’Days Gone’ will need a stellar story to save its stale gameplay

I’ve never been less enthused to hunt the undead

Bend Studios

Me, I love beating the un-living daylights out of zombies. Whether it's the ecchi cartoonishness of Lollipop Chainsaw, the clever weapons crafting of Dead Rising, or the heart-pounding intensity of Left 4 Dead, if it's an unholy abomination risen from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living, I'm more than happy to de-brain it for you. So yeah, I've been more than a little excited to get my hands on Days Gone, the post-apocalyptic open-world zombie survival game from developer Bend Studios since it first debuted at E3 in 2016. That is, until I actually got my hands on it.

This game is Far Cry but with zombies. It's the same mission-driven narrative that studios have been leveraging since the release of Vice City and, quite honestly, I'm getting rather over it.

You play as Deacon St. John, a biker living in the American Northwest with a name that the Sons of Anarchy writers would have rejected for being too on the nose. As the survivor of a pandemic that has transformed a large portion of the US population into undead killing machines, St. John must undertake a number of Sisyphean tasks to not only survive but also slowly unravel the mysteries of the outbreak. You know, just like Horizon Zero Dawn.

Also similar to HZD is the game's scrap collection mechanic wherein you collect detritus from the environment, using it to repair or upgrade your weapons and motorcycle. The motorcycle is an interesting choice for a primary vehicle. While it proved useful for navigating narrow tracks in the Oregon wilderness and roads clogged with disabled vehicles, it is far less than adequate when attempting to splatter zombies while on the move. There's the whole lack of doors thing, sure, but during my demo I found the bike to be rather delicate and in need of regular repair. Combined with a limited fuel range, you can be sure you'll be continually scrounging for gas and spare parts as you play. Which is always fun and not an unnecessary hassle at all.

The game progression is really straightforward. You talk to various characters to unlock missions, you complete said missions for monetary and XP rewards, you use that money and experience to unlock new skills, upgrade stats, get bigger and badder weapons. Rinse and repeat.

During my demo I played through a pair of missions: One to raid a mobile hospital for supplies to revive an ailing friend, the other to clear out a nest of human saboteurs who kept fiddling with the region's radio towers. Since the action takes place only an hour into the storyline, these missions were pretty easy.

In the first one, I simply had to find a can of gas to restart the hospital's generator and gain access to loot the supplies. Thankfully quest items in the game are generally where you'd expect to find them in real life. The gas can, for example, can be found at a nearby gas station or on the back of abandoned tow trucks. This mission also served as an introduction to the game's melee combat system, which in my case involved beating a trio of shamblers (zombies) to re-death with a broken table leg. Not going to lie, it was extremely cathartic.

The assault mission was a bit more challenging since my opponents A) were fully functional humans B) outnumbered me 7 to 1 and C) were armed with assault rifles. I'm going to assume you could sneak through, quietly assassinating the saboteurs to thin their ranks as you go. My tactic of running full speed through the camp while wildly firing a handgun at them proved less than effective.

I did notice a troubling issue with the frame rate while playing, specifically that it would jitter and freeze if too many things were happening on-screen. It's irritating when I'm just panning the camera around as I run through a field, but it's infuriating when I'm trying to pry a zombie off my shoulder or line up a shot on a moving target. It detracts from what is otherwise a really visually appealing game. Granted, the game is still in development and isn't scheduled to be released until 2019 so there's still plenty of time to work out the performance issues, but all those scenic vistas and clever character details are useless if they overload the system and impede gameplay.

The well-tread gameplay mechanics and story progression structure might not innovate, but the game was still pretty enjoyable. I really dug that the undead are attracted to noise, requiring a degree of stealth when moving near them -- something that is surprisingly difficult to maintain when you're blasting through the woods on a flippin' Harley and starting up electric generators that rattle like jet turbines.

However, that alone isn't enough to make Days Gone stand out from the increasingly crowded zombie survival genre. It needs an emotional hook, something that will get players to empathize with the characters. Dead Rising had its gallows humor, for example, The Last of Us tugged at our heart strings, and Lollipop Chainsaw combined joyous, gratuitous violence with heavy doses of pop culture references.

Don't get me wrong, Days Gone looks to be a perfectly entertaining open-world adventure game. It just didn't immediately capture my imagination like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Dead Rising or God of War did. That's not to say that I won't pick it up when it comes out because, again, killing zombies is kinda my jam -- just that it'd better have one heck of a compelling storyline to help carry the otherwise unremarkable gameplay.

All images: Bend Studios