Zombie fiction is hard these days. We’ve been beaten down as a society with The Walking Dead, seen the full gamut of zombie evolution through Romero’s Living Dead, and even watched the living impaired fall in love or live a weird life in the suburbs. Fast or slow, the undead are a mirror that remind us that the worst parts of humanity live inside of us all, and that just surviving isn’t enough to keep us human.
Days Gone comes at the zombie apocalypse by way of Sons of Anarchy, casting the end of the world in rural Oregon with its few survivors travelling the broken roads and forest trailers on scavenged motorcycles. Its zombies are the fast kind, souls infected with a virus that turns everyone it kills into sprinting, screaming eating machines. And it has killed a TON of people.
Making things worse, your standard freaker, local parlance for the infected, tends to get drawn into packs with like-minded freakers, forming a horde that when agitated, flows over the landscape like a roaring tidal wave of rotted flesh and biting teeth. A horde in motion is an incredible sight for the small amount of time you can spend admiring them before taking off in a dead sprint of your own. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Our protagonist through this beautiful wasteland is an ex-soldier turned biker Deacon St. John. He’s voiced and motion captured by Sam Witwer, whom you might remember as Starkiller from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed or more recently as Ben Lockwood/Agent of Liberty from the current season of The CW’s Supergirl. Deek, as he’s often refered to by those who know him, is, sadly, your stereotypical biker dude. Along with his biker brother Boozer, Deacon is a drifter, floating between camps of survivors, doing runs out into “the shit” in search of food and supplies, or acting the part of bounty hunters, either bringing back those who have wronged survivor camps for “justice” or outright killing them where they stand.
We first meet Deacon and Boozer at the start of the outbreak, on the roof of a building where a NERO (this world’s CDC equivalent) helicopter has just finished grabbing a load of people. Deacon’s wife, Sara, has been stabbed in the stomach, Boozer has been slashed in the leg and is having trouble walking, and Deacon is having more than a little trouble convincing the NERO clipboard toter that they need to be included on the helicopter’s roster. With room for only two, and Boozer refusing to climb aboard, Deacon sends his wife for the medical attention she desperately needs, opting to stay and help Boozer survive, while promising Sara to find her at the nearest government camp.
Per the pause screen, which from the moment you gain control of Deacon, displays a counter of “days gone,” our story starts nearly 730 days later. Sara is presumed dead, as Deacon was never able to find her body in the camp the helicopter landed in, and while looking for parts for Deek’s busted drifter bike, Boozer gets attacked by a cult of freaker-worshipping self-mutilators called Rippers (Rest in Peace-ers). They have a real problem with tattoos, and they apply a copious amount of fire to Boozer’s arm to try and remove one of his. Getting him to their safe house, a forest ranger tower surrounded by a helpful barb wire fence, Deek forces Boozer to rest while he goes out on the settlement runs by himself.
Throughout this time, we’re slowly introduced to the Oregon they live in, a beautiful land populated by a load of ugly things. Red infection zones where freakers build nests, dirty hovels made of a mix of mud, feces and sticks appear and block your ability to fast travel. Groups of survivors set up ambushes and sniper traps, building camps for themselves around underground bunkers you can claim for yourself with a bit of work. The mountains to the south and west are dotted with caves, most of which house hordes that sleep during the day and move about at night, while the Rippers who worship them control a portion of the valley in the southwest, their own screaming and gnashing rivaling that of the dead whose path they follow.
The majority of the areas I described provide some kind of combat challenge. Camps of survivors are easy to take down, as bushes provide enough cover to hide in, and with a bit patience, most camps can be taken out through a mix of head shots or stealth attacks. Should things get rough, Deek is competent with a gun, and while Days Gone is competent enough as a third-person shooter, I never found the shooting to be super-satisfying until late in the game, and even then I much preferred rolling up behind unaware enemies and quite graphically killing them with Deacon’s boot knife. Should you not get the drop on them, Deacon can also find and craft melee weapons. I was constantly being amazed at the unique things Deacon could do with a baseball bat and a bit of ingenuity. The crafting system reminded me a lot of The Last of Us, with Deacon able to create things like molotov cocktails and repair items with ubiquitous catch-all scrap. Crafting is super-varied in both the items you can collect out in the world and the things you can build with them.
One of the things that Days Gone does surprisingly well is reward you for playing the game. Everything you do short of looting your environment provides you with experience points, which in turn levels Deacon up and provides skill points for one of three skill trees. Covering melee combat, ranged combat and general survival skills, there’s a path to get better at the things you like doing, and nearly everything on each of the trees is good for something. Want stronger crafted weapons? More accurate ranged weapons? Feel like you should get more meat from those wolves you were forced to kill? There’s a skill for all of that.
