It wouldn’t be an unfair assessment to say that zombies have run their course. True to their nature as undying monstrosities, zombies have risen and fallen in pop culture more than once. Even so, it’s been a few years since zombie titles like The Walking Dead and The Last Of Us made waves, and though The Last Of Us Part 2 is eventually coming it’s safe to say that shamblers, walkers, and zeds have once again taken to the dirt. However, this could just mean that the market is in need of something fresh to shake things up.
Days Gone treads interesting, fetid ground. Set in the open world of the Pacific Northwest, you play as Deacon St. John, biker gang member turned mercenary. He’s resourceful and cunning – and in this world, you have to be. He’s capable of crafting all manner of implements on the fly, from bandages to explosive traps to molotovs. The crafting system is simple and concise, all served from a context wheel controllable with one hand. Time slows down while it’s out, so you can use it to get your bearings while you create a couple more molotovs to set fire to freakers with. It’s saved my life countless times when I needed a bandage in a firefight.
Aside from the genre mainstays of skill trees and a leveling system, Deacon can upgrade his trusty bike with all manner of attachments. Trailers have shown footage of the wheels being modified to be covered in blades, ready to turn freakers into bits of chow. I asked if it was possible to attach chainsaws to the sides of the bike, and unfortunately it seems like that isn’t an option. While Deacon doesn’t have to worry about hunger, thirst, or energy, his bike needs constant maintenance. Fuel keeps the engine running, and damage can be repaired with scrap, both of which can be found in no short supply. The bike is instrumental in traversing the world and is very responsive, capable of making tight turns and outrunning hordes even without upgrades.
Early on, the story felt like it was written with player choices in mind. Deacon and his buddy, Boozer, confront someone who wronged them, and in the ensuing firefight the poor schmuck gets shot in the gut. For a moment, the game builds up to what seems to be a moral dilemma – do you shoot the man, or leave him to bleed and get eaten alive by freakers? I was surprised when the game didn’t even give me a choice in the matter, instead having Deacon make a decision after a considerable pause. Choices were present in earlier builds of the game, but due to tester feedback they decided to take it out in order to focus on writing a coherent story. I’m certainly not mourning the loss of player agency; a lot of videogame choices boil down to very binary “pet this puppy or tear its head off in front of children” decisions, and it’s very jarring when your carefully-curated nice guy character decides to act bad in cutscenes or vice versa.
The Freakers themselves aren’t exactly zombies in the “reanimated corpses” flavor. Inspired by the rage zombies in 28 Days Later they move at a blistering pace, running and charging at any prey they can see. Even though exactly where freakers come from isn’t clear, but they’re living, thinking organisms who need to eat, drink, and rest. Rather disgustingly, they even have nests dotted around the environment that Deacon can clear out with a Molotov cocktail. Taking on more than a few at a time is dangerous and suicidal unless you can take advantage of traps and the environment; they’re even capable of moving in massive swarms which all but guarantee your swift, ugly death unless you make a beeline for your bike and get out.
While the gameplay is tight, I’m not too keen on certain aspects of the story. Like much of contemporary zombie media, the freakers themselves serve as the framing device for which humanity is measured, with characters oftentimes acting even more monstrous than the creatures that overrun the country. Mercenaries and survivor groups frequently go at each other’s throats, and a cult-like group of fanatics takes sadistic pleasure in burning the flesh off captives to entice the scent-sensitive horde. Themes of loss are expected, but nowadays feel rather overdone when it comes to the genre. Deacon blames himself for his wife’s death, and his loss drives much of his motivation through the story. It’s not exactly a roaring rampage of revenge, but “angry man takes things out on the world” is an unappealing concept. Still, I only had two hours into the game, so it remains to be seen whether or not Deacon’s worldview evolves further on.
What do I think of Days Gone? I think it’s a cool premise that arrived at an odd time. I’m certainly not writing it off just yet. It tickled just the right parts of my brain to keep me invested, and I’m looking forward to playing it when it comes out on April 26.