Days Gone review – Just another zombie game

Spoiler warning: This review covers some general themes that Days Gone explores, which some might consider spoilers. There’s nothing about specific plot points.

There was a moment, little way past the halfway mark, that Days Gone seemed to be onto something special. Instead of the tired old “humans are the real monsters” nonsense, here was a zombie* apocalypse story that seemed more interested in the fundamental humanity of those who continue to survive. Sure, there are a few violently opportunistic marauders and psychotic cults, but most people just want to survive—and putting differences from the old world aside and banding together seems the best way to do that.

[*In pre-release coverage, the developers insisted that Days Gone isn’t about zombies; it’s about “Freakers”. But if it walks, talks, and acts like a zombie, it’s a zombie, even if it’s not technically undead. Also, the game is set in 2019; if there was a “Freaker” outbreak tomorrow, there’s no way that the creatures wouldn’t colloquially come to be known as zombies. They’re zombies—end of.]

Despite casting you as a “drifter”—that is, someone who’s decided not to call any particular camp their home and will happily undertake supply runs for any of them—the early parts of Days Gone show this humanity in the camps that serve as the game’s mission hubs. Each camp is home to people from all walks of life, who’ve all put their trust in one another for the sake of survival. And even when the different camps don’t see eye to eye on things, they mostly coexist in peace with one another.

One camp, under the care of a leader who some deride as being too much of a pacifist to survive in this apocalyptic situation, goes as far as forming a peace treaty with the otherwise violent “Rest in Peace” cult—commonly known as “Rippers”. This camp is lead by someone who’s seen his share of shit, both before the outbreak and in the two-odd years since; to him, the only way for anyone to survive is to trust in the fundamental good of humanity.

This doesn’t always sit right with Deacon St. John, outlaw biker turned drifter. Deacon’s a good guy, but he’s also driven by revenge and regret. For him, sometimes violence is the only solution—especially when it comes to the Rippers, who tortured his best friend, and the raiders outside the camps who prey on the weak. He is, in a lot of ways, your typical videogame protagonist: an all-around nice guy, with a rough past but not too rough, who’s spurred on by a burning desire for revenge.

Cliche? Yes, but that seems to be the point, at least early on: set up Deacon as a cliche for the sake of tearing it down. Case in point, as Deek spends more time with the “pacifist” leader, he slowly seems to start to understand his way of thinking. As the second act builds up to its conclusion, it seems like Days Gone might finally be the game to challenge the tired old “humans are the real monsters”, and the misanthropic assumptions that underpin it.

And then, the whole game changes tack. In the space of a single mission, a game that seemed ready to subvert every trope of zombie apocalypse fiction goes all-in on exactly those tropes, and becomes just another generic zombie story. Without going into spoiler territory, the later part of Days Gone hits every cliche imaginable. Every “twist” has been done a thousand times before, and is so heavily foreshadowed that there’s no chance for any “surprise” to actually be surprising. After such a strong middle chapter, such a weak ending—and one that so fundamentally undermines what made the earlier part of the game so good to begin with—is disappointing, to say the least.

In a similar vein, Days Gone almost finds some interesting new territory with its outlaw biker setup, but fails to commit to it in any meaningful way. There’s a parallel to be drawn between gangs and the survivor camps of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s easy to assume that gangs are simply groups of lawless thugs, but that’s rarely true. More often than not, they’re places where people who have fallen through the cracks of society find something resembling family, safety, and meaning. Yes, they’re often involved in criminal enterprise and violent behaviour, but that’s rarely the full story. They’re people forced out into a metaphorical wasteland, getting by however they can.

Which is exactly what the people in Days Gone‘s survivors’ camps are doing. They’re often violent, when the situation necessitates it, and they operate under their own laws. They’re people who’ve been left behind, only by a zombie outbreak rather than by a society that’d rather pretend they don’t exist.

This is a theme that Days Gone dances around. We don’t learn a huge amount about Deacon’s time with the Mongrels MC, but we learn enough to know that he was soldier who returned from a tour in Afghanistan, struggled to reintegrate into society, and found a home in a biker gang. He continues to wear his patched jacket even after the outbreak, and when questioned about it—after all, such things have no meaning in this apocalyptic wasteland—he says that it’s all he has. Through the second act, we start to see Deacon finally finding the same sense of belonging.

