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'Days Gone' game review: Surviving the freakshow


Score: 7.5/10
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: SIE Bend Studio
Publisher: Sony Entertainment Interactive
Release Date: April 26, 2019
ESRB: M

Running across a horde of freaks in Days Gone is a helluva thing.

Freaks — humans infected with a virus that transforms them into mindless killing machines — are formidable enough in smaller groups of four or five, but when they gather as a roaming herd of a hundred or more, each one twitchily aware of its surroundings and looking for prey, they are almost unstoppably lethal. If they get a whiff of you and begin swarming toward your location with raptor-like speed, you’d better have a well-laid plan to deal with them — or a motorcycle nearby upon which to beat a speedy retreat.

Hordes are a distinctive and defining part of SIE Bend Studio’s long-awaited post-apocalyptic thriller. Set in the rural wilderness of Oregon, in which a handful of rough and tumble camps represent the last local remnants of humanity, it’s the tale of Deacon St. John, an ex-military member of a local biker gang who, along with his friend Boozer, are attempting to survive the world’s new chaos.

Deacon is capable of dealing with most threats — roaming marauders, cultists who see the freaks as some sort of ideal to which to aspire, even a few wolves and bears — using familiar weapons, including handguns, rifles, and bats with nails, saw blades, and heavy iron gears attached. But the hordes are a special challenge. They require noise distraction devices to bait them into traps in order to thin them to manageable numbers. Or you can get a little creative and lure them toward an enemy encampment, let the two sides kill each other mercilessly, then wander in and clean up the survivors.

Moments like these are when Days Gone is at its best, revealing a surprising level of thought and care. There’s no single right way to deal with a horde, and the game’s makers provide virtually no guidance on how to do it, leaving it up to players to reason out their own strategies using a combination of analytical observation and prudent planning.

Another example is Deacon’s bike. We need to finesse it through the world, coasting downhill where possible to conserve gas, and slowly straddle-walking it through infested areas, its engine a barely audible purr, to keep from making too much noise and drawing attention. It’s a level of authenticity in vehicle manipulation that I haven’t seen before in a game like this, and it imbues our interactions with Deacon’s ride with an unusual kind of satisfaction.

If only the entire experience were so inspired.

Days Gone ‘s open world, which allows us to roam around doing whatever we like most of the time, is plagued with issues common to sandbox games. Certain types of missions — clearing out freak nesting zones, hunting down bounties for camps, clearing fortified areas of all enemies — eventually grow repetitive and uninteresting. And the crafting system, which requires us to scavenge supplies and plants to build better weapons, ammunition, and restoratives, is merely functional without adding anything original to its generic formula. Finding the right resources to craft a durable, deadly 2×4 is a fun challenge for maybe the first dozen or so hours, then grows routine before eventually becoming tedious.

The sandbox design also impacts the story. Bend’s writers have clearly made an effort to tell a mature and nuanced tale packed with some interesting philosophical conundrums, including: the morality of demanding forced labour to earn one’s keep; the practicality of an extremist ideology that uses the current crisis to justify the far-right conspiracy theories of pre-apocalypse truthers; whether a policy of peace can work in a world brimming with deadly violence. But the ability to tackle missions in whatever order we like ends up making some conversations and dialogue feel jarringly out-of-sync, with characters referencing events in a temporal framework that doesn’t always make sense. Days Gone is striving for the gravitas and emotion of a game like The Last of Us , but such a thing is nearly impossible to achieve in a non-linear environment.

And while it’s an undeniably beautiful game — especially when played on a PlayStation 4 Pro paired with a 4K, HDR-enabled TV, allowing the player to see intricately detailed character models and gorgeous rain, snow, and lighting effects (which dynamically affect the type and frequency of freaks you encounter) — it needed a little more time in the oven. I ran across technical bugs that ranged from delayed weapon impacts to an enemy that turned invisible before strangling Deacon to death. These glitches are no more or less common than in most open world games (a sad commentary on the genre) but nonetheless destroyed my sense of immersion whenever they happened.

Despite these noticeable problems, though, I’ve found myself pulled back night after night. There’s something about Days Gone ‘s world that I’ve found genuinely compelling. Perhaps it’s the manner in which it slowly teases out information on what the nature of the infection is, what the freaks are, and what horrors may yet lie in store. It could be my need to know exactly what happened to Deacon’s wife Sarah, who was taken to a camp that was quickly overrun the night everything went to pot, or how the stories of half a dozen other surprisingly sympathetic non-player characters eventually end.

Or maybe it’s as simple as my own personal fascination with fantasy worlds in which civilization has collapsed, and my tendency towards steadfastly single-player games. Put the two together and I’ll be suckered in almost every time.

Days Gone isn’t quite the revelatory play I’d envisioned when I saw it revealed at E3 2016, but it ticks enough boxes to make it well worth investigation for anyone with proclivities that run along paths parallel to mine.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I fear there’s a horde of freaks looking for me somewhere in the snowy hills of Oregon. I have some traps to set.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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