There are several moments in Days Gone's post apocalypse where a flood of zombies poor through a doorway. It’s a like a liquid tumble of bodies that’s almost impossible to process. First time I saw it I knew I’d just be dead if it was real. No fight. Just frozen to the spot in a ‘well, shit’ moment of reflection before death by a thousand teeth.
Deacon, the game’s biker hero, isn’t me though. He fights, spraying bullets into the crowd so that the bodies slow the horde, while leaving obstructions in his wake as he runs - collapsing piled up wood in the lumber yard location, dropping doors or throwing petrol bombs to create fire barriers. While the zombie apocalypse might feel like familiar idea, here it’s never been this fast or reactionary in a game before.
You’re not just blasting creatures and running. The gameplay is as much about reading the routes and spotting opportunities in a dynamic ongoing chase. In my demo developer Sony Bend took a different route to what was shown in the Sony demo, running though piles of lumber and ending up in a small building. Here the game showed off a different pace with one-on-one encounters with the few Freakers, to give them their proper name, that got inside.
These smaller clashes are brutal, with Deacon using his knife to stab eyes, an axe to cleave heads off at the jaw, while using environmental kills like slamming a face into waiting circular saw. The visual gloss, post apocalyptic world and smoothly scripted animations that seamlessly blend the combat really made me think of The Last of Us, with things like crafting, and the survivalist atmosphere also contributing to that.
However, senior artist Brain Pape is quick to dispel that comparison. “I think this is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s more over the top, its more extreme,” he explains. “The sheer number [of enemies] we have shows that. In The Last of Us you’d come across one or two at a time and make your way between them. This is more of a run and gun style, over the top extreme action”.
Another differentiation is that this is a completely open world. While the mission Bend has revealed might look like a beautifully scripted action set piece, it’s actually just a mission in a world that you can approach however you want. Stealth is an option for example, using melee weapons or silencers to dispatch enemies without calling in the horde.
“You can go anywhere,” says Pape. “There’ll be waypoint on the map you can set, you can set your own waypoints, you can fast travel for some of the areas because it is such an expansive map”. And, while the demo showed a forrest location Pape says the north west American setting has been chosen specifically for the extreme environments it can provide. “You’ve for the mountains, snow, hail, rain wind, high dessert. City wise you’ll encounter abandoned suburbs, towns, it’s not just going to be in the woods”.
You can go where you want, with the team highlighting the idea that you can react to the things you see around you. “There’s story driven elements and there’s off missions,” points out Pape. “You’re going to interact with people, there’s going to be humans that take part in our story. There’s human condition: how desperate people can do desperate things”.
So there’s an open world, things to find and people to worry about but the Freakers are also a living part of this space. They’re not zombies in the traditional sense but appear to be diseased humans; feral and cannibalistic. Because they’re not undead they’re more like animals explains senior animator Emmanuel Roth. “They are a living type, they have some needs and behave differently depending on the weather, the location." There are different types as well, like the Newt, an adolescent form of Freaker that attacks and behaves differently, “Every creature is different” emphasises Roth.
On top of the open world and Freaker ecology there’s also freedom to create gear and supplies, to further change the way you approach things. “There’s the crafting element where you find things, gain recipes, you can put different weapons together to deal with them” say Pape. That was something shown in the demo with Deacon using an oil filter to create a silencer.
It makes Days Gone an extremely exciting prospect: a super pretty apocalypse with all the visual flash of The Last of Us or Uncharted 4, and the open world freedom of something like The Witcher. Even if you're not a zombie fan it's hard to ignore the drama and pace of escaping a horde of thousands (interestingly Bend aren't allowed to discuss numbers, only saying there will be a range of sizes). It might be the end of the world again but it's not looked this good for ages.