This review contains minor spoilers about mission structure and overall story direction. There are no spoilers for major narrative moments.
Around 10 hours into Days Gone, you're thrown into a hunting tutorial apropos of nothing. The over-the-top libertarian character takes you out with a rifle and shows you how to track a deer, although you've already had a tracking tutorial. You're then tasked with getting more meat for you and your buddy because your supply is running low, something you never have to do again. You also don't cook or eat; you can only donate meat to camps around the map to earn a negligible amount of trust and money with them. After a little while, even stopping to get meat off wolves that attacked you doesn't seem worth it.
Like many things in Days Gone, hunting exists just to be there, an idea that is picked up and then abandoned at random. Unlike hunting, some of those ideas are even good in the moment. But most aspects of Days Gone lack purpose. Its many narrative threads flirt with being meaningful and interesting but never quite commit, with characters whose actions and motivations don't make sense. Riding a souped-up motorcycle through the world and taking out zombie nests and hordes is satisfying in the way that completing open-world checklists often is, but by the end, you're left to wonder what the point of it all was.
The first act of the game--about 20 hours or so--sets up quite a few narrative arcs. Two years after the initial "Freaker" outbreak, biker buddies Deacon St. John and Boozer have become drifters doing odd jobs for nearby survivor camps and keeping mostly to themselves. Deacon's wife, Sarah, had been stabbed at the very beginning of the outbreak; Deacon put her on a government helicopter bound for a refugee camp so she could get medical attention, but when he and Boozer arrived, the camp has been overrun by Freaks, and Sarah had apparently died. Deacon is understandably not coping with it well. Boozer suggests riding north and leaving the memories behind, but Deacon's bike breaks down and is subsequently looted for parts, so one of your main goals is to earn trust and credits at the nearby camps in order to rebuild your motorcycle.
The motorcycle is central to everything you do in Days Gone. Getting anywhere, including by fast travel, requires your bike, and if you want to save while out in the world, you better be right next to it. Getting off your bike is a matter of both your entrance and your exit; you need to stop far enough away from enemies so they don't hear you coming, but you also need to be able to run to your bike quickly if things go south and you need to escape. And, as you're sneaking past Freakers to loot things like bandages and ammo, you also need to be on the lookout for a gas can and some scrap metal to keep your bike in top shape--if it breaks down or runs out of gas, you're basically screwed. That said, gas and other loot do regenerate if you leave and return to a location, so you'll never truly run out of anything so long as you put in the time to look for it.
At the beginning, you do jobs for two camps: Copeland's conspiracy theorist stronghold and Tucker's hellish forced-labor camp. Copeland's has a mechanic capable of upgrading your bike, while Tucker's has a well-stocked weapons merchant. Your starter junk bike gets about a mile per gallon, and you can't store a gas can on your bike or your person, so you either have to return to a camp to fuel up or constantly scrounge for gas cans out in Freaker territory. This makes wandering around and doing things in the open world frustrating at first, so you do a lot of throwaway missions for the two camps to start.
Many of these early missions consist of cookie-cutter bounty-hunting and rescue jobs in which you go to a place, track a person using your apparently psychic Survival Vision to highlight footprints and other clues, and then kill some bandits or Freakers. Some of these require you to take the target alive, which often means chasing them on your bike and shooting at their tires with your pistol. If you happen to run out of gas or ammo, or if your bike is already weak and breaks down after a couple of bumpy turns, you auto-fail these missions and have to start over. You also accelerate with R2 and shoot with R1, which, while not horrible, is clunky and awkward.
One early scene involving a drug thief kicks off a series of missions like these that, once completed, has no bearing on the rest of the game despite initial appearances; once you track down the stolen drugs you have to choose which camp to return them to, but there are no consequences either way, and then the situation is dropped entirely. The only result is getting some trust and credits with one of the camps--I chose Copeland simply because I wanted money for a better fuel tank. A lot of the story missions going forward, as you discover a third, more narratively relevant camp, follow the same structures as these earlier missions. But the focus on Tucker and Copeland specifically amounts to hours of nothing in the grand scheme of the story. Tucker's forced labor doesn't come back to bite anyone, and while Tucker and Copeland don't seem to like each other, doing work for one camp doesn't affect your relationship with the other. Once you get to the third camp, Lost Lake, Tucker and Copeland cease to matter at all, not least because Lost Lake has both a better mechanic and better weapons.
Once you upgrade your bike a bit, though, the world opens up. No longer bound by low gas mileage and a weak arsenal, you can head further out and more handily take on enemy-controlled areas around the map. You clear ambush camps by killing everyone present and eliminate Freaker infestation zones by burning all their nests. In addition to trust and credits, clearing an ambush camp nets you resources to loot, a map of the area, and a new fast travel point; destroying an infestation zone allows you to fast travel in the area. Unlocking the map and neutralizing threats is satisfying in the way that cleaning up clutter bit by bit is, and you can see your work pay off in your bike's upgrades. However, there's little variety between each ambush camp and infestation zone, and they get repetitive early--especially because Deacon dry-heaves and whines about the nests smelling horrible at each one.
