I’ve changed my mind about Days Gone. I used to think it was bad. Now, I’m beginning to convince myself that it’s going to be good. Maybe even better than that.
Back at E3 2016, when Sony Bend first demonstrated its post-apocalyptic open-world survival game, I thought it was just plain silly. The main character, a grizzled biker called Deacon St. John, came across as a bloviated paragon of old-school road warrior machismo. He was so badly written that, at one point, assembled critics laughed at his lines.
Days Gone did show glimmers of promise in its lovely Pacific Northwest world of dripping forests and tough little towns. The game’s zombie behavior patterns, which prompt the player to create strategic choke points, looked like an interesting focus.
But in a world where The Last of Us Part 2 lurks, along with any number of other post-apocalyptic adventures, there didn’t seem much reason to give excessive mind space to this tale of an anguished biker bloke.
So I sent Days Gone to the back of the line, forgot about it, didn’t care a bit when it was delayed.
At a recent media event, I spent more time playing the game, getting acquainted with its biker ethos, its combat mechanics, its varied environments. I found it to be a much more focused, more enjoyable game than I remember from that sorry demo almost three years ago. So much so that Days Gone is now near the top of my most-anticipated list for 2019.
Character is destiny
Deacon St. John is now less anguished, more understated and appealing. Sure, he’s still pretty much what you’d expect from a grungy post-apocalypse biker. He’s gruff and grizzly, and he’s all about loyalty and all that.
He’s hyper-practical, knows his way around a toolkit, and takes care of his friends. He’s also a violent man who shows no mercy to those who contravene his code of honor. He’s been bitten by the world, and he means to bite back.
We all know this dude from a million TV shows, movies, and games. As action heroes go, he’s fine, even if he feels a bit like a relic of years gone by. It’s worth recalling that Sony Bend has been working on this game for more than five years, and a lot has changed since its inception.
In the last few years, the fashion has moved away from overly familiar pissed-off mid-30s white-man protagonists. A young woman is the star of The Last of Us Part 2. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey featured a woman as an (optional) protagonist. Gears 5 will star a woman. Even Battlefield 5 made the effort to subvert narrative shooter protagonist norms.
Sony Bend stayed with straight, white Deacon St. John, but has softened him. I’m curious about how he’s changed in the two-plus years since he first appeared, and why I find him much more tolerable than when he first appeared. So I asked game director Jeff Ross.
“We got it from everyone,” Ross replied, referring to the initial criticism of the character. “Just the way some of the lines were read or the way they were written. We’ve refined some of the rougher edges, where he may not have come off as the most relatable character.”
I also asked writer John Garvin about Deacon St. John’s evolution. “We worked really hard on making Deacon’s character realistic,” he said. “It wasn’t about trying to make him likable. We wanted him to grow over the course of the story, and you have to start him someplace, so he can end up someplace else.
“In the early development of Days Gone, we didn’t realize how long the player would spend with this character before he starts regaining his humanity. Nobody is willing to spend eight hours with somebody they don’t like. This was just part of us learning and growing as developers of an open world.”
Novelists and scriptwriters labor over edits and redrafts in private, before showing anything to the world. Games are often shown years before they are released. The public gets to see and judge embarrassing early drafts. But Garvin says he’s “grateful” for the feedback, and for the time Sony has given the team to make improvements.
“There were a lot of moments that were too on the nose,” he said. “We edited a lot of that out so we could allow the player to fill in their expectations of how the character behaves and reacts, and not just spell it all out for them.”
Survive and thrive
Days Gone is a third-person narrative adventure in which I ride around a ruined version of Oregon on a motorbike. This is a post-pandemic story, in which the vast majority of humans are either dead or transformed into ravenous creatures called “Freakers.”
I loot abandoned houses, shops, and camps to survive. These places are often inhabited by Freakers, who come in a variety of models. Some are strong loners, others are opportunistic lurkers; still others are marauding swarms. My strategies depend on who, or what, I’m fighting.
In one early scene, I’m required to work my way through an abandoned motel and gas station, picking up medicine as I go. Specifically, I need a part to fix my bike. The first time I play this level, I go stealthy, sneaking around, making use of distractions by throwing stones, and supplementing my progress with a few quiet zombie takedowns. The Freakers aren’t stupid, and I note their differing behavior patterns.
Then, I play the same scene again, just to try an alternative plan. I fire my weapons; I charge into melee attacks. I make lot of noise. This is much more challenging, as Freakers home in on me. They are difficult to kill en masse. But I prevail, mainly by isolating my attackers.
The combat feels slick and highly iterated, as I expect from the developer behind the much-admired Syphon Filter series of yore.
I enjoy each approach — stealth and gung-ho — in its own way. Although some parts of the game include single-route action sequences, other combat areas are built with variety in mind.
Focus is one of three meters (along with endurance and health) in Days Gone. It allows me to slow time and make use of the combat wheel, which is a sophisticated, powerful piece of the interface. It brings up weapons and explosives as well as decoys, health boosts, and on-the-fly crafting. I’ve played with a lot of combat wheels, and this one feels like it’s been designed with due care and attention.
When I fight, I try to save my ammo, relying on easily craftable bolts for my crossbow or takedowns.
My map also displays directional warnings about the whereabouts of Freakers, so I can alter my course in order to avoid them when I’m out in the wild woods. This gives me choices about how I move through the world and how I interact with its dangers. But there are times when confrontation is unavoidable.
By nature, I’m inclined toward avoiding fights where I can, but the game also rewards me for taking out enemies. When I kill a Freaker, I can collect one of its ears. I can then trade these for currency, which allows me to boost weapons and buy stuff.
This grisly currency is just one hard-edged aspect of Days Gone’s world. Small, childlike Freakers called “Newts” hang around in packs, looking to exploit the weak and wounded. In life, they were children (“adolescents,” in the carefully parsed language of the game’s PR). Now they are little more than animals.
It’s a brave decision, I think, to include post-apocalyptic kids not merely as side-character victims, but as adversaries with their own patterns of behavior, loosely modeled on the way kids behave in the real world.
I also encounter human scavengers who cross my path or invade my territory. This is a dog-eat-dog world of limited resources. These interactions make me feel like I’m living in a realistically challenging environment, where survival depends on making difficult choices.
My fights against human gangs generally involve making use of cover, as well as divide-and-conquer strategies and smart implementation of available weapons. Charging around firing off weapons is generally ill-advised, as it would be in real life.
I follow the story as it opens out into new terrains and pretty vistas of Oregonian landscapes, from high-altitude deserts to hillside forests to mountainsides. I find small settlements where I collect missions, advance the story, upgrade my stuff, and boost my bike. I spend time with my pal Boozer, getting a sense of the world’s dangers and opportunities.
As I play through, I find myself engrossed and impressed. I’ve pretty much forgotten that I came to this media event expecting to be disappointed. Days Gone is one to watch. It’s out for PlayStation 4 on April 26. I really didn’t think I was going to say this, but I’m looking forward to it.