At times the plot of Days Gone can be difficult to track. You play as Deacon, a hardass biker navigating a zombie-infested open world. For the most part you’re on a quest to find your missing girlfriend Sarah.
However, your motorcycle parts are nicked early on (Deacon’s bike functions as the game’s second lead character; personalising it is half the fun), and much of the action consists of taking on missions at nearby camps in order to rebuild it.
The early missions are standard survival-game fare, a slightly monotonous mix of bounty-hunting and rescue jobs. They become more interesting when Deacon begins investigating the shadowy government agency NERO, which is in charge of supplying aid to the beleaguered countryside. From here on, the game is pleasingly difficult, with stealth missions especially requiring almost total mastery to complete.
Unfortunately, the action is underserved by a hacky and uninteresting central character. When we are introduced to Deacon, he is sending his wounded girlfriend to safety in an aid helicopter, refusing her pleas to come with in order to stay and help his similarly wounded friend Boozer. These are the actions of a Mensch, but over the rest of the game Deacon acts in ways seemingly unconnected by any guiding motivation. Early on, he performs a mercy killing; later, he murders in cold blood while sermonising on the uselessness of mercy in an unforgiving world. We’re supposed to believe that he’s motivated by a desire to see Sarah again, but there’s nothing meaningful to be gleaned about their relationship from the few brief flashbacks we’re given of it. Deacon is a bundle of contradictions, none of them ever amounting to character. A couple of hours in, I realised I was more invested in his bike than in him.
However, the nature of zombie games is such that a dud lead can be redeemed by a satisfying enemy. You don’t need to be engrossed in a character’s arc to enjoy using him to massacre hordes of the undead. The zombies – sorry, ‘freakers’ – are cleverly and lovingly designed, with different enemy types distinguished in intricate ways that go far beyond the standard big and slow/small and fast dichotomy. My favourite were Newts, infected children who don’t attack on sight, only becoming aggressive if you invade their turf.
But the real prize is the game’s beautiful open world, which unfolds in dramatic and surprising ways. The prototypical zombie landscape of bombed out cars and abandoned gas stations is supplemented by vast green forests and snow-capped mountains. Exploring these diverse landscapes on your trusty motorcycle offers something uncommon to zombie games: moments of serenity. Days Gone has had the biggest physical sales launch of the year so far, and despite occasional bugs and imperfections, it deserves its crown.