Freaks and geeks.
The PS4 exclusive Days Gone is approaching its release on April 26. Coming from Bend Studio, the developers behind the Syphon Filter series and Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the third-person open-world game takes a lot of cues from previous Sony AAA titles, all while set within the popular setting of a zombie apocalypse. After a recent hands-on session with the game, GameSpot editors Edmond Tran and Alessandro Fillari came together to share their thoughts on what it was like exploring Days Gone's take on the Pacific Northwest during harsher times.
For more on Days Gone, check out our interview with the developers from Bend Studio about the making of the game, and stay tuned for our video impressions detailing how the new open world game stacks up.
Alessandro: So to start things off, what do you think of Days Gone in the broader sense? The basic premise is essentially Sons of Anarchy by way of The Walking Dead, and I certainly got the impression it was sticking fairly close to those sources of inspiration. Like the main character, Deacon St. John, seems like he'd fit right in within either of those shows.
Edmond: I've never seen SOA and I actively dislike the TV adaptation of TWD, so Days Gone didn't spark excitement in that sense. My reaction to the trailers and demos was that it looked okay, if a bit generic. But after reading preview coverage from yourself and Oscar last year, where you both sounded pretty unimpressed, this just flew way off my radar and I had very low expectations going into my first experience of the game.
Alessandro: Yeah, I was fairly underwhelmed by last year's demo. To reiterate a bit, in addition to it feeling a bit run of the mill as an open world game, a big factor that left me unimpressed was the poor technical performance. In the 2018 demo, this was particularly noticeable during moments when you encounter massive swarms of Freakers--zombies, basically--which made these encounters a major drag. However, this recent build of the game was far more improved. I still felt a bit underwhelmed by some parts of what Days Gone is about, but I ended up finding more to like in this newer slice.
Edmond: Oh wow, I actually didn't see any of the huge hordes of zombies--I'm sorry, "Freakers"--in my three hours of the game at all so I can't really speak to how I found those, but I did run into one noticeable technical hiccup: I raided an enemy encampment where all the environmental dressing failed to load, so enemies were taking cover behind nothing and pickup items were floating in thin air. But I'm taking a "whatever" stance on bugs since this isn't the final product.
Alessandro: Yeah, I saw some weird bugs as well, like some moments characters had their guns stuck to their hands during cutscenes. But anyway, the times I saw herds of Freakers during this demo were some of my favorite moments during my playthrough. The first time was in a cave, which they like to hide out in, and the other time was when I was trying to rescue a survivor. When I went back to my bike after helping this NPC out, I found it surrounded by a hoard of freakers. I tried running for my bike, but they quickly got to me and I died. It was a brutal way for Deacon to go out, but with that said, I actually really dig how much of a presence the undead have because of their sheers numbers and how easily they can catch you off guard. They're a lot more unnerving to encounter than in most other zombies games.
Edmond: Please, Alessandro. The "Freakers" don't like to be associated with common zombie folk, since Freakers are not actually undead, they're just really messed up living beings, hence the hibernation in caves and their need to eat and drink. Also a factor which really makes things very uncomfortable when the game put me in a situation where I had to kill freaker CHILDREN. It's messed up.
I saw a few other freakers types, which were basically Witches and Boomers from Left 4 Dead, or Screamers and Bloaters from State of Decay, but the kids, the "Newts", mostly avoid you unless you're low on health. I got into a situation where I had to beat one with a baseball bat and I don't think I'm going to heaven anymore.
Alessandro: Yeah, Newts only appear in specific areas where they set up dens, so thankfully they don't come up too often. It was very off-putting seeing them watch you from afar, just sort of looming in the distance. They'll only attack if you get in their space.
The Open World
Edmond: Which is something you don't necessarily have to do. I hate being reductive, but I really think the best way to describe this game is a narrative- and character-focused State Of Decay with a Far Cry level of freedom in approaching scenarios.
My biggest takeaway from this game was how much I enjoyed the different ways you could use your variety of abilities and the environment to complete objectives, whether that be to get into a place, or destroy people or things. I respect any game that attempts to emphasise a flexibility to move back and forth between stealthy and loud approaches, or the fluidity to switch between ranged, melee, and guerilla combat techniques on the fly. I like mixing things up.
Alessandro: That's actually a pretty fair way to describe the game. You do go around collecting herbs and helping survivors in the bases around the map. It channels a lot of the survivalist-experience you'd find from State of Decay, all within a large open world like Far Cry.
And you know, I actually have to say that I ended up enjoying the setting of the Pacific Northwest a lot more than I thought I would. It went against a lot of my expectations for the region and it was pretty educational to be honest. The second area we got to explore in the demo seemed fairly close to a desert environment. It was inspired by the Belknap Crater, a real location that has a volcano. On one occasion I kinda got distracted by the beauty of the world that I totally didn't catch an obvious ambush spot in the road that was set up by one of the enemy factions.
