After 792 Days Gone, I've come away with one important conclusion: Days Gone goes out of its way to be most unrewarding experience it could possibly be.
Days Gone had incredible potential to be a unique open-world zombie game that stood apart from the rest, and while its story carries most of the charm, it just isn't enough.
Immersed in "The Shit"
What I do love about Days Gone is its impeccable cast and well-written dialogue. Deacon St. John, played by Sam Witwer, is a fresh and realistic character that I haven't really seen before in a video game.
As a matter of fact, every character that Deacon comes across, whether it's a camp leader or some random baddie, felt like a real person with a fully developed personality. When I hunted down a N.E.R.O. scientist named O'Brian for some answers about spoilery stuff, his responses were expressive and thoughtful, even though he exhibited the behavior of a typical government lackey at first glance.
SIE Bend Studio combined that great acting with riveting visuals and excellent sound design that enrapture this terrifyingly designed world, also known as "The Shit." In one of the first encounters of the game, I found myself clearing freakers (zombie-esque humans) in a long dark tunnel as my buddy Boozer followed behind to light the way with his motorcycle. Every step I took caused a ripple in the silence as I trod slowly toward the freakers' nests with a shotgun cocked in hand. And when I lit them ablaze with a Molotov cocktail, a screech pierced the air followed shortly by the blast from my weapon. It was heart-wrenching, especially because I was playing on Hard.
However, fighting Rippers (bandits) is by far the most fun. I was riding my bike toward camp when I came across two cars on each side of the road with a wire connecting the two — it was an ambush. I hopped off and the first Ripper that came at me I stabbed multiple times in the stomach (the animation was surprisingly brutal). I took a couple hits before I slid behind the trees and made my way around the car, which is when I popped the two remaining Rippers in the head before they knew what hit them.
Thanks to Days Gone's dynamic weather system and gorgeously designed wilderness, riding through the world, feels as dangerous and as compelling as it should be, especially because Freakers can just toss you off of your bike if you're riding slow enough or have run out of gas.
Whether it's through Days Gone's encounters or its cutscenes, the game is consistently immersive. The game's detailed Photo Mode (similar to God of War's) gives you the opportunity to capture every gorgeous or horrifying moment that you experience, which is, unironically, the most fun I've had in this game.
It's Just Not Fun
The one thing that SIE Bend Studio gets wrong is the gameplay. Days Gone is an action-adventure game desperately trying to be a survival-horror RPG, and it backfires. Days Gone would actually work as a condensed 8-hour action game, but it feels like someone took the standard action-adventure formula and stretched it dangerously thin just so it could fit into an open-world design.
Aside from being your traditional third-person shooter, Days Gone has its own leveling and crafting system. The only other two interesting mechanics that I enjoy are motorcycle-riding and being able to slow down time with the Focus ability while aiming down your sights.
One of the core issues I have with Days Gone is that there's no inventory management or storage. What makes scarcity in other survival-horror games like Resident Evil work so well is that you can micromanage your inventory to prioritize certain supplies and ammo, and whatever you can't carry you can store away for later. Days Gone, however, doesn't let you store any of the supplies or ammo that you carry, so for 90 percent of the game I would constantly get hit with an "Inventory Full" message. Supplies run out fast and fill even faster, so the lack of stockpiling gave me no incentive to explore.
When I did explore, it turned out to be as unrewarding as expected. I followed a question mark on my map to gas station, looked around, got ambushed by Rippers and killed them all. When I went outside, I got snared upside down in a tree, which was crazy unexpected and surprisingly interesting. However, after I escaped and stealthy killed my captors, I found that I got nothing out of the whole ordeal. Which leads me to another of the game's biggest problems: it doesn't reward players for doing anything, especially for its out-of-the-way question-mark "events."
In a way, Days Gone kind of reminds me of The Walking Dead, where the characters basically run around, deal with a bunch of crap and get nothing in return except for the gift of living. Speaking of The Walking Dead. Did you know that Sam Witwer was actually in the first episode of The Walking Dead? And do you know what that episode was called? "Days Gone By." Coincidence? I think not!
