Learning to control an unhappy crowd in post-apocalyptic Oregon
Riding a motorbike through nests of zombies while lighting them up with Molotov cocktails never gets old.
Until a couple of years ago, the zombie genre was saturated to near-pandemic levels. But things have slowed to a shamble lately, sadly earmarked by the closure this month of the studios behind the Dead Rising and Walking Dead series. Has the zombie bubble finally burst like a crumbling skull? Sony’s open-world zombie (okay, ‘Freaker’) adventure Days Gone should have a few things to say about that, though we’re still not sure what that is. In fairness, playing a couple of separate sequences probably isn’t the best way to get a feel for an open-world game. Our first task was to retrieve some bits and bobs for our motorbike – the main means of transport around the Oregon wilderness where the game takes place. We take control of battered-leather biker Deacon St John, who rocks up with a fellow tattered-denim type to some roadside services in search of supplies.
Whipping out our binoculars, we spy some creatures in the mid-distance. Getting closer, we discover from their appearance and shrieks that they used to be children, driven cannibalistic by whatever affliction’s taken hold of this world. These so-called ‘Newts’ are territorial, so won’t attack unless they feel threatened. “Maybe we should leave them alone,” we contemplate. They are sort-of kids after all, the killing of whom remains pretty much the last unbroken taboo of games. But we need to test out the combat mechanics on something, and these are as close as we’re going to get to training dummies, so we dive in.
You can approach combat via stealth, melee attacks, and shooting, piecing together things you find lying around to improve your weapons (we went with the classic ‘nails-in-a-bat’ routine). There’s an overpowered x-ray vision which lets you see the outlines of Freakers through walls, and a radial menu system for switching up and modding weapons. Batting zombie kids to death feels fine, if you care to envision such a thing, though the animations leave a bit to be desired and the gore is virtually non-existent for a game in this splattery genre. It’s a little weightless for an ostensibly gritty game.
Working our way through the abandoned buildings, we silently knock off a few Freakers – your regular running zombie types – and chuck a Molotov to clear out one of their nests. But then we get careless. Things can escalate quickly in Days Gone, and a twitchy shotgun blast on our part causes Freakers to come streaming out of all nearby buildings. It’s a tense moment, but nothing Deacon can’t handle with a shotgun and some dodge-rolls. But that doesn’t prepare us for what comes next: the part of the game where Days Gone shows signs of being more than a by-the-numbers zombie romp. As the screen fades in for the second bit of the demo we’re looking down into a logging camp filled with 100 or more zombies – and have free rein on how to tackle them. Of course we try the silly stuff first: running at them and moshing out with a bat and shotgun (and dying), followed by speeding up on the motorbike and seeing how far we could plough through them (and dying). Both methods prove ineffectual as we’re rapaciously ravaged by the rabble. Victory requires using that one thing zombies lack: brains. After poking around, we find that the entire area can be set up as a gauntlet for zombies, filled with booby traps, narrow ravines to funnel the horde into, and
explosive barrels. First, we chuck all our Molotovs into the fray, and while this riles them up it also gets them dying. Slowly.
They take a lot of hits, these blighters, but send a stack of logs rolling onto them and they quickly collapse into a giant omelette of necrotic flesh. After utilising every log-stack and explosive at our disposal, and spending a little too much time kiting the zombies around like some grisly reimagining of that chase scene from that Beatles movie, we’re victorious.
This idea of having playful arenas like this within the open world is a good ’un, and being chased by hordes, where faster zombies often break away and come at you from unexpected angles, makes for the kind of teeth-gritting intensity found in 28 Days Later.
Days Gone will provide some great moments, where ammo is scarce and you’re stumbling away from a horde swarming out of every building. But we’ve yet to see what this game is beyond these flashpoints, and the mechanics don’t feel strong enough to prop up the game by themselves. For that, Days Gone will need a story of substance, and an open world to get truly lost in.
“these zombie kids are as close as we’re going to get to training dummies, so we dive in”
Days Gone is great at creating a sense of panic – nothing like legging it from athletic zombies to get the adrenaline pumping. Format PS4 Publisher Sony Developer SIE Bend Studio ETA 22 February 2019
Meet Deacon St John – a biker outlaw in civilised society, he’s just a rough-ridin’ survivor now civilisation has collapsed. Clearly Freaker-induced anarchy isn’t a bad thing for everyone.
Freakers are a tough bunch to take on fisto-a-fisto, and you can quickly get swamped by their fast-running friends.
The landscapes of Oregon look beautiful. The question is: can we go over those mountains on the horizon?