To say expectations were high for Bend Studio’s debut game is one of the greatest understatements in gaming. The open-world zombie apocalypse PS4 exclusive had gamers salivating four years ago after an incredible E3 demo showed hordes of undead swarming over an old sawmill like ants over a lump of sugar. That video has to date been viewed 13 million times on YouTube.
And then the game came out. Marred by framerate issues at launch and a story that wasn’t the undead lovechild of Red Dead Redemption and The Last of Us, the reviewers were, at least in my humble opinion, too quick to give it a 7/10 and move on. There were also those who chose to make political hay out of the game’s protagonist, Deacon St. John, and call out the game for being “uncritical” of him, whatever that means.
- Looks and runs great on PC
- Still a fun open world game with lots to do
- Great sound, acting, and character design
- Enemy AI still dumb
- Story isn't everything it could be
- Zombies all look like clones
Day’s Gone is getting a second chance at the spotlight and after two years since its console release the game may find better reception with actual players than the over-intellectualized gatekeepers of the mainstream gaming press. When appreciated for what it is, and not obsessing over one or two spots it may have missed the mark, Day’s Gone is more than worth your time.
If you’re completely unfamiliar here’s a quick rundown on the plot. A strange virus begins mutating humans into “freakers” and the zombie apocalypse ensues. You play as Deacon St. John, a war veteran, biker, and all-around outcast, trying to survive. Separated from your wife at the beginning of the story we pick up with Deacon two years into the end of the world. He lives out his days as a bounty hunter, walking a morally gray line between self-interest and justice.
He also lives not knowing his wife’s fate and the loss of her is a grief Deacon has to untangle over the course of the game’s 20 or so hours of story. I won’t give anything away but will say what we experience riding the broken road with him isn’t something so profound or so powerful to shape the next generation of games, but it is a story humble enough to recognize its limits and work its damndest to tell an honest tale.
I surprised myself getting back into the game, expecting to play for an hour or two to get a feel for it and sum up the difference between the PC version and it’s PS4 predecessor. But time seemed to melt away as I rode through abandoned towns, deserted camp sites, and through hordes of bloodthirsty mutants.
Playing the game again with a hazy recollection of just how good it looked on PS4 was revelatory when I opened up all the graphical settings. This world is gorgeous. Full stop. The way shafts of light shine through the trees, the texture of rocks on the shore of a lake, and the rising smoke from a burned-out freaker nest, they’re all captured in absolutely stunning detail. It truly is something to behold when you play this game on a beefy PC. The photo mode is also fantastic.
To take full advantage if you have a powerful PC, learn how to use reshade. It will change the way you enjoy games. Essentially it mods all your pc games to accept overlays and effects not unlike video or photo editing software. I’ve applied the Dawn of the Dead reshade to my game and it makes a jaw-dropping impact. This tutorial on reshade will be handy to get you started.
Sound design is likewise top notch as the score, ambient sound, and effects are pure pleasure for your ears. Rain pattering on a tin roof, the roar of your bike engine, the howl of a freaker charging at you in a frenzy, it all weaves into one beautiful tapestry of audio. Paired with the visuals there’s few games that can compare; it’s that much of a feast for the senses.
At its core Day’s Gone is both a shooting and a melee combat game. You’ll put the few bullets you come across to good use against freakers and rely on axes, bats, and 2X4s when they get too close for comfort. The gunplay feels tight yet challenging as you’ll need perfect timing to nail headshots on charging freakers or roll out of the way to counter with a melee strike.
There are a decent number of throwables you can use, particularly molotov cocktails, to thin the herd of freaks out to make you into lunch. When all else fails use your trusty motorcycle to turn zombies into street-pizza or just bug out and call it even. The encounters with four or five freaks feels tense but manageable while taking on hordes makes for truly nerve-wracking play.
Whether it’s a hail of bullets or turning freaks into human torches, there’s no lack of creativity when it comes to how you deal with groups of enemies big and small. My personal favorite method for dealing with hordes is to lay a string of proximity mines and then lure the freaks with the motorcycle into a death march. Mopping up the stragglers with a machine gun is a pleasure all too rare in gaming.
There’s also plenty to keep you busy beyond combat. You’ll explore, scavenge, burn out freaker nests (particularly satisfying), take out marauder camps, do missions for settlements, and pick over the remains of abandoned outposts. You’ll hone your skills along the way with a solid skill tree, better weapons, and motorcycle upgrades.
For everything Day’s Gone nails 100 percent there are areas that still haven’t been improved with the PC port, however. Enemy AI is still dumb as a bag of rocks and only really pose a threat in groups. Human enemies will clearly have you in their line of sight and not react at all. I guess the lack of nutrition is affecting the eyesight of those humans not eaten by the freaks.
Human foes don’t respond so well to sound, either. I was able to take out an entire raider camp and finish off the last enemy, a sniper, who was still scanning the horizon even as I shot my way through his friends not more than 20 feet behind him. “I think I heard something,” he said as I crept up behind him, knife drawn. It’s stuff like this that spoils immersion and robs players of a better experience.
The design of the freaks was a big drawback for me playing on PS4. The character models all looked like clones down to identical torn pants and red flannel. This is improved somewhat with enhanced detail. Being able to see the texture and crags of a freaker’s skin as it runs straight at you improves the experience somewhat. But still I can’t help but feel a lack of a certain spark when it comes to their look.
The Last of Us served up a decent pallet of living horrors with a good sense of how the cordyceps fungus contorts its victims into more and more grotesque shapes. The only variety in Day’s Gone’s freakers is “normal sized bald person in torn clothing” to “really big bald person in torn clothing”. I suspect this was to keep the framerate running smoothly on PS4 but some improved character models would have gone a long way to making Day’s Gone a better game. You have a virus that turns people into monsters and the most creative you get with it is they all look like mudmen?
I’ve still got a lot of Day’s Gone left to play but I can’t help but feel I’ll get much more out of this playthrough. There aren’t the technical issues to nitpick over, the comparison to other games’ stories, or perception clouded by hype to distract me from what’s right in front of me: a very solid, very enjoyable open world zombie game.
Sony recently turned down the pitch for Day’s Gone 2 which rumor has it would have co-op. There’s been a lot of stories in the media from Bend Studio staff, even Deacon’s voice actor, chiming in on salvaging a potential sequel. “I’d say buy the game on PC. Nothing talks more than sales!” said Sam Witwer, the voice of Deacon, in a Reddit AMA.
I think we should take him up on that because the sheer raw talent of Bend Studio has earned them, in my view, the opportunity to expand on their franchise. Day’s Gone might not be perfect but I believe given the benefit of experience there are nothing but brighter days ahead for the studio if we support them.
Alexander Eriksen | Gamepressure.com