Days Gone is a moody, motor oil-stained take on the zombie formula

Days Gone delivers a little bear's porridge of zombie experiences. Not too silly, not too grim, a just-right mix of open-world exploration and complicated characters. Its premise has appealed to me ever since Days Gone first flashed its ankles at E3 2016, so even though it's been pushed back to 2019, it feels good to get my hands on the throttle of the post-apocalyptic biker tale. 

Maybe it's just because I grew up crushing on teen stars who rocked the whole 'leather jacket and haunted soul' thing, but I like hero Deacon St John and the tattered world he lives in. He's quite the chatterbox when you're running around the world, so hopefully Sony's Bend studio has the voice actor - Being Human star Sam Witwer - working overtime to make sure it doesn't get repetitive. I'm pretty sure the roguish but seemingly honorable loner will have a tragic backstory to uncover, and that's fine with me. 

The good news for a game about a misanthropic biker is that the bike handles just the way you want it to: fast and agile, even when you give up on the dirt tracks and take it off-road to plow straight through a pack of wolves. As any zombie movie will tell you, transportation is an incredibly powerful tool to have at your disposal in a ruined world, and Days Gone highlights its value with a fat menu of motorcycle upgrades and the constant threat of catastrophic damage or fuel droughts. Yes, you can walk around the world - and until you get a good muffler, you'll need to now and again to avoid alerting enemies to your location - but the bike gives you speed so you can outrun threats, and power so you can take a few Freakers out while you're on the road. I like the extra edge it gives to the survival challenge, but if you're one of those people who cries about degrading weapons in games, you might want to stock up on the Kleenex now.

My slice of the game happens about an hour into the action, starting at Copelands Camp, one of the settlements dotted throughout the open world. I eventually find a mechanic, where I can upgrade different parts of my bike, and paint it a summery shade of egg yolk yellow. There’s a kitchen, where I can sell any meat I got from hunting, and a spot for turning in Freakers' ears to collect bounties. According to Bend, later you can upgrade the camps. This one certainly could've done with some cute pot plants, maybe a tiki bar. 

I choose a straightforward mission to start with, heading to an abandoned medical outpost to look for bandages for my buddy Boozer. Things never work out as simply as you hope though, especially in enemy-infested woodland, and the place is electronically locked up. I find some fuel, easy as pie, but starting up the generator also turns on some nearby speakers, and suddenly the Freakers invade. Coming across the odd isolated shambler in the woods, I'd found them pretty easy to deal with - but en masse they’re dangerous, no longer cannon fodder but a wave of arms and teeth. I smash up a baseball bat and a pipe, and burn through my ammo before resorting to slashing at them with my survival knife. Eventually I have to flee, heal, and then return to pick off as many as possible before I can safely find a way into the outpost. Luckily, inside I find healing supplies, a weapons locker, and something called Nero Tech that lets me permanently upgrade either my health, stamina, or focus. Just what I need before doing some more zombie stabbing. 

It's important to note (for the pedants) that the term 'zombies' is never used in the game: they're Freakers, but they look gross, probably smell like a broken-down meat freezer, and want to eat anything with a pulse, so you can probably say they're at least zombie adjacent. I also run into (literally, smushed em') a pack of wolves in the woods, and we know that there's at least one Freaker bear in the world, as well as bandits, so the world manages to feel dangerous despite the lush, outdoorsy setting. 

The landscapes of Days Gone are one of its most appealing features: dark trees sheltering God-knows-what, dirt tracks patrolled by wolves, stumbling across a mass grave festering in a rainy clearing. Maybe it was a reaction to playing under the blue skies of Assassin's Creed Origins and Far Cry 5 recently, but the dour environments definitely help set a tone. An ever so slightly depressing tone. As this is an open-world game, it's required - by law - to have towers, and I eventually climb one to deal with a radio reception issue for Copeland. At least Deacon has a pair of binoculars so I could do some sightseeing while I was up there. 

On my first visit to post-apocalyptic Oregon I only got to explore for 40 minutes - and the game is still months and months away from being finished, but what I saw showed a lot of promise. As the genre's name suggests, what's most important for an open-world game is the world-building at its core. Days Gone has one that feels familiar, sure, but it's also teeming with stories to uncover. My only complaint right now is that I have to wait until 2019 to get on my bike. 

Days Gone is due on PS4 in 2019. Want to know what's good now? Here are the best PS4 games to play in 2018.