Edmond: Oh man, I was really caught off-guard by the random ambushes, and they led to some great watercooler moments, kinda like getting mugged in Red Dead Redemption 2. There was a moment during my session where I was wandering around, deeply focused on using the game's tracking mechanic to search the ground for some footprints, when I got jumped and overwhelmed.
There were too many to fight close-quarters so I booked it into a nearby forest when I got an opening, dodging gunfire by weaving between the trees. I eventually ran down a hill, over a big rock, and hunkered under it. They lost sight of me but eventually, one passed right by the rock, I ambushed him as he wandered past, and thought: "thank you, varied environment for giving me that movie-like chase." They're definitely pitching the "high desert" and variable weather and terrain thing pretty hard. I've never been to Oregon, but the developers lead me to believe that there can be a blizzard in one region, real hot in another, there's no sales tax and everyone has their own craft beer, all of which affects how enemies behave, and how your motorbike reacts.
Alessandro: Yeah, your bike is like your best friend in this game. It's your lifeline and it'll get you out of trouble fast. In addition to some general upkeep and keeping it gassed up, you can also upgrade the different parts to make it more durable. This all ties back into the survivor camps as well, since you can only upgrade it with their mechanics once you've built up enough trust with these camps.
Edmond: ...which you do by completing missions, side stories, and bringing back freaker ears, animal pelts, that sort of thing. The bike really felt like my own, I had to protect it and keep an eye on it at all times, especially since I couldn't just whistle for it like a horse. I'm sure you can steal other bikes and maybe even buy a new one later in the game, but man I did not want this bike to get ruined, especially since Deacon loses his souped-up bike as part of the story in the first hour.
Alessandro: Usually when you get a bike in a game, you want to go as fast as possible and do sick jumps, but it's like the total opposite here. I really went out of my way to avoid danger as much as possible on the bike. I seldom used the nitro boost.
Edmond: My first inclination was to use the bike to ram enemies, but that kills its durability which I certainly did not want, since it'll then require more scrap to repair. I also really got into fuel conservation--I found myself being very light on the throttle and making the most of hills and momentum when riding it, which leads into the whole scavenging, crafting, and conservation aspect.
Alessandro: During one encounter with some freakers on the road, they literally threw themselves at my bike to take me out. It did a lot of damage to myself and the bike. Even though it gives you a lot of mobility and freedom to explore, you're still very vulnerable on the bike, which I kinda like. It's very much an extension of you.
Edmond: You know what else was an extension of me? The spiked baseball bat I used across my entire session. I loved that thing so much that when it got close to breaking (most weapons have durability), I switched back to the weak-but-indestructible knife until I could get enough materials to repair the bat.
Alessandro: There are a surprising amount of melee weapons to find. It sort of reminded me of a classic beat-em-up game. You can get lead pipes and spiked bats, and even machetes. Unless you're squaring off against heavily-armed bandits, close-range combat is generally really reliable.
Edmond: It is! Well, unless you're fighting more than two people. But I really enjoyed relying on melee not only because it saved ammo, but because it was satisfying to perform and watch. I'm one of those Uncharted players that hip-fires like a maniac while closing the distance and then finishes with melee, and Days Gone caters to that same kind of flow. There's even a perk that enhances the damage when do when you switch it up like this, among other perks to boost weapon damage and durability. The shooting on its own felt serviceable enough, but at this early stage I found it was only really useful when you used it in tandem with the focus/slowdown perk. What did you think about the combat?
Alessandro: For me, that was actually one of the areas where the game fell a bit flat. I mean the combat mechanics and amount of tools you have at your disposal are all well and good, but it just felt a bit unremarkable in actual practice. The mechanics on display, the slowdown shooting mechanic, and along with the variety of skills found within the fairly robust skill-tree, all of these are ideas that I've seen executed in plenty of other games. That's not totally a bad thing, but the way Days Gone goes about just felt more like going down a checklist of features to have in an open-world adventure game.
Edmond: I definitely can't argue against that, though I feel like there's only so much you can do with a grounded, realistic setting like this without diving off the deep end. Although there is a gameplay element where you upgrade your stats with bio-injectors from the game's CDC (Centers for Disease Control) equivalent, so who knows? Maybe we'll get a double jump like New Dawn.
Alessandro: I enjoyed the stealth gameplay however--which even comes with a tracking vision mode. That to me felt a bit more developed and also more in keeping with the tone. I especially liked seeing how the systems in the world would interact with one another, like when freakers attack other hostile humans.
Edmond: Yes! I really appreciated the quality-of-life stealth features. You really need go out of your way to mark enemies with binoculars to get their pips on the map (it's not as generous as Far Cry), but you also get their vision cones. There's a sound indicator, they do the hiding in bushes thing, there are a few different tools to misdirect enemies, and the line-of-sight logic actually felt natural and believable.
