I've always been a sucker for a bad boy, and with its moody atmosphere, romantic melancholy, and tattoos, it was love at first sight with Days Gone. Since those early demos with the horde - a mass of swarming nightmares called freakers - the game has improved with every hands-on I've gotten. And with just weeks left until this PlayStation 4 exclusive is due to be released, it's shaping up to be a must play.
Here's the TLDR on the story: you're Deacon St. John, an outlaw biker with a big heart. All you have in the world is your beloved bike, your best friend Boozer, and some tragic memories concerning your wife, Sarah, last seen being helicoptered away from a ruined city after the freakers brought down civilization. Your job is to survive - by hunting, doing favors for other survivors, taking out every freaker you see - and almost certainly getting pulled into situations where you discover more about the virus and the government agency - NERO - that seems to be hanging around in a sinister fashion.
The grass is greener
The first thing that gets you as you're let loose as Deacon is the world itself: a living, shuddering ecosystem of trees and weather and wildlife. It's a post-apocalypse you actually want to spend some time in, not one of dust and deserts or ruined buildings, but one that's green and wet and full of surprises. I mean, sure, some of those surprises are caves full of sleeping freakers, or wolves sent mad by a virus, but you can't have everything. You'll be exploring this world on your bike - something that turns out to be a blessing and a curse - because for every mile you race across, for every cougar you escape, there'll be a time when you're out of fuel, or you've left your bike in the wrong place, or you've - um - driven your bike into a lake.
The second thing that will hit you - maybe literally - is that everything in the motherloving world that isn't a tree wants you dead. There are the freakers, fast moving flesh munchers who swarm. There are animals, from cougars to infected bears called rager bears and infected wolves called runners, that can keep pace with your bike. Then there are the people. A rival biker gang called the Marauders, crazy cultists called Rippers, and the shady NERO folk. Even if you wander off to gather some herbs on a quiet ride between missions, you'll come back to your bike to find someone messing with it. If I didn't have social anxiety before I started playing Days Gone, I sure as shit had it afterwards.
Freak like me
The freakers are a genuinely unnerving foe to deal with. I've just come off the back of some zombie slaying and Mr. X avoiding in the Resident Evil 2 Remake, and while it got in some jump scares, the zombies were mainly just annoying. Freakers are worrisome in small pockets, and outright adrenaline inducing when coming at you as a horde. You can sneak up and take out a few lone freakers with your knife - collecting their ears for bounties that can be traded in for trust and resources at survivor camps - but make a wrong move or come around a corner onto a group, and you're soon fighting for your life. To keep the relationship spicy, there are different varieties too, like noisy screamers and swole breakers, or the child-sized newts that will only attack if you're hurt. You've probably seen the videos where you can use the environment to try and take out as many freakers as possible, and it's as satisfying as it looks.
Release date: April 26
Genre: Action adventure
Developer: Bend Studios
I've had a chance to explore before, and a chance to take on the horde, but this time around I got to follow a few of the storylines that are threaded through the trees and survivor camps. One had me visiting an abandoned NERO camp in memory of Sarah, another had me finding a stash for a camp leader, and the most intriguing had me tracking and rescuing a young girl named Lisa who had managed to survive alone after her parents disappeared. In an open world, it can be easy to lose track of stories, or go too far the other way and crack the immersion with a checklist of objectives down one side of the screen, but Days Gone is clever about it, aping Netflix's menus in a smart way.
This apocalypse is no joke
One more thing my dark, withered heart appreciated was that Bend Studio has resisted the temptation to give into the temptation to put its tongue in its cheek. This isn't a cartoonish, over-the-top type of horror survival game. This feels like it's aiming for more of an HBO prime time mood, with Sam Witwer delivering an authentic performance that elevates Deacon beyond the action hero everyman, and a storyline that promises plenty of twists and turns. Of course, I've only just been able to peel back the first few layers of the onion that is Days Gone's story, but they've got me hooked, and that's not always true after a three-hour hands-on.
Usually you have to choose great open-world mechanics, satisfying story, or decent combat, but it feels like Bend Studio is taking strides to give us a bit of all three, and throw some pretty trees on top. I'll have to wait to play the full game to find out if loving this bad boy will pay off, but there's lots to like about Days Gone so far, and anyone craving an emotional apocalypse while they wait for The Last of Us 2 should absolutely get involved.
You can read more about the world of Days Gone in our interview with creative director and writer John Garvin here. Days Gone will be released on PS4 on April 26.