Guerrilla Games got a lot of credit when it transitioned from the linear Helghan corridors of Killzone: Shadow Fall to the vast open expanses of Horizon: Zero Dawn, but Sony Bend may be making one of the biggest leaps in gaming history with its all-new apocalyptic intellectual property Days Gone. For the past 15 or so years, the Oregon-based outfit has been working almost exclusively on handhelds, and while it may argue that PlayStation Vita launch title Uncharted: Golden Abyss had the production values of a full-scale console game, the reality is that protagonist Deacon St. John’s encounter with the undead is bigger than anything it’s attempted in its 20-plus year history.
The pressure must be immense for the first-party studio: the game follows a spate of award-winners, including last year’s God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spider-Man. But after an enormous three hour hands on session, we can safely say that the ex-Syphon Filter studio has comfortably risen to the occasion, and while this survival horror-tinged open world title doesn’t have quite the same creative flair as some of the aforementioned, it does have an air of comfort food to it that is sure to satisfy even the most discerning gamer.
You know it’s a Sony published game because the demo begins with a prologue, as Deacon – outfitted in a baseball cap now more iconic than Aiden Pearce’s – helps his injured wife aboard a helicopter. The theme of the game, at least during the demo, appears to be all about loyalty, and so despite this clearly being the love of his life, he decides to stay behind in order to help his motorcycle riding mate, Boozer. The scene uses every cliché in the book to help build an instant connection to its cast, and while it’s never going to leave you streaming like The Last of Us’ incredible opener, it’s fair to say that the production values are right up there with what you’d expect from a PlayStation 4 exclusive.
In fact, the entire opening hour is a roller-coaster, as we fast-forward two years to a bearded St. John in pursuit of a rival gang on his motorcycle. Controlling the drifter bike is loose, but once you learn more advanced techniques like boosting and sliding, it’s a surprisingly fun form of navigation – an essential for any open world game. The really unique thing about the motorbike is that it becomes your sanctuary when you’re out in the field: you can only save when you’re next to it, and its resources run dry quickly, meaning that if you deplete your fuel reserves then you’re going to have to head out on foot in search of more.
While structurally the title has more in common with, say, Far Cry than Resident Evil, it’s pretty obvious that resource management is going to be essential over the course of the campaign. Ammunition and items are generally in short supply, and the title’s really good at putting you in situations where you feel like you only just have enough assets to survive. It’s incredibly easy to stumble into situations where you’re ill-equipped to deal with them, and so this does add a sense of tension to the open world; sneaking past a couple of snivelling Freakers in order to get to a fuel canister can be a white knuckle experience, and it’s the kind of off-the-beaten path gameplay that makes the out-of-mission encounters engaging.
But this is an open world game, and Sony Bend isn’t really reinventing the book. Camps contain various characters, who end up being either quest-givers or merchants. The campaign appears to be divided into a sequence of story threads, each feeding into an overall narrative that we have suspicions about where it’s heading. One mission, for example, sees you exploring a rundown neighbourhood in order to rescue a teenager who’s been living alone since the collapse of society. The cut-scenes are actually decent, and while it’s nothing you won’t have seen before, the actors do an agreeable job of working with a slightly cheesy script.
The missions are open ended by design, so you can choose how you want to approach encounters. The gunplay isn’t the greatest, but extremely impactful sound effects pair with some robust hit reactions to make for satisfying gauntlets against both human and undead enemies. Of course, you can also approach stealthily if you prefer, while makeshift melee weapons can be constructed out of materials you find in the world. It’s all fairly standard stuff, but using rocks to lure enemies into the vicinity of explosive canisters and then letting rip rarely ever gets old.
Of course, when you’re forced into playing spontaneously, a good user interface is essential, and while Days Gone’s radial menu can take a little getting used to, it makes crafting on the fly a breeze. You can build everything from Molotov cocktails to crossbow arrows in a jiffy, and there’s a full skill tree that obviously feeds into how quickly and effectively you can construct things. To be fair, the user interface as a whole is a thing of beauty, and it’s just another sign of how much care and effort the developer’s invested into the game overall. It really does feel polished – perhaps an indication of how delays have helped the project reach its full potential.
The only real oversight technically is that the cut-scenes don’t run in-engine, which may sound minor, but it makes the transitions between gameplay and cinematics irritatingly obvious. Unfortunately for Sony Bend, titles like God of War have pushed the industry forward in this regard, and it can make the game feel strangely archaic as it fades to black for video playback, then repeats the entire sorry saga once more to put you back in control. Many will be able to overlook this niggling issue, but it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Running on a PS4 Pro, it can also be a touch framey – particularly when you’re coursing through the open world on your bike. We didn’t actually encounter the title’s trademark World War Z-esque horde during our hands on, so we’re a touch concerned that performance will struggle there as well. On the flipside, though, the world very much feels like it’s “alive”, with wildlife minding its own business and Freakers stumbling about in the wilderness. There are rival gangs dotted around the map, and while their ranks include a cringe-inducing cult with RIP carved into their foreheads, it means that you need to keep a close eye out for traps lest you unknowingly ride into them.
The game eases the constant sense of tension with some flashback scenes, designed to – in the case of our demo, at least – explore Deacon’s relationship with his wife-to-be. This does help to flesh out the characters, and the writing is somewhat sweet, as the young lovers bounce off one another with witty one-liners. Our only concern is that we already think we can see the “twist” coming a mile away, and we hope that we’re mistaken.
Days Gone, though, is exactly what you expect it to be – but that’s perhaps a reductive way of looking at things. The production values are almost on par with Sony’s premier first-party studios, which is impressive when you consider Bend’s back-catalogue. And the gameplay loop appears to be very strong, with limited resources lending a real sense of tension to each and every encounter – whether they’re with the living or the living dead. The bike adds a unique twist, as it becomes your sanctuary out in the field and something that you need to plan around. But its own idiosyncrasies aside, this isn’t reinventing the wheel, and if you’re burned out on franchises like Far Cry, then don’t expect Deacon St. John’s inaugural outing to rip up the rule book – even if it does look like he has a rebellious streak.
Will you be jumping aboard Days Gone’s saddle come launch on 26th April? Do you have any burning questions about the survival horror-themed open world game? Fight the Freakers in the comments section below.