Days Gone — a video game review

I almost didn’t write this review.

I’ve made a big deal in the past about how I rarely write unfavorable reviews. It’s not that I don’t make entertainment choices that I later regret. I do. I don’t like every book or comic that I read. I certainly don’t like every movie or television series that I watch. Some music and podcasts just don’t interest me enough for me to continue to listen to them. I make some choices that I not only regret but would like to forget.

As long as I continue to try new things, I’m occasionally going to be disappointed. That includes playing new video games. I’ve played a lot of titles you haven’t read about on my blog. Since I began including a Firewater’s Report Card grade in my reviews, I haven’t given any game I’ve reviewed less than an A-. Of the game reviews that predate the report card scoring system, none appear at a quick glance to be unfavorable.

The truth is that writing about bad video games isn’t much fun for me. I feel like it’s my job to promote the things I like and try not to be overly nasty or negative about the things I don’t. To that end, I tend to write about only the games I consider to be at least good overall.

In one of my Looking Forward posts (published quadmonthly), you may notice that I played the game Airport Simulator but never wrote a review about it. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. In fact, I found it oddly relaxing, almost meditative, like building things in Minecraft. If I wrote a review of the game, I’d probably give it a slightly better-than-average grade, a C+ or B- maybe. Not a total waste of time, but nothing really amazing or especially memorable about it either. Not the kind of game that inspires me to write about it.

Days Gone was kind of in that same category for me when I first stopped playing it. Notice that I didn’t say “finished” playing it. I didn’t complete the game. I’m not even sure how close I may have been to completing the story, but my impression is that I was about 75% through it, about to head into the final act.

The reason I stopped playing it was two-fold. First, I grew tired of the repetitive gameplay and lost some faith in the story itself. I’ll explain more about this in a moment.

Second, I was ready to open up some storage space on my PlayStation 4 so that I could begin playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and NFS: Heat, two of my recent game acquisitions. It was the lure of the new, the shiny.

I thought about Days Gone for a long while, both while I was playing it and after I deleted it from my console. There are things that I like a lot about this game. There are also things that I don’t care for, and things that just irritated me. After careful consideration, I decided that I would still recommend that people play this game, with a few caveats.

You will recognize this game. It is a mission-based survival-horror, action-adventure game in which you play as a biker riding around the zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic landscape of Oregon. Your enemy is not just the zombies (known as Freakers in the lingo of the game world, although you know we’d call them zombies if it happened in the real world), but also human marauders and one cult-like group of humans who emulate the Freakers known as Rippers. The human enemies live in camps that you have to wipe out during missions and they sometimes ambush you unexpectedly. There are other camp-dwelling humans who are your allies, with whom you trade for supplies, weapons and ammunition, as well as parts and repairs for your bike. The leaders of these settlements also offer you occasional work, like supply runs and bounty hunts.

You know this type of game. Lots of driving around, lots of fighting with guns and various melee weapons. Collecting things in order to craft other things you need. Story missions that help fill in backstory and set up future events and missions as well.

The video games I could easily compare this one to are The Last of Us, Dying Light, Mad Max, Far Cry 5 (and Far Cry: New Dawn), Resident Evil 5, Mafia III and elements of the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption franchises. I like this sort of game, and I knew that before I began playing it. If I took the time, I could come up with the titles for another handful of games like this one without too much trouble. There are similar activities in military-centric games such as the Call of Duty franchise also. I enjoy mission-based games with clearly established objectives and goals. It’s not necessary that the games have zombies or other supernatural elements, but it’s a bonus when they do. I feel less guilty when shooting zombies and monsters than I do about shooting people.

You play as the character Deacon St. John (a great, ridiculous name), a member of the Mongrels outlaw motorcycle club. We’re introduced to St. John and his biker bro Boozer, along with St. John’s wife Sarah, during a brief prologue. St. John and Boozer are separated from Sarah, who is injured and evacuates in a helicopter with a group of NERO (National Emergency Response Organization) scientists and soldiers. Then, there is a confusing time jump. Two years, I think. For reasons I couldn’t understand early on, St. John and Boozer both believe that Sarah died from her injuries. A lot of time has passed and St. John and Boozer are still riding together.

The dramatic focus turns to Boozer, who receives third-degree burns at the hands of the Rippers. St. John has to take care of his injured friend while scavenging, crafting or bartering for supplies and earning credits to spend at one of several survivor camps. St. John occasionally earns flashback vignettes by doing such exciting things as riding out to a NERO station and looking at a rock with Sarah’s name on it. Which I thought was a headstone.

I don’t want to ruin the story for you. At least, what little story there is to this game. Like me, you probably suspect that Sarah isn’t really dead. That’s why St. John keeps collecting clues at NERO spots or, in stealth missions, eavesdrops on conversations by NERO personnel. That’s why we’re subjected to all the schmarmy flashbacks.

At one point in the story, the focus shifts to an as-yet unexplored area of the map, a new group of survivors in a new quasi-military encampment, and a surprise reunion that not only isn’t much of a surprise but also turns out to be anticlimactic. I wanted this part of the story to be at least as moving as Boozer’s character arc, but it just wasn’t. Plus, the flashbacks to St. John and Sarah’s courtship and wedding seemed unnecessary and more than a little corny.

The actor behind the voice of Deacon St. John is Sam Witwer. I knew Witwer as David Bloome on Smallville. He became Doomsday. He was also on Supergirl as Ben Lockwood/Agent Liberty for a season. He is an experienced voice actor, appearing in several animated Star Wars projects, in addition to video games. He was the voice of Darth Maul on Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

I’m talking about Sam Witwer’s bona fides because I don’t want what I’m about to say sound like a harsh criticism of the actor. He’s done a decent job in most of the things I’ve seen him in. Maybe not the best actor ever, but at least okay.

Witwer doesn’t come across as even “okay” in this video game. I blame the director, not the actor. At times, he seems to be yelling his dialogue at the top of his lungs while other characters are speaking normally. Even my wife, who had no idea what else was going on in the game while I was playing it, commented on Witwer’s delivery. It was often terrible, and always irritating. I never felt like the actor was interacting with another living character during any of the story.

To that, add what is, honestly, a weak storyline, long load times, and missions that become repetitive and boring on occasion, and you find yourself lacking a few necessary ingredients to make this a superior game.

And yet, there are things that work really well in Days Gone. I love the motorcycle. This is the vehicle I wanted in Far Cry 5 and didn’t get. The game environments are well designed and rendered, and rain or snow is always in the forecast. The zombie horde effect is genuinely scary and often difficult to escape. I loved the fighting mechanics, especially with cool melee weapons like the baseball-bat axe.

There are a lot of cool elements that are a part of this game. Unfortunately, they don’t all seem to mesh well together. Ultimately, however enjoyable this game can be, it seems more derivative than it should, lacking originality in this zombie-saturated world.

You’ll enjoy parts of the game. But, like me, you won’t lose sleep over abandoning it before completing the story. Ultimately, your actions in the game seem to lack importance or purpose, and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla will seduce you away.

Firewater’s Deacon-Out Report Card: B-

On a different day, this might have been a C or C+. I’m feeling generous today. Lower your expectations and you will find things to like about this game as well.

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