine, but unfortunately, there's some Ellie in The Last Of Us logic going on in this game. AI followers aren't seen by enemies. Wonderful.
At the end of the day (that's just gone), what we have here is a game that isn't currently exuding the "PlayStation greatness" of its first-party stablemates. My brief ride with Days Gone didn't blow my hair back thanks to a few coughs and splutters from an otherwise impressive engine. I think there's potential here, however, and time enough to re-tune. I'll still happily throw my leg over this adventure and give it a kickstart come launch day.