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'Days Gone' harkens back to bygone days of gaming

by Ben Sapet After four years of real development and three E3s, Days Gone has finally arrived to mixed reviews. With its release so fresh, it’s hard to tell where public opinion will settle on the Sony’s latest exclusive. Some found it a buggy trainwreck; some found it lacking compared original promise; still others decided to band together in comment threads and defend Sony from tepid reviews. Days Gone is a fine game but it belongs in back in 2016, where it first made a splash at E3.

Promising parts

Days Gone feels like a mash-up of the last few years in gaming. I find the recipe goes something like this:
  • The Last of Us style combat and crafting
  • A Mad Max type dedicated vehicle
  • A big, sparse open world like Far Cry 5
  • A story composed of constant errand-boy quests, like Ghost Recon: Wildlands
  • Slow, methodical preparation like State of Decay
Your list might differ, but these are the influences I felt playing Days Gone and, on paper, this combination seems pretty cool. Brutal violence, scrounging survivalism and a trusty motorcycle are perfect fits in a nihilistic world where nature and other humans are equally hostile. The fact that these gameplay elements work so well together is a surprise and a delight.
It was exhilarating to see the game’s systems interact and create some incredible moments. At one point, my bike broke down in the middle of the Oregon wilderness and I didn’t have the resources to repair it. The next twenty minutes were as tense as any horror game. I set out, on foot, with a baseball bat and a few pistol rounds, looking for an unsalvaged car to scrap. The sun was setting and the zombies — sorry, “Freakers” — were coming out for their nightly roam. I made it to the road and the mother lode, a six car pile-up, but there was a problem; one of the game’s roving hordes of about fifty… Freakers… was between me and my precious scrap. I scuttled around the outskirts of the horde, grabbed my scrap and ran back into the woods. The video above shows glimpses of the wild “oh s**t” moments of the gameplay. These, where scarcity or carelessness force unprepared players into the dangers of the world, make Days Gone shine.

Old at heart

Unlike its version of zombies, Days Gone takes a slow and plodding pace. The story — which is long, bland, and unremarkable enough that its details warrant little attention here — takes about six hours to actually reach. Even when the story starts in earnest, it rarely ever digs its heels in to craft big moments and raise the stakes. The kind of sprawling slow-burn journey through a game can work, like it does in Red Dead Redemption 2 , but Days Gone is not Red Dead Redemption 2. At times, Days Gone seems to know that you aren’t there for the characters and you don’t care about the story. After every one of the overlong cutscenes, a brief radio conversation will almost always summarize it for you —like the developers know how often you’ll be tempted to skip cutscenes and get back to the loop of the gameplay. While the story does have its moments, it takes a whole lot of patience to actually see them. In Days Gone, slowness is not just confined to the narrative, but it seems thoroughly ingrained in the progression system. With a max level of 45 and a peanuts worth of experience for each zombie kill, each skill point takes several in-game days to earn. Upgrades for your bike come just as slowly, requiring you to earn dozens of chores worth of settlement trust points. This pervasive slowness speaks to a disappearing design philosophy. Days Gone wants you to take your time and feel like a citizen of its world. It doesn’t use a steady drip of unlocks, loot, and level-ups to fight for your attention, it just assumes it has your attention. This wouldn’t be a problem if missions served any purpose other than giving your character a little more information each time. Even the excellent gameplay, which sets it apart, doesn’t tread new ground — it simply combines and refines elements of games released during its dev cycle. Again, this is not a problem, it just feels dated. Days Gone , however, does have a problem with its dated approach to representation. The problem is that Days Gone makes little to no effort to represent women and people of color, which feels as 2015 as the rest of the game.

Janky through and through

Much has been made of the game’s bugginess, but the bugs usually range from harmless to funny.
Captured from 'Days Gone'
Issues like texture pop-ins and weird physics have been somewhat irritating, but the game performs quite well for the feats it’s able to pull off. Facing off against over a hundred-strong, fast-moving horde, the game doesn’t lose more than a few frames. I have encountered one particularly heinous glitch in which a chunk of the world never loaded quite right and I needed to reinstall the game to actually get the objective to spawn.
Captured from 'Days Gone'
I said earlier that Days Gone struggles with keeping the player’s attention and that it feels dated. This is never more true than with its load times and its transitions in and out of cutscenes. Every time you arrive at a cutscene, the game goes something like this: fade to black, quick loading screen, first part of the cutscene, fade to black, next part of the cutscene, fade to black, loading screen, back to the game. I can’t think of an uglier, less immersive approach to transitioning between story and gameplay. As with so many other aspects of the game, this would have been normal a few years ago, but for a game released in 2019, it’s a grating problem — especially since God of War (2018), another first-party PlayStation game, managed to present a 40 hour game as a single tracking shot.
Days Gone