Release Date: April 26, 2019Platform: PS4 Developer: SIE Bend StudioPublisher: Sony Interactive EntertainmentGenre: Action/Adventure
In my reviews of God of War and Spider-Man, I lamented how both games utilize a series of design tropes (large worlds, tons of mini markers, light skill trees, cumbersome button hold interactions, etc.) that are the basis for so many modern AAA games. Some people refer to this as the “Sony Formula,” but that’s not entirely fair. It’s a formula that some of the industry’s biggest studios formed through years of tweaking and testing.
In defense of this formula, it’s popular because it generally works. However, based on my time with both of those first-party Sony exclusives, the formula is rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns. Spider-Man and God of War are great games, but that’s because each of their developers found ways to add something new to the formula that often made you forget the times that these experiences felt like so many other games.
Sadly, that is often not the case with Days Gone. It’s the game that proves that we’ve finally reached the end of the road with the most popular style of AAA game design and that we’re in desperate need of a change in philosophy before the next generation begins.
Days Gone tells the story of Deacon St. John, a former biker outlaw who must survive the zombie (referred to here as “Freakers”) apocalypse with help from an old friend and whatever alliances he can form along the way. While we take control of St. John a couple of years into the apocalypse (the game’s menu keeps track of how many “days gone” you are), it’s clear he hasn’t fully adjusted to the new world order. He is still haunted by the ghosts of former friends, and he’s still trying to navigate the complicated political web formed by various camps of survivors and other organizations.
In some ways, Days Gone feels like the PS4’s version of State of Decay. Both games ask you to roam an apocalyptic world completing various tasks, eliminating what zombies you can, and scrounging for supplies that will help you live another day and maybe even improve your situation slightly.
The two games emphasize different core focuses, though. Whereas State of Decay was all about building your base camp and setting up a new civilization, Days Gone often sees you perform favors for other camps in order to improve your reputation with them. Favors can take the form of missions, but they also include things like bringing food to a camp or turning in bounties on raiders and freakers.
Sometimes, though, the interests of one camp may conflict with the interests of another. For instance, an early mission sees you acquire a cache of drugs. You must then decide whether to give it to one camp or another and significantly increase your trust level with the one you choose. The catch is that both camps can offer you different things. One can repair your motorcycle and the other can sell you better weapons. It’s a practical way to create a little early game drama and make your decision that much more difficult.
The problem is that not all the role-playing elements associated with these camps work that well or make much sense. Much like how sharpening your axe in God of War is somehow supposed to improve the damage output of a protagonist who can punch gods through mountains, I’m not sure why I’ve got to improve my reputation with a camp just so their mechanic will upgrade my motorcycle when the mechanic just told me he’d gladly help me improve my chopper. It also would have been nice to see more instances of these camps in conflict and to have the fallout of my decisions result in something more consequential than a slight setback or fewer credits.
For that matter, it’s never really made clear why there is a formal currency in the game when I’m one of the few who seems to be spending it. It makes sense from a design perspective to put more barriers between the player and the highest-tier items, but it feels like resources are the real currency in this world. A greater emphasis on resources as currency (such as how the Metro series uses your ammo as currency) would have also reduced the number of instances when I had to leave behind various crafting materials because I had nothing to do with them. It also would have helped the game’s tired (and sometimes cumbersome) crafting system feel a bit more substantial.
Such as it is, scrounging for those resources is an often unenjoyable process. Much of that can be blamed on the game’s navigation system, which often requires you to roam around on your motorcycle. Considering that your bike is one of Days Gone’s central mechanics, it’s surprising how bad it often feels to ride it. Driving into the woods is often a death wish as navigating between obstacles requires you to master some floaty controls. Even when it does work, your motorcycle doesn’t really open up any exciting new navigation possibilities such as we saw in Spider-Man, and it doesn’t feel as rewarding as riding a horse in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Mind you, there’s little incentive to wander off the beaten path in Days Gone beyond scrounging for supplies. Random events will occasionally appear, but most involve forgettable busy work. There’s also the chance you’ll run into a larger horde of zombies, which triggers the dual effect of scaring the hell out of you and sometimes slowing the game down to a crawl. While a recent patch improved some of Days Gone’s technical issues, it still suffers from some noticeable slowdown and shockingly long load times. I imagine that the game runs better on PS4 Pro, but I wasn’t able to test it on that console.
That’s a shame considering that the massive hordes of roaming zombies are one of the few noteworthy tricks up Days Gone’s sleeve in terms of open-world events. You’ll occasionally encounter something more interesting than rival humans and freakers, but for the most part, Days Gone’s world exists to harbor resources, enemies, and a largely repetitive series of missions.
Many of those encounters force you to utilize Days Gone’s combat system, a frustrating experience more often than not. The game’s melee combat tries to invoke the multi-character targeting system seen in games like Arkham Asylum, but it doesn’t feel effective until you’ve invested some points into your character’s melee skills. That problem carries over to the gunplay, which requires upgrades as well. Until you purchase them (and some better guns), shooting feels inaccurate and often demands that you approach a situation as stealthily as possible.
The problem is that there are some situations that are difficult to resolve (at least completely) through stealth. If you get ambushed or if a sniper decides to target you on the open road (both of which can be hard to avoid), you’re going to have to fight back using a combat system that feels like its at its “base” level a few upgrades into the game. This element of the gameplay grind might’ve felt more rewarding if you were working towards something more substantial than your character feeling slightly more useful, but the lack of more meaningful overarching goals means that your incentive to keep playing is largely based on your desire to see the end of the game’s stories.
That would be okay if Days Gone’s various stories were compelling, but that’s rarely the case. Days Gone tries to echo some of the plot beats of The Last of Us by telling a tale of survival, but it lacks the compelling characters and memorable relationships that made Naughty Dog’s postapocalpytic game so effective. Its protagonist is devoid of much of a personality beyond “biker with a strange moral code that comes and goes based on what is the plot calls for,” and most of the game’s side characters just embody a specific trait. Their various voice actors do what they can, but there’s only so much you can do with “gruff biker,” “paranoid right-wing militant,” and “Fury Road wannabe.”
Sadly, Days Gone doesn’t anything to distract players from how formulaic it is. Spider-Man had its excellent web-swinging controls, God of War had seamless (and fantastic) cinematic storytelling, and Red Dead Redemption 2 featured a world brimming with side activities often more compelling than those featured in most other games. Days Gone, meanwhile, has massive zombie hordes that the game can barely load, a motorcycle that’s frustrating to control and maintain, and a story loaded with characters so fascinating and diverse that I was once assaulted by two identical bald headed white dude character models during the same interactive cutscene.
What we’re left with is a collection of cliches that have sadly come to define the modern AAA single-player game. In another timeline (or if it had been released earlier), Days Gone would have been a fine game. Its graphics are fine, its music is fine, its gameplay is serviceable even in spite of its flaws, and the story is honestly no worse than what we’ve seen in most Call of Duty campaigns.
In this timeline, though, Days Gone is a high-profile PS4 exclusive that has been in development for over four years and cost millions of dollars. At a time when we should all be talking about the unsustainable escalation of the games industry and how the path we’re on is contributing to burnout and studio closures, it’s hard not to look at Days Gone as consumer-facing proof that it’s time for a change if for no other reason than the fact that the formula is no longer worth what it costs.
Days Gone will not be the PS4’s swan song, but it should be the swan song for major video games that feel the need to offer this buffet style of game design in order to cater to the potential tastes of as wide of an audience as possible so that they have a greater chance of making back the costs associated with needing to load a game with so much content in the first place.