But instead of driving that message home, it gets lost in Days Gone‘s obsession turn to tired zombie story cliches. Just when Deacon starts to show depth and growth, that gets cut short in favour of a generic revenge story involving a series of increasingly ridiculous villains. Instead of committing to doing something meaningful with the biker theme, the game resigns it to simply being an aesthetic—a missed opportunity indeed.

I will say, though, that Days Gone is populated with an interesting cast, backed by some exceptional performances. Deacon himself, though forced into generic videogame protagonist territory by the overall direction of the story, has far more range than most. He comes across as likeable guy, and one is in tune with his feelings from the outset. In the early parts of the game especially, there’s an air of melancholy to him due to still grieving the death of his wife during the outbreak, but it never falls into the tedious  realm of “angry finally learns basic emotional processing”. That said, he also frequently makes bizarre decisions (that you as a player have no control over), like… burning down the church he got married in to stop people from vandalising it.

For her part, too, Deacon’s wife Sarah avoids simply becoming another woman unceremoniously killed off to further the story of a man. Yes, she’s killed off within the opening moments of the game (that’s not a spoiler), but she gets to establish her own identity through flashbacks and the like; she’s never just a plot point in Deacon’s story. The supporting characters are similarly given depth and range; you won’t like all of them, but—with the exception of some of the more laughable late-game villains—they all feel human.

It’s no secret that I’m not generally a fan of open-world games, but Days Gone is one of the few that really makes the formula work. A big part of this is how it approaches quests: instead of the usual onslaught of icons and tedious sidequests that serve little purpose other than to pad out a game’s content, Days Gone opts for fewer quests that all tie together in more meaningful ways. Instead of being divided by the type of quest on offer, Days Gone‘s different activities are grouped by “Storylines”—narrative arcs that are self-contained but also form part of the main storyline, and comprise both main story quests and optional objectives. Even something like taking over an enemy camp—a mainstay of games like this—finds greater meaning. You’re not just checking off a box on a list of things to do; you’re furthering the story of a particular camp, of a particular enemy faction, and of how those relate to the world at large.

Days Gone also has one of the more satisfying combat systems I’ve seen in this sort of open-world game. Like many others, it’s a combination of gunplay and stealth, but it finds just the right balance to make both sides work in concert. Especially in the early parts of the game, when you have fewer resources at your disposal, a guns blazing approach doesn’t work well, but nor does the stealth aspect feel trite. You have plenty of options for how you approach any given situation, and the best course is often a combination of stealth and open gunplay: quietly take out a few loners, get into a firefight with a few others to cause some commotion, and then use the ensuing chaos to break away and pick off enemies while they’re trying to find you.

Or, y’know, you could attack a camp at night, shoot a gas canister inside the camp, and then watch as a horde of zombies does your job for you.

Which brings me to one of the other things that makes Days Gone‘s open world so satisfying: the role of zombies. The bulk of the game takes place some two years on from the outbreak, when those who’ve survived this long have more or less learnt how to deal with the zombies. They’re still terrifying, but they’re a part of the more a part of the environment than anything else. It’s not often that you’ll set out specifically to hunt them—they’re more like pests that show up at inconvenient times while you’re trying to do something else.

At the same time, they can be deadly in large numbers, so you have to constantly be aware of your surroundings and what you’re doing, lest you pull a horde down on yourself. They’re particularly attracted to loud noises, which fundamentally changes the role of guns—a loud gunshot will often bring unwanted visitors to your location. Zombies also give far more weight to the day/night cycle than your typical game. They’re apparently stronger at night—though I didn’t really notice much difference—but also far more plentiful, making even just riding from one place to another a risky endeavour.

Zombies aren’t the only threat; you’ll also have to deal with surprise attacks from raiders and the like. You’ll be riding along, and suddenly see the telltale red laser from a distant sniper; if you can’t shake line of sight in the next second or two, you’ll take a bullet, get thrown off your bike, and quickly descended upon by machete-wielding assailants. It’s annoying, but I wouldn’t have it any other way—Days Gone‘s world is one where there’s always the possibility of danger around the next bend, and that removes a lot of the tedium that often comes with travelling across a typical open-world game.

That makes Days Gone a game that is, for the most part, a lot of fun to play. But in something as heavily story-driven as this, “fun open world” isn’t enough—it needed more than the same old, tired cliches we’ve seen time and again in post-apocalyptic fiction. For a moment, Days Gone seemed like it might be the game that finally treads new ground, but instead of committing fully to those ideas, a weak third act drags it through every cliche imaginable. It could have been so much more, but in the end, Days Gone is just another generic zombie story.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.