Survival games revolve around refilling meters. Hunger meters, thirst meters, sleep meters, oxygen meters. That’s a big part of why they’re niche games: Most players get tired of keeping the meters filled, and they move on. Days Gone, recently released by Bend Studios, succeeds because it creates that feeling of a struggle for survival without inflicting un-fun, boring meters on the player.
You play as the improbably named Deacon St. John, an outlaw biker scraping by in central Oregon two years after civilization collapsed in a worldwide zombie apocalypse. Most survivors live in fortified camps, relying on people such as Deacon to go out into the wilderness and bring back food and supplies. In a true survival game, that would be enough: Find stuff so you can look for more stuff. Fill the meters.
Since this isn’t a true survival game and has to find other ways to entertain, Deacon instead sets off on a meaty set of story missions involving his lost wife, black helicopters, a zombie-worshipping cult, the source of the plague, and a number of possibly unhinged camp leaders. Along the way, a variety of human, zombie, and animal foes will meet a satisfyingly gory end.
Days Gone includes a variety pack of things from other open-world games. You’ll clear camps. You’ll highlight things with “survival vision.” You’ll craft throwable bombs directly in the weapon wheel. You’ll be sent to Point A only so you can walk or ride to Point B while listening to story dialogue. A lot of tried-and-true things happen.
Fortunately, Bend was able to come up with enough new to balance out the old. They chose to make rural Oregon a co-star of the game, and it works spectacularly right down to the mud puddles. You can be riding along on dry ground and encounter light snowfall that begins to stick and cover the terrain dynamically, without having to visit a designated snow area of the map. It makes the road slick. You leave footprints in it, and it gets stuck in your tire tread. Then the sun can come out and melt it and turn the world back to the way it was. It’s impressive.
Bend also chose to make post-apocalyptic Oregon quite a bit more dangerous than a conventional AAA open-world game. Hordes of zombies shelter in lava caves or wander the map, and it’ll be hours before you get the tools to wipe out a horde through brute force. They’re drawn to noise, move almost as fast as you, and getting overwhelmed is always fatal. And they can contain hundreds of zombies running at you in a disgusting river of grayish bodies.
Your lifeline in all this is Deacon’s precious motorcycle, which you can upgrade and customize extensively. Not only can it outrun most enemies, it’s a mobile savepoint, ammo refill station, and is needed to fast-travel. Most open-world games have a way to call vehicles to you; not so much here. You can walk back to a camp and pay someone there to retrieve your bike; other than that, it’s up to you to keep it running, keep it fueled, and get back to where you parked. It really does feel like you and your bike against the world.
The survival elements are calibrated to make you feel pressure without becoming Meter Management Simulator 2019. Your health never regenerates on its own, so you’ll want first aid supplies regularly. When your ax snaps and you’re forced to fight with just your knife, you’re going to want a new melee weapon right away.
But the need to find those things never overwhelms the other aspects of the game. You probably should sleep, since night is more dangerous, but you’re not forced to. You probably should hunt, because camps will pay you for the meat, but you’re not forced to.
Since the two most important things you do in Days Gone are shooting guns and riding your motorcycle, it’s a real shame both are marred by technical problems. The aiming is shockingly bad, almost reminiscent of console shooters from 20 years ago. The AI of the human enemies sometimes works well, but other times seems to somehow break down and just run around ineffectually or forget you’re attacking. In addition, as you upgrade your bike’s top speed, Days Gone soon struggles to load the world fast enough, sometimes turning the game into a slideshow.
Judging by the many things that work properly, Bend may well have the technical know-how to eventually patch all of this. But until then, these problems affect the central activities and are hard to ignore.
In current open-world adventure games, there’s a lot of convergent evolution. Things become standard because they work. A lot of the success or failure of a game like this hinges on whether it brings its own new ingredients to spice up the classic ones, and that’s a bar Days Gone easily clears.