‘The open world in Days Gone is really coming at the player,’ says a developer at Bend, the studio working on Sony’s new action-adventure-survival-with-motorbikes game. ‘It’s a very dangerous world and we’re trying to push that as hard as we can. A lot of open worlds have all these elements that you need to go out and explore — and we still have that — but we’re also bringing things to you.’
What this means is that even if Deacon St. John — and let’s be willing to forgive a game when its protagonist has this name, given that Final Fantasy VII is fronted by a character called Cloud Strife and still manages to be beloved — doesn’t go out of his rugged, outlaw, Sons-of-Anarchy adjacent way to find trouble, it’ll find him in the form of ‘dynamic events’. Deacon can be clotheslined off his bike, ambushed, or just run into infected animals, among other horrible things.
None of these events are scripted, but are random and affected by things like the time of day and the weather. ‘We have a dedicated team at Bend Studio that’s making these kind of events and creating ways to place them around the world, depending on where the player is and what level they are and what they’re doing.’
The case in point for this is the demo presentation we saw. On stage, at Sony’s E3 conference, the mission was played at night, going into dawn, and was raining a little. We saw it during the day and in a snowstorm that got progressively heavier (and Deacon leaves footprints; a game character not leaving footprints in snow is a high point in my personal topography of extremely petty hills to die on). Ice