The real motivation to do all of this is twofold. Early on in the game, Deacon's best friend Boozer is attacked by a group of Rippers, a doomsday cult with a number of bizarre rituals. The Rippers singe a tattoo off Boozer's arm and leave him with third-degree burns, so Deacon's purpose in life is to keep Boozer alive and healthy. This mostly involves finding sterile bandages and the one mission where you gather meat for him. On top of that, though, Deacon sees a helicopter belonging to the government agency NERO, which had been involved in the initial relief effort, flying overhead. That gives Deacon a bit of hope that Sarah might still be alive, since he'd put her on a NERO helicopter after she was stabbed, so you start stalking the NERO soldiers and scientists to investigate further.
There are a number of flashbacks to Deacon's relationship with Sarah before the outbreak, bolstered by his hope that she's alive. They're largely awkward cutscenes interspersed with short sections of walking slowly while Sarah and Deacon talk about surface-level topics, and they don't ever provide a convincing reason why they're together. Deacon is a biker and Sarah is a "nice girl" scientist, which is fine, but "opposites attract" isn't enough to make their relationship compelling. It's romantic in that Deacon hasn't given up on Sarah, but the main takeaway from the flashbacks is that they're physically attracted to each other and that Deacon doesn't talk about his feelings.
The NERO arc is where things really pick up. Spying on the NERO scientists consists of insta-fail stealth missions. They can be frustrating before you unlock abilities to improve your stealth skills, but the conversations you overhear are legitimately interesting and answer questions that other zombie fiction often neglects. For example, you learn from one eavesdropping on a scientist studying Freaker scat that they eat more than just other people and each other--they also eat plants, and that means they're not going to starve any time soon (like in 28 Days Later). Deacon quickly gets in contact with a NERO researcher who uses government resources to track down what might have happened to Sarah. Even though their relationship is confusing, it is a tempting mystery.
Abandoned Nero medical units and research sites contain more small details, including recorders that play snippets of scenes--a scientist studying a Freaker specimen, the moment a camp got overrun, or just banter between soldiers. Getting inside a unit is a matter of refueling the generator, making sure to find and disable every speaker nearby so the noise doesn't attract Freakers. Finding each speaker can be a bit tricky at certain sites, which makes the moment you turn the power on more exciting and the realization that you're in the clear more of a relief. And in addition to satisfying your curiosity, you're also given the more tangible reward of an injector that improves your health, stamina, and bullet-time-like focus ability.
As you learn more about NERO and the Freakers, you're introduced to new, more powerful types of Freaks, including a berserker and an all-female variant that screams to attract more Freaks your way. They don't really provide new challenges so much as slow you down, and they feel like a stopgap measure to tide you over until the first horde-based mission around 40 hours into the game. That first horde mission is exhilarating--running around while using tight spaces and molotovs to keep the horde off you, eventually taking out hundreds of Freakers, is a well-earned victory. But that mission is followed very quickly by another one, and after a short break, you have two more nearly back-to-back horde missions that lead up to the end of the main story. Without any breathing room, the hordes are exhausting to deal with, and you'll likely have to stop everything to loot and rebuild your stockpile of resources after each one just so you can progress.
Ultimately, though, Days Gone isn't about NERO or Sarah or the Freakers. It's about Deacon, and what he wants is what matters. Narrative threads are dropped as soon as Deacon no longer has a use for them. Copeland and Tucker only matter until Deacon gets to a camp that has better supplies. Boozer's health is only important because it's Deacon's reason for living. Even the fascinating little details about the Freakers are useless to Deacon, who only cares about Sarah--but not what Sarah wants or needs, just that his "ol' lady" might be alive somewhere. Every character is seen through this Deacon-focused lens, and as a result, they're two-dimensional.
Deacon is selfish, and it's simply boring that the game is uncritical of him.
Deacon does not learn anything over the course of the game, and the story is concerned with validating his actions and feelings above all else. When one character urges him not to kill anyone in cold blood, Deacon "proves" that murder is better than mercy. As Boozer nearly breaks through to Deacon about learning to let go, Deacon learns something new about NERO and clings to his hope even harder. Deacon also has a policy where he doesn't kill unarmed women, which does not affect the story in any way and goes completely unexamined. There's no introspection here; Deacon is selfish, and it's simply boring that the game is uncritical of him.
I did a lot of things in Days Gone. I burned every single Freaker nest; I cleared every ambush camp; I maxed out my bike; I took out a few optional hordes just because. Like Deacon with Sarah, I kept going because I hoped to find something, to follow a thread to a possibly fascinating or satisfying or impactful conclusion. But at the end of it all, I'd only gotten scraps.