Perhaps aware of growing open world zombie game fatigue, Sony Bend is going to great lengths to insist the rotting, seemingly-dimwitted, human flesh-craving people in Days Gone are not in fact the living dead. And while that may technically be true – these things are the result of a virus infection rather than resurrection – does this distinction really need to be made? Plenty of films and games have leaned on the 'virus' explanation already, so zombies or not, the game's setup is as cliche as it gets.
According to Sony Bend, the "Freakers" in the just-announced open world action game all behave differently and interact with each other and their environment in human-like ways. You might find them drinking from a lake or hunting, as some have human traits and a residual memory of being ‘normal’. Whatever you call ‘em, they are all part of an overall “freakosystem” – a hierarchy built by Bend that exists independently of the player.
Smarter than the average zombie some of them may be, but they still hate fire “and bullets”, jokes Days Gone system architect programmer Joe Adzima. Freakers are also affected by the weather, which changes them in some unspecified way, and Bend hints that they are evolving quickly as a result. Fortunately, they won’t respawn infinitely to cause problems for the player; the hordes seen in the game’s E3 demo are impressively large, flowing like water around obstacles, but can be completely vanquished provided you possess the requisite ammo or ingenuity.
Large too is the game’s depiction of Oregon, featuring diverse landscapes including forest, snowy mountain regions, and – with Oregon 4000 feet above sea level – areas of lava flow, all affected by a day/night cycle. The mountains in the distance of the demo? You can go there. And you can stealth it up or go in guns blazing – it’s your choice. Naturally, there is a crafting system too, powered by St. John’s scavenging habits.
So far, it sounds pretty bog standard for an open world title, and I can’t say the reveal has me particularly excited. However, it’s clear Days Gone is personal for those at Bend (named after its location in Bend, Oregon). “It’s all the things we love, all in one, in the area we live in,” says Adzima. It comes as no surprise, then, that lot of the developers are motorcycle riders, and although protagonist / possible anti-hero Deacon St. John appears to be (or have been) a scoundrel at some point as leader of a motorcycle club, Bend’s representatives are quick to defend that culture. “It’s associated with criminals, but it’s about brotherhood and family,” says Adzima.
Despite its sandbox status, Bend says story is a big component of Days Gone. Without that biker brotherhood, St. John is struggling to find his place – thus his lone wolf bounty hunter status. “It’s about the human condition. Lost love,” Adzima continues. “Deacon has got a tortured soul, he’s a broken man… We pride ourselves on a deep story.” St. John is also trying to figure out what exactly happened not only in Oregon, but across the world. The global population has withered, and two years after the pandemic hit, no-one is any the wiser as to how any of this occurred. It’s probably tricky to divine these things when your primary concern is not getting eaten. “Desperate people do what desperate people do to survive,” Adzima says.
In St. John’s case, that has meant adapting his beloved motorbike so it is useful in a changed world. The cycle plays a “huge, huge” part in the game, functioning as his inventory, and so where the player dismounts is of paramount importance. As the demo shows, an escape plan is always necessary. Adzima calls riding the bike around one of the most fun parts of the game, but is tight-lipped on whether combat is possible while in motion.
Behind closed doors, I saw a slightly extended version of Sony’s press conference demo, with some alternate decisions made and one particularly gruesome environmental kill carried out with a sawblade, but further details were scant. What we do know is that Days Gone is Bend’s first original IP since Syphon Filter in 1999, as well as its first consoles title since 2004 (it has focused on handhelds for the past decade). We also know from the demo that it’s a tense experience – so much so that lead AI programmer Darren Chisum said playing it had his smart watch alert him to the fact that he had reached his heart rate fitness goal for the day.
Even so, I’m caging my excitement for the time being. The demo seemed pretty by-the-numbers, from the gruff, broken dude (ugh), to the open world tropes, to the zombies. (You don't suppose the government has anything to do with this, do you?) Rendering hundreds of enemies on screen at once is certainly a technical achievement, but I want to know why we should care about this guy, and I hope he's not just another nihilistic badass. The PR chatter outlined above hasn’t exactly alleviated my fears, either. I’m glad to hear there is a story focus, but without further details it’s hard to be excited about it. I love the setting though, and the way the zombies clamber over each other a la World War Z. I just want to see this game do more to distinguish itself from the zombie hordes in the coming months.