A 2018 paper published in the journal Acta Ethologica showed evidence that European rabbits can smell traces of other rabbits in the droppings of the predators who have recently consumed them. I've thought about this a lot while roaming the apocalyptic Oregonian wilderness of Days Gone. It's a world redolent of a man named Deacon St. John, who I've seen devoured by wolves countless times as I've played.
When Days Gone first launched after several delays as a PlayStation 4 exclusive in 2019, it was criticised for poor performance, even on the PS4 Pro. Bugs were also an issue, and Days Gone was saddled with middling reviews in its initial incarnation. The PC release not only features enhanced graphics options and support for ultra-wide monitors, it also resolves almost all of these technical issues. This is definitely the best way to play Days Gone – a stable, unlocked framerate and enhanced graphics let this biker adventure's exciting tale take centre stage.
Perhaps more than any other open-world game I've played, Days Gone takes its time revealing its hand. While its marketing highlighted the massive zombie hordes you take on, you don't actually even see such a horde until perhaps a dozen hours into the story. Days Gone holds several of its strongest cards until you've had time to settle into its muddy, desperate vision of the Pacific Northwest, two years after a zombie plague has destroyed civilisation as we know it.
Despite the ongoing end of the world, Deacon still wears the colours of his beloved motorcycle club, the Mongrels. After returning to his small Oregon hometown from Afghanistan on a stint with the 10th Mountain Division, he settled into a job as a bike mechanic and took up with the group. Now they’re all gone, and Deacon and his pal Boozer are all that remains, trying to pull enough gear together to escape the ravaged roads of their once-familiar stomping grounds.
While the roads and summer campgrounds have fallen into disrepair, and the hills and woods are crawling with things that want to see what your insides look like (and then eat them), Days Gone’s world is strikingly beautiful. Deacon is a bit of a modern Geralt of Rivia, mounted on a cobbled-together chopper rather than Roach. He’s a ‘drifter’, in the apocalypse’s new slang – a man of no fixed address who feels more at home in the saddle than in any of the camps he visits to pick up odd jobs and upgrade his equipment. As it was when he joined up with the MC back in the before-times, Deacon’s outsider status is largely self-inflicted – he’s suspicious of authority and reflexively resents anyone who’s decided they’re in charge of something.
more than any other open-world game I’ve played, Days Gone takes its time revealing its hand
And so, rather than working in the camp farms or mechanics’ shops, my time with Deacon is spent out “in the shit” (more slang, for wilderness). Wolves prowl the forests of the mountainous Cascade region where the story begins, but there are plenty of other threats: marauder patrols, crazed cultists, ambushes, and other drifters make every journey dangerous.
This is a zombie game, and so of course there are zombies, or ‘Freakers’, as Days Gone has chosen to call them. These are the Zack Snyder-style fast zombies, and even the most basic ‘Swarmer’ model is enough of a threat that I learn to stay low and use stealth if I see more than three or four shuffling around together. Most zombie games lose their threat as soon as you enter a vehicle, and while I feel more at home on my bike than anywhere else, the night air seems to embolden the freakers enough that they dive at me as I ride by. Gangs set up ambushes with snipers hiding in the trees and wire traps strung across the broken highways, and huge infected wolves called ‘runners’ frequently remind me that my motorcycle is never a true refuge.
The languid time Days Gone spends in the beginning setting up the world and its many threats pays off when you encounter a horde for the first time. After spending hours picking my fights carefully and running away from groups of five or more zombies, I pull into the ruins of a government checkpoint situated near a rail overpass. As the sun begins to set, I can see that there’s something moving in the open doors of an abandoned boxcar atop the bridge. When a freaker staggers out and tumbles to the road below, I realise what I’m looking at: it’s a whole mass of squatting freaks. Dozens of them, packed in tight, their low grumbles filling the evening air like a low cicada drone. I look to the adjoining car. It’s full, too.
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As night falls, a cry goes up. I’ve hidden behind a concrete barricade outside the checkpoint to figure out my next move. The mass of freakers stirs, and they begin dropping out of the cars in a steady stream. There must be a hundred of them, maybe more. As they gather on the pavement below, they begin moving like a river of moaning, thrashing sludge toward the bank of a nearby pond.
Even after seeing all the promotional footage of hordes in the leadup to the original PS4 release, the effect this has on me is profound. This is a menace far too powerful for me to take on, at least for now. Later on, once I’ve found crafting recipes for pipe bombs and gained access to better weapons, I’ll have a fighting chance against these massive throngs of zombies, but all I can feel in this moment is an overwhelming sense of dread. I have to get out of here, now.
Days Gone benefits from an accumulation of smart little decisions that elevate its more by-the-numbers open-world mechanics. Certain tasks you can take on are a bit repetitive, like bounty hunting and destroying nests in infested zones. Each completed job increases my trust level with the camp in the area, and the camps each have their own sets of bike upgrades and new weapons to unlock once I’ve built up enough trust with their leaders. More than that, though, I know I’m making the area safer to travel through, and there is always the tantalising lure of new bits of backstory to unearth in the map’s countless nooks and crannies.
