Days Gone Review: Gone right over the handlebars that is
Bend Studio's pedestrian ride into the post-apocalypse stalls from a range of technical issues.
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Days Gone is madness. Pure, unadulterated madness. And I'm not even referring to the post-pandemic setting, where you're either ice-cream for freaks or a canvas for cultists who work in the medium of machete. Bend Studios' first PS4 title is madness because it insanely hides what makes it special.
If you rigidly stick to the main plot, it'll take 15 hours (roughly half the whole storyline) before you truly reach the main "hook" of this game. Horde tech: the feature that sold Days Gone to millions of players back at E3 2016.
In layman's terms, multiple hundreds of infected cannibals (or "freakers") were promised to fill our screens and pursue us, like a sentient tsunami of flesh and teeth. It was a head-turning promise and a much-needed differentiator. Without it, this reveal would have looked like a standard third-person shooter out to horn in on the post-pandemic schtick perfected by sister studio, Naughty Dog (see: The Last of Us).
Hordes absolutely exist as advertised, but I had a weird relationship with them. An unintentionally distant one. Even on the hardest difficulty, I never felt pushed to do much in the way of XP grinding or to leave the sealed roads threaded through this massive sandbox. A lot of players will do the same because free-form exploration is aggressively discouraged, thanks to a breakable motorcycle that has a fuel tank smaller than your grandpa's bladder. More on this in a bit...
As I slogged through the main path, I kept wondering when I'd be thrown into the deep end with a swarm of triple digit numbers. By the halfway mark there'd been maybe 5 roaming packs of only 40 or so members – which sure weren't the crowd numbers I'd signed up for. Worse, while only two of those 5 packs were pushing a hundred plus members, they were constrained to cutscene purposes only. Firing upon them failed me to my last checkpoint. It takes until Act 2 of the story missions to see decent hordes sprinkle into the main path, and even then they're only drip-fed.
That said, my warning to new players would be this: if you bought Days Gone expecting "Wall to Wall Murder Orgy: The Video Game", you'll really, really need to go out on a limb and hunt for hordes in this massive, hostile sandbox. Roughly 40 mobs are out there, but they're tucked away like hidden collectibles, secreted well off the beaten track. Bend Studio should have threaded them more frequently into the main missions as they're easily the best part of this game.
Because outside of the thrills of these hordes, you've got an action-adventure game that capably borrows mechanics and concepts from the best, but offers few genuine innovations of its own. Take the derivative setting and story, for example. You're slipping into the motorcycle boots of Deacon St. John, a bad ass biker living in a civilization that's crapped out like a bad carburetor. It's a superwolf-eat-hypercannibal world now. Been there, done that.
Deek's MC has been whittled down to just him and his pal, Boozer. Though tough and capable, this bromance runs afoul of some cultists who sideline the partnership. Basically, for a large portion of the game, you can expect to be a glorified nursemaid for "The Boozeman". Your goal is to scrape together enough XP and skills, weapons and scratch, to buy two tickets out of Oregon. This road trip also offers flashbacks into the sad love story of Deek and his old lady.
Gameplay-wise, it's the same old busywork that some folks adore and others call a pain in the butt. You'll need to studiously open up new regions of the map by being a freelance problem-solver for the local survivor camps. We're talking hostage rescue missions, material fetch quests, hunting expeditions, vehicle combat sections and outpost assaults that support stealth or the Schwarzenegger approach.
Annoyingly, the money and progress you'll earn for doing these things will become non-transferable "store credit" for one of a few local camps, instead of dollar bills in your pocket. You also have to grind for "camp trust" to unlock their best guns, gear and motorcycle performance parts. Having to start again and again with a series of mini-societies can get tedious.
What I did like about the shanty towns was the slow evolution of their hospitality, and the sub plots of its denizens prove to be interesting enough to make you want to return. I happily put in the elbow grease to see which camp mayor (if any) was as altruistic as advertised, or just a jerk from the Immortan Joe school of leadership.
In terms of variety, between these structured mission elements are randomised ambush moments that jack-in-the-box as you're getting your kleptomania and craft on. This sandbox is overflowing with stuff to pilfer, too. You'll need to strip mine this environment of its vegetation, car parts, animal hides and Freaker extremities, to keep Deek flush in sub-weapons and his vehicle functioning.