But seriously, Days Gone fails to give the player any room to grow or improve beyond the set limitations of skill points and camp rankings. As of now, you can't keep any of the guns that you find, and you can buy guns only from camps, which is a pain because you need to increase your ranking with them by partaking in repetitive activities, like clearing Freaker nests or Ripper camps.
A simple solution to this, which would've made fights with Rippers feel more rewarding, is if the developers used the quality-rating system that they already had set up. For example, weapons you find (and get to keep) could be poor-to-average quality, while the weapons you buy could be everything that's rated above average. Similarly, the developers could also present players with cool and wacky melee weapons to be found throughout the world, which would make exploring more rewarding as well.
Even the simple mechanics that Days Gone removes from the equation just pile up on top of one another, making the experience that much more frustrating. For example, this game doesn't let you swim (very far) or blindfire, customize your quick bar, switch shoulders to aim (on command), sleep to gain health, use the GPS while on foot or climb obstacles that should be climbable (specifically rocks).
Days Gone dresses itself up with RPG-esque mechanics, like its leveling and crafting system, but it doesn't handle choices very well. Most of the cutscenes that play out in the game gave me an empty feeling by the end of it because it almost seemed like I should've been making the choices. I was surprised when the game finally did offer me a choice, which involved picking between which two camps I should deliver drugs to. The game made it sound like I would get something specific between the choices, specifically a bike part or a gun. When I made my choice, however, all I got was reputation points and credits, which technically gets me closer to leveling up and getting new bike parts, but it was incredibly misleading and disappointing.
Doesn't Feel Gold
Days Gone is missing a lot, but even what's currently there is either boring, frustrating or buggy. A few problems that I noticed right away were the long loading times and the jarring jump cuts between gameplay and cutscenes.
A prime example of this was when I had my first flashback about Sarah, Deacon's wife. There was no gameplay during the flashback, but there were a bunch of wonky cuts during the ongoing scene that made it seem like there should be. As a result, the cuts made the scene look disjointed and uninteresting. On the flip side of that (in another flashback), when there was gameplay, it was so monotonous that I didn't fully understand why I was even playing, as it could have easily been a cutscene.
Speaking of monotonous gameplay, I was super-excited to get into my first motorcycle chase with a bounty, but I was shocked to find it was the worst way you could have a shootout on a bike. The goal is to shoot out your opponent's tire, but the reticle is already locked on to the enemy's bike and all I did was hold "L1" to get the cursor to shrink before I pulled the trigger. Now imagine doing that 10 more times until their bike breaks down. It would've been more fun, albeit challenging, if I had full control over where I was aiming.
Another example is clearing out Freaker nests. Besides succumbing to repetitiveness, the infestation search range on the map is too wide. I found myself looking for the last nest in one area for a good 20 minutes.
And when I did find the nests, taking out the Freakers got obnoxious. The biggest complaint I have about Days Gone's zombie substitute is that even when they sprint toward you, they can dodge bullets you fire at them like Neo in The Matrix. Typically, zombies are either slow, dodging you by stumbling around (like in Resident Evil 2), or they're fast, running at you like maniacs. But no, in Days Gone, you get both for maximum destruction.
An issue that enhances that frustration is that the reticle for aiming your weapon doesn't adapt when the Freaker is right in front of your face. In other words, the reticle is always at the center of the screen and doesn't adjust to what you're really aiming at, which can cause inaccuracy (a lot, in my case).
Despite my numerous complaints, I somehow find myself coming back to Days Gone time and again. Even if I had to suffer through terribly frustrating gameplay and repetitive activities, I found it worthwhile to see the interactions between Deacon and the rest of the characters. What Days Gone has going for it is that it's spectacularly polished, and many of my complaints can be easily fixed with an update. Whether or not that will happen is up in the air, but I will happily update this review accordingly. But in its current state, Days Gone is a huge letdown, and doesn't stand out among other zombie games.