Combat itself is merely serviceable. You don’t gain access to the really powerful weapons until dozens of hours into the game, and until then it’s often best to take a stealthy approach. I like to do a bit of scouting before making my opening play – often there’s the chance to quietly take out a lone sentry or drop a sniper with a silenced shot from the bushes. Once things pop off, Days Gone is mostly a middling cover shooter, although there’s a little extra delight to be gleaned from battering enemies with weapons like an axe made from a circular saw blade bound to a baseball bat with barbed wire.
The massive horde battles, on the other hand, are a game changer. These are challenging, frantic encounters that require some combination of careful planning, appropriate weapons, and improvisation to survive. The freaker hordes come roaring at you once you’ve gotten their attention, swarming over anything in their way. I still can’t shake the initial sense of awe that sets in when you see hundreds of individual enemies on the screen at once – if there’s any ‘cheating’ that’s going on to create this effect, it’s invisible to me – perhaps due to the panic I usually feel when this is happening.
Scouting is essential. I always like to identify where any explosive containers in the area might be, as I can lead the screaming horde that way and take out a dozen or so with a well-placed pistol shot. Chokepoints are handy, too – as the freakers bunch up, they become vulnerable to Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, and grenades. Anything can go wrong, however, because the freakers are just about as fast as I am, and when my stamina runs out, there won’t be a chance to catch my breath – they are going to eat me.
If there’s one bummer in Days Gone, it’s the mandatory, instant-fail stealth missions
It’s possible to start taking on hordes as soon as you find them, but it’s best to wait until you’ve found some health and stamina upgrades, and collected a few area-of-effect weapons. It’s not until the final act that Days Gone actually instructs you to start seeking out these fights, and that’s perhaps its biggest problem: it’s a bit stingy about the best stuff. The pacing can feel glacial at times, particularly in the first half – I sometimes found myself trying to churn through missions quickly to get to the next bit of the story, as though I was squeezing the last few obstinate globs of mustard out of a bottle.
That said, I’ve never felt bored. Days Gone allows for the freedom to explore and take on targets of opportunity, but it also always points me in some direction that will advance the plot, even if only fractionally. There are enough different types of activity that you can change gears at any point – I’ll go from Far Cry-style camp clearing, to puzzling my way into a research facility, to rescuing captives from the disturbing Ripper cult. If I don’t know what to do next, I just open the map and look for the next node on one of the active storylines.
The story itself keeps me hooked thanks to some stand-out characters and performances. Ada Tucker seems like a kindly grandmother when you first meet her at her camp in Belknap, but she reveals her background as a corrections officer when she turns on her peers, and it soon becomes apparent that she’s running a slave labour operation. The resort lodge at Lost Lake is full of great characters: there’s the sympathetic but no-nonsense Rikki Patil, the hopelessly optimistic leader Iron Mike, and his sketchy lieutenant Skizzo, who may be untrustworthy, but sees the imminent threat to the camp’s future more clearly than his soft-hearted boss.
If there’s one big bummer in Days Gone, it’s the mandatory, instant-fail stealth missions. Periodically, Deacon has to spy on researchers working for NERO, which is the game’s stand-in for FEMA, whose personnel literally fly around in black helicopters being shady. Getting caught by one of the guards during these sequences means starting the encounter over, creeping through the same bushes and waiting to listen to the same lengthy exposition-dumping dialogue before proceeding to the next step. These missions have been the only thing Days Gone has done that’s made me want to get up and walk away from my desk.
Playing on a PC equipped with a Ryzen 9 3900X and an RTX 2070 Super, I had no framerate issues with Days Gone set to the highest graphics and display settings at 1440p. The Days Gone PC edition supports ultra-wide monitors and allows for an unlocked framerate, and the default FOV of 70 can be widened to 100 if you feel the camera is a bit too tight. Draw distances and LOD have been enhanced over the PS4 version, too.
Over some 40 hours, I encountered very few real bugs. In one instance, NPCs failed to spawn in a camp where I needed to turn in a quest, but this was resolved by quitting and loading my game, and it hasn’t happened again since. Occasionally I’d see groups of NPCs appear out of thin air while wandering around a camp, and there’s been an instance or two of an NPC missing a weapon model. These only stood out to me at all due to how infrequently they happened – overall, the PC version of Days Gone has been rock solid. A few additional post-processing options wouldn’t be amiss in the graphics menu, but performance was reliable enough that there was never a real need to make such granular adjustments, although your mileage may vary depending on your hardware.
This version also supports keyboard and mouse input, and you can freely swap between that and controller at any time – even if you forget to turn your controller on before launching the game, as I frequently do. Both keyboard and controller inputs are fully rebindable.
The PC edition of Days Gone comes with all its downloadable content, which includes a challenge mode that lets you jump straight into the horde battles if you’re not ready to spend the time on the lengthy story.
Days Gone is a workmanlike open-world adventure, but it’s elevated into something special by its spectacular horde fights, ambitious scope, and warmly written characters. The annoying stealth sequences and strangely unhurried narrative pacing can be frustrating at times, but on balance this is one of the most engaging and entertaining open-world games I’ve played in quite a while. On PC, the chrome in its big V-twin engine is really given a chance to shine – you just have to be ready to settle in for a long haul.
Days Gone is out now on PC and you buy it here if this all sounds like your bag. You can check out the Days Gone system requirements here, or check out the best apocalypse games if your rig isn’t quite up to scratch.