Here's the kicker about owning a motorcycle, though. While it's definitely improvable, the simple fact is that your hog, by default, is slow, handles like a trolley, has all the durability of balsa wood as it guzzles petrol like Boozer does six packs (presumably).
Should you wrap yourself around a tree, or get too Knievel off a jump, you'll need to stop and wrench your ride back into a useable state. If you expend a full tank of fuel (because you've ridden all of a hundred metres) you'll be reduced to desperately hunting around for a jerry can. You can always push your bike to a petrol station but there's a good chance somebody will be waiting to snipe or stove your head in at the bowser.
To begin with, I was loving this Mad Max approach to guzzoline. Trips require planning, and it puts the fear in you when you're running on fumes and the super-carnivores are gnawing on your muffler. That said, this well-loved post-apocalyptic trope wears out its welcome quickly. Yes, you can increase your operational distances by buying larger fuel tanks, but the trips you can do are still laughably short. It also kind of ruins the so-called fast-travel system by turning one long arduous journey into a series of 40-second load screen hops to several different petrol stations.
Even more irritating is that there's some contradictory game logic going on in Days Gone. About 80% of the story missions simply remove the finite fuel and all bike damage is forgiven. Like magic you just get a free pass. The believability of this world takes a hit by Bend Studio not sticking to its guns.
Speaking of inconsistency and less than smooth rides, Days Gone is beset by an overwhelming amount of bugs and rough edges. Just about every glitch imaginable stuck its thumb out and hitched a ride with me at some point. I had major progress-thwarting incidents that required reloads to previous saves. At least three missions wouldn't continue or conclude because a victory condition didn't trigger as intended. I also had half a dozen important cutscenes ruined by the introduction of 5 seconds worth of audio lag. I had to power off my PS4 to solve that one, and it was the same solution when I copped a full system freeze. Twice.
Sadly, the news doesn't improve with the unimpressive enemy AI. While it's true that the gunplay is gratifying and gels well with a decent melee system, your non-infected enemies will make odd decisions when it comes to self-preservation. They're quite short-sighted in broad daylight, even on Hard setting, and can be easily lured like lambs to the slaughter into daisy chain stealth kills.
Aesthetically, this is also buggier than a Starship Troopers movie. The engine can handle hundreds of on-screen enemies well enough, however, basic traversal through the world on your motorbike is plagued by an inconsistent framerate more horrifying than the onscreen enemies. Likewise, textures and vegetation pop-up like a game of whack-a-mole, and I witnessed one or two characters (or entire chunks of the map) half draw in. This isn't Fallout 76 bad, but it's definitely not of a quality expected from a Sony first-party title.
At the end of the day[s gone], even if this game had been tuned to rock-solid stability, it'd still be seen as an average experience with only small sparks of greatness. Script-wise, this isn't in the same league as something like the recent God of War or The Last of Us. Naughty Dog made me invest in their world and love their characters in the first 15 minutes – Sony Bend barely kept me interested after 15 hours.
Some of this is due to uneven voice acting. Deek is a personable hero but he's prone to mumbling and there are these weird, over-acted moments where it sounds like he's getting sexual pleasure from the slaughter. That, and there's a plot swerve in the middle that results in some inauthentic, downright bizarre emotional responses. I can't say too much about it, but it made me largely disengage from the main thrust of the story (and kind of despise one of the main characters).
Basically, Days Gone is a bipolar game of two halves. The opening has a narrative that's full of promise, but the action isn't especially interesting because the hordes are tucked away and you lack the incentive to seek them out or defeat them. The home stretch is the flipside: the plot gets wobbly and barely recovers, but your allies also develop weapons that actually make you effective against these true, super-sized hordes.
There's so much potential here, but when you're constantly harassed by embarrassing technical issues, what's left is a product that interrupts Sony's recent run of amazing first-party releases. In its current form, I can't say Days Gone is a must-buy to throw your leg over for a day one kickstart. What we have here is a biker odyssey in need of a serious mechanic. The faint light at the end of the tunnel is that Bend Studio has already started with the patches. But if these don't provide major fixes soon, players will be patching out of this MC in no time.
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