Disclaimer: This is not a review, as I have not completed the game yet. It’s a series of impressions and sales predictions. Minor spoilers follow.
I went into Days Gone, the latest in post-apocalyptic PlayStation 4 exclusives, mostly curious. Minimal expectations, hoping to be surprised. I’ve felt this way since Sony revealed it back during 2016, when it was featured prominently during its E3 stage show.
Turns out that the open world biker game did in fact surprise me. Just, not in a good way.
Made by Sony’s Bend Studio out of Bend, Oregon, a team known for the Syphon Filter series and handheld Uncharted titles, Days Gone checks all the boxes for features in a standard “AAA open world” game, though fails to deliver anything extraordinary with any one of them.
The third-person game opens on the semi-ridiculous premise that the protagonist, Deacon Saint John, leaves his wounded wife Sarah to fly away to a government camp while a mysterious outbreak occurs around him, to stay behind with his best bro Boozer. I appreciate the “no man left behind” mentality, though couldn’t help feel both contempt and indifference towards Deacon after seeing him abandon his helpless lover. A main character doesn’t have to be likeable (see: Joel from The Last of Us, Nico Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV), though I should at least give a damn about him.
Fast forward a couple years, the Pacific Northwest setting is overrun by infected (I refuse to call them Freakers and I’m mad that I just did), scumbags, settlers, wildlife and “drifters” like Deacon, who considers himself honorable because of an ambiguous code which I gather is mostly that he doesn’t kill women. Unless he has to, of course.
What follows is a classic example of bloated modern game design, flooding the player with crafting, skills and systems to satisfy the endorphin rush of seeing an experience bar increase or watching numbers go up.
Within the first half hour, I was forced to smash infected children (who Deacon specifically said would mind their own business if I left them alone), because they were in my way to an objective. The game said I could avoid them then put them right in my path, overwhelming me with enemies. In fact, main missions so far have been overly restrictive to the point of “Leaving Area” signals alerting you incessantly if you stray too far.
Movement is rigid, which means Deacon is occasionally difficult to control, especially when enemies are off-screen and the camera can’t quite catch up to controller inputs.
Driving the bike is mostly competent, though the gas mileage is unforgiving early on. Who wants to stop constantly in a video game to fill up their virtual gas tank, when we do that enough as it is in real life?
Thing is, I’d be mostly forgiving of flaws if the actual content was fun. Turns out, there’s not much to it outside of the campaign. See that infected nest? Throw a molotov cocktail into it. See that outpost? Murder everyone. See that government checkpoint? Cut down the speakers, fill the generator with gas and open its doors. Then do it again. And again. Until you find another one, where you can do it all over again.
Then there’s the camp system. One of the early camps is run by a freedom fighting gun nut, whose worst offense is that he feeds obnoxious radio blasts into your ear. Which you can thankfully skip.
It’s the other camp that bothers me. It’s run by effectively a slaver operating a “labor camp.” You’d think Deacon would want to capture this camp and free its prisoners, based on his apparent moral compass, but I don’t think the game allows for that decision. You can, however, gain access to new guns when you help its leader by doing jobs or sending random survivors to work in the digging fields. And from what I can tell, there’s no consequence of choosing to work with one group over another. So morality be damned, in the name of sweet guns and bike upgrades!
I haven’t even mentioned the technical issues I’ve faced or heard from impressions online. From enemies disappearing, characters and the bike getting stuck on geometry or falling through the world, slow loading times and severe audio glitches, it’s not deal-breaking though can be annoying when considering the game’s other flaws. (Fingers crossed for more patches, since the game was already updated multiple times in classic day-one tradition.)
I’d be remiss to mention that there are certain aspects I’m enjoying, or at least aren’t interfering with my progress. It isn’t all negative, I want to make this absolutely clear.
It’s mostly stunning when it comes to visuals and art design. The setting is picturesque, and the attention to detail in parts of the world is exceptional. The artists and animators at Bend did a heck of a job. Tire treads kick up mud with a slogging sound. Light shines through tree branches before glinting off water. A foreboding sky reveals infinite stars as dusk approaches. For a dreary game, it can be remarkably majestic.
The infected horde tech is impressive, showing dozens upon dozens of distinct enemy bodies all at once that flow together like rainwater down a drainpipe. Bike customization is cool, though I wish there were more stimulating visual options. There’s a good variety of weaponry, throwables and traps for your forays into the wilderness, and shooting is competent enough. Crossbow bolts that cause enemies to turn on one another is an especially fun toy.
