Other than the fact the post-apocalyptic, zombie setting is done to death, Days Gone sounds like a solid idea on paper.
It’s basically Sons of Anarchy crossed with The Walking Dead, which should be a cast-iron elevator pitch. That is of course until The Walking Dead took a quality and popularity nosedive in recent years which is, presumably, after Days Gone was dreamt up. The game went into production in 2015, so it’s safe to assume Days Gone was conceived and pitched in 2014 at the latest, when The Walking Dead was very much still in its pomp.
Times have changed. People don’t just gobble up any old crap with zombies in it anymore. We’ve seen TV dramas and spin-offs, movies and games, books and comics; hell, even sitcoms with a zombie theme to them.
And having, at the time, seen only a few underwhelming pieces of video footage for Days Gone, we were keen to go hands on with the game at E3 2018, to see how the game is really shaping up.
The good news is that our barometer is spot on. The bad news is that it looks about as ropey as advertised.
The E3 2018 demo of Days Gone was split into two parts: first, a story section with some Last of Us style stealth and melee, plus a little exposition; and second, the game’s take on a horde mode with hundreds of zombies on screen at once, the World War Z-style sequences it’s probably most famous for.
The story mission tasks our forgettable hero with finding and rescuing his forgettable motorcycle club buddy, who is being held captive by some freakers. Freakers, if you’ve not been following (and we don’t blame you) are Days Gone’s version of fast zombies. They are, in the greatest “don’t call them zombies, it’s a totally original idea” tradition, humans who have been struck down by a mystery virus that makes them aggressive, cannibalistic, and a bit hideous to look at. Basically they’re an opportunity to shoot people-like enemies (but you can also pretend they’re not people anymore, so no need for anyone to wring their hands or clutch their pearls).
Where that falls down in Days Gone however, is two-fold.
Firstly, the freakers that are holding forgettable buddy hostage are pretty lucid, as the zombie archetype goes. They’re talking, discussing their next move, and even torturing your friend for information. With a blowtorch. It’s unpleasant, but also, it’s a stark reminder that these aren’t the mindless archetypal zombies that video games rely upon. The freakers have a degree of sentience not usually afforded to zombie archetypes, which is frankly unsettling.
Secondly, there are different classes of freaker. The virus is mammalian, not human-specific, so there are also (thus far) wolves and bears. The bears are called “rager bears” which, while patently absurd, is probably the most original thing about Days Gone. But there’s also a freaker sub-type called “newts”. Newts are tiny child freakers which, slavering and feral as they are, still feel very wrong to beat to death with a baseball bat. When you then run into the coherent hostage-taking freakers, then realise for a moment that the newts may also be somewhat sentient, it’s horrifying.
Not horrifying in the way you want a horror game to be, however; just genuinely unpleasant.
Luckily, Days Gone rides to the rescue and undoes all that discomfort with its farcical horde control. First, a couple of nice things to say about it: the inventory wheel and semi-real time crafting mechanics are implemented very well, and the fundamental notion of a improvising a combination of weapons and environment to subdue an onrushing zombie flood is a smart one.
The issue, unfortunately, is that in spite of its emergent, open framework, Days Gone somehow still feels like a series of quick-time events. If you make an error in setup or miss the shot on an explosive barrel, or the swarm of freakers – many-headed, organic beast that they are – do something unexpected, it’s all for naught. Once the wave gets through your improvised defences, every play of Days Gone goes exactly the same way: the horde chase you round and round the mulberry bush, as you switch between running for your life and trying to fight back, with a trail of hundreds of freakers on your tail.
It’s like a Benny Hill chase with zombies. It’s like a Benny Hill chase with zombies, over and over again.
There’s every chance that Days Gone may be better as a final package. It’s not slated for release until 2019, so there’s still time. But for now, and based on the two vertical slices of gameplay we experienced at E3 2018, the tonal shift between unsettling and farcical is just too jarring, and the game’s key selling point – the horde – could very well make it a laughing stock.
The motorcycle was nice, though.
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