NERO outposts offer some puzzle-y gameplay. All of them are unpowered, so you need to clear the area, find some gas, and fill up the generator to re-power the outpost. Some of them are also missing fuses which require Deacon to use his hunting skills to track them down. Now, if you are smart, before you power up the generator, you take the time to destroy all the loudspeakers in the camp. Otherwise, they go off and attract all levels of unwanted freaker attention. Afterwards, the NERO trailers are accessible, offering an audio log for a bit of lore and an injectable serum to up one of Deacon’s three stats, health, stamina, and focus.
Everything beyond those benefits is covered by Days Gone’s storyline system. Basically, every quest is assigned to a few different pools, which each fill up percentage-wise as you complete them. For example, clearing out an ambusher’s camp adds to that single storyline and unlocks a crafting recipe, while completing a specifically marked story mission may drop completion points into anywhere from two-four different storylines. The end of each storyline comes with a visual upgrade for your motorcycle, something a little more flashy than what’s normally available through the mechanic vendors.
In fact, I kind of can’t believe I have made it this far without mentioning your bike. Built from spare parts after a nearby camp finds your first bike and scraps it out, Deacon’s bike is his main source of transportation in the world. Being able to get around means keeping it repaired and full of gas, and this includes being able to fast travel between camps you have access to. Any kind of movement across the map short of you hoofing it on foot, which I do not recommend, uses gas, but thankfully, any camp you visit generally has a way to fill your bike up, whether through the use of magically full gas canisters, or gas pumps that still work despite there not being power in most buildings. On top of that, any of the settlements you get access to have a mechanic that can both refill your tank and repair your bike for camp credits, which you earn by performing jobs for the settlement. They also offer a merchant that can refill your ammo or even sell you better weapons.
All of these systems mesh well and provide a solid foundation for the game portion of Days Gone. Between all this stuff, though, is an interesting, simple story of survival and what it means to have something to live for. It’s originally looked at through the lens of Boozer and his injury, but eventually extends, as it should, to Deacon and his own life. Peppered throughout the story are flashbacks to Deacon’s courtship of his wife Sara, and her job as a biologist butting up against his life in the Mongrels Motorcycle Club. Deacon proves to be capable of deep, caring actions, but is constantly tripping over his own machismo and shortcomings when it comes to communications. Sara finds his relentless sarcasm charming, but that charm rarely comes through outside of those scenes with her. Instead, we get awkward conversations between two men who are supposed to be as close as brothers and yet are incapable of saying thank you without stammering over the words.
I understand that trust of any kind is in short supply in the world they live in, but Deacon regularly finds himself shrugging off any kind of intimacy, even when characters have proven that they are worthy of his trust. While I found this annoying to a fault, and I would have loved to have seen some kind of zombie fiction provide me with more than an emotionally stunted main character, his ark through the game shows that he is capable of changing and finding the lone candle flame in the dark of night. Sam Witwer also does a phenomenal job, and shows he’s capable of expressing all of Deacon’s doubt in himself and the world around him with a couple stuttered words and frustrated sighs. The relationship between Boozer and Deek could also have used a bit of help, but they eventually both come around to a relationship that’s a bit healthier than whatever it had been for the two years prior to you gaining control of Deacon.
There’s also a ton of game here, with the main story missions at least leading well into 30-40 hours worth of content. The pacing gets a little out of hand when the game enters its third act, with more than one mission dealing with literal hordes of freakers, but I think that only struck me as a little much because of the fast pace I needed to get through it all. Playing on my own, and completing things as I do, I don’t think I would have run into the issues I did with crafting materials dropping precipitously low. The final main camp you come across is also super-annoying to traverse, and while I won’t get into why, you will know it when you see it and understand what I’m talking about.
Based on all of the trailers released before I got my hands on Days Gone, I really questioned whether or not there would be any new on offer or if it would end up as just another property trying to provide those Walking Dead moments of either gratuitous violence or unneeded sadness. What I played instead was a game that wanted to push past the darkness with its characters and see if there was anything left for humanity to live for beyond just surviving. Yes, it still provides that violence that only a post-apocalypse seems capable of, and the tech behind the writhing mass of freaker bodies in a charging horde was enough to cause me to put down my controller a few times because they “got me,” but it all adds up to something that feels substantially more human than not. I would love to eventually see us move past these truly macho stereotypes when it comes to characters like bikers or soldiers, but I am happy with where these days eventually end.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!