Survival elements aren’t overly difficult or constrictive, though it involves searching. A lot of searching. And holding down the search button. Which can break up the pacing of the game, especially when running low on materials. This was one of the main critiques of Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s just as bad here.
Excitingly, I finally hit a narrative beat that opened up a level of intrigue. Enough so that I will be playing more to see where it goes and if the game can change my mind at all.
Here’s the thing. I’m fine being an outlier when it comes to my tastes or experiences. This time, I’m far from the only one who feels this way. Consensus on review aggregator OpenCritic is sitting at “Fair,” with less than half of the 90 critics recommending it.
One particular piece that expresses my overall hesitation is authored by Patrick Klepek at Waypoint. He writes:
Days Gone refuses to settle on what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Rather than settling on a direction, it proceeds in all directions, hoping a more-is-better philosophy will prove blinding. This is true of both the clumsy mechanics, which are ever present and impossible to ignore, and its story, following the boring moral compass of biker Deacon St. John, who roams the world in the years after an event turned the whole world to shit, claiming to operate by a “code” but refusing to allow said code to operationally manifest into action.
Mine and Patrick’s thoughts aside, where does this leave us in terms of commercial potential?
I’ve joked about it in the past, and said that I started tepid on its sales prospects. The irony is that, despite my impressions and the average critical assessments, I now actually think it will sell relatively well. Better than many games exclusive to the platform, if not becoming one of the three fastest-selling to date.
This distinction currently belongs to 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War, which sold 3.3 million and 3.1 million units respectively during their first three days on market. These are excellent figures, though I wrote last year that I expected a licensed property like Spidey to perform that way.
Next up, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End moved 2.7 million units in a single week during 2016. Ever so slightly behind that was 2017’s Horizon: Zero Dawn at 2.6 million copies, though it was across two weeks.
Right about here is where I expect Days Gone to settle at launch. Between 2.5 and 3 million units, within say the next two weeks. Which means it will beat out games like Killzone Shadow Fall (2013), Bloodborne (2015), Detroit: Become Human (2017) and Nioh (2017), which all saw a million units near launch except for Killzone, which hit 2.1 million within a couple months on sale. (Detroit and Nioh are no longer platform exclusive, though were near launch.)
Sony has intensified its marketing push lately, not just in retail but also online and traditional media. Big networks like ESPN have been steadily running promos. Plus if there’s one thing that people like these days, it’s post apocalypses and zombies. Early rumblings are positive in terms of shipments from Sony, according to my bud Benji. And I expect demand especially from casual buyers will be enough to purchase most of those inventories going to retailers.
Similarly, I predict it will be the best-selling game of April in the United States, when NPD Group reports sales results next month.
After this mostly successful launch, how will it sell longer term? I can see it maybe settling right at the bottom of 2019’s Top 10 sellers, though as an exclusive it’s already at a disadvantage compared with multi-platform titles. The more titles hit release dates in this year, the tougher it gets. Lifetime units sales of 7-8 million is feasible, especially as the console’s user base approaches 100 million.
It’s always a question if single-player games can maintain strong momentum over time. At least out of the gate, I think Days Gone is more likely to.. accelerate to success than not.
All this said, should you play it? (I know many of you will, just look at my sales prediction.) Well, depends on what you like. The ultimate problem with Days Gone is that it tries to do so many things, then loses any semblance of focus. Maybe it suffered from feature creep, trying to do much more than originally intended. Or it bolted on too much close to launch. Perhaps a lack of decisive leadership during its earlier stages. What’s clear is there are other games that do these things, and do them very well, that I’d rather play.
Do you like a massive, beautiful world to explore? Play Red Dead Redemption 2.
Want stealth action and engaging character arcs? Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Like storming enemy encampments and taking over areas? Pick a Far Cry.
Zombies and crafting with a dynamic night-and-day cycle? Dying Light.
A sprawling world with expertly-written side quests? The Witcher 3.
Ranged combat encounters with unique enemies? Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Cinematic narrative in a post-apocalypse: The Last of Us. (Seriously if you haven’t played it, you should be doing so instead of reading this.)
Technical hiccups, repetitive side content, stiff movement, serviceable shooting, laughable enemy AI plus lots and lots of rifling through cars or houses to find crafting materials? Which are used to get caught in a tailspin of monotonous gameplay loops which serve only to make experience bars fill up, all the while questioning why you should empathize with its characters?
Shoot. Then I’d still probably play something else.
Sources: Sony Interactive Entertainment. Internet Games Database. Bend Studio. Quantic Dream. Insomniac Games. Team Ninja. From Software. Waypoint. Open Critic. Benji-Sales.