Alessandro: Yeah, the game does a nice job of helping you keep track of all these systems. I do hope we'll see a lot more variety towards the later sections. However, I felt that each of the systems--stealth, combat, and exploration--were better when they were blending different mechanics together, rather than in isolation. It's all about being super resourceful.
Edmond: For sure, it's the ease of flowing between different states which keeps the encounters interesting, which I think they did for the three hours I played. I found certain situations where one kind of approach is just not effective--melee is impossible if there are more than two people like I mentioned before, for example, but I also found myself running low on ammo in prolonged firefights, meaning I would have to break line-of-sight, crouch-run between buildings to get across town, and find advantageous vantage points (like a hole in a boarded-up window) to get the jump and make sure my shots counted. I love doing that shit.
Alessandro: What's your take on Deacon, the protagonist? The game really goes out of its way to try and sell you on the really harsh struggle he goes through.
Edmond: Going in, I thought he was going to be a one-note, gruff biker dude. But I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see that he goes through a lot of real emotional twists and turns that really do work to make you empathise with him--this is a First-Party, "Wasn't The Last Of Us Great?"-Styled Sony Game, after all. I saw enough in the preview to suggest that he's got range and maybe even some shit going on deep down.
I thought the performance was pretty good. He's believably uncomfortable in some situations--there was a point where he had to coerce a teenage girl to come with him, he fumbles over his words and seemed like he had no idea what to do, so he lies to her. He visibly regrets it later on, but it's communicated purely through his facial expressions, which I found notable.
Out in the world he's certainly tough, but it also seems like he has some repressed anger and deep sorrow when he's put into situations where he has to face Bad People--you can hear him breathing heavily and angrily, he mumbles things to himself like "oh so you wanna rob and murder helpless people? Well how do you like this, you scum", that kind of thing. It certainly adds a lot of character to the game and reminds you that this is a game about Deacon, not necessarily your own survival fantasy.
To that point though, one thing I noticed about this demo was the absence of branching story choices. I saw some earlier gameplay demos where the same cutscenes we saw had moments where you had to choose what actions Deacon takes (like mercifully kill a man or leave him to the freakers, give your partner back his gun or keep it). These choices were previously pitched with the idea that you can change Deacon's relationship to the characters and perhaps the overall narrative, Telltale Games style. Maybe they're doubling down on the "Deacon's story, not yours" thing. Did you see any of that stuff in your previous demos?
Alessandro: I didn't, actually. The recent stuff we played covered a lot of the same ground from last year's demo. It does seem like there's a greater focus on specific storylines for characters--which you can view in the game's menu. That young woman that you mentioned actually opens up her own storyline called "You're Safe Now", which deals with her circumstances in the camp you bring her to. This particular camp has its own troubles, most of which are related to the leader who imposes some harsh rules on everyone inside the safety of the base. Deacon clashes with her numerous times, which leads to some tense moments.
But to your point, it does seem like there are moments that are prime for choices and player-agency. I do wonder if that's even a thing in the game at this point during the section we played. There was a particular moment early where you have to make a choice in executing a particular character. They sort of linger on the scene for a bit before Deacon ends up going through with it.
I was initially a bit lukewarm on Deacon, in some cases I found him unlikable even, but I do agree that advancing the story helped humanize him a bit. I am curious to see how he'll change towards the end-game, and what sort of storylines will come about.
Edmond: I also need to draw attention to the fact that the actor who plays Deacon, Sam Witwer, was the voice and face of the moody protagonist in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. So I think we all know how this story is going to end: Darth Vader saves him from a ravaged Earth and becomes his senpai.
Alessandro: I do have to say that I feel a little more positive about the game compared to last year's demo. The world itself was a lot more expansive and varied than I expected, and it was interesting seeing how those systems sort of mingle together. However, I still have some reservations. This game has been in development for over six years, and I feel that's very noticeable in the style and type of gameplay it employs--which is something that's been seen in numerous other games. The zombie apocalypse feels a bit passé for me, and I'm hoping that Days Gone has a lot more going on than what I saw.
Edmond: I played a lot of DayZ, which well and truly burnt me out on the zombie thing. But I still enjoy scavenging and survival gameplay if the loop is done really well and there's a good hook. I wanted to like State of Decay 2, but it was a little too monotonous and soulless for me. I went into Days Gone with similarly low expectations, which is probably why I ended up feeling so positive on it. The fact that Days Gone is going to be so focused on narrative, characters, and flexible combat options has me eager to put time aside for it. But like you, I also hope it has some surprises up its sleeve.
And an unlockable horn button. Let me beep the damn horn on the bike.
Days Gone will release for PlayStation 4 on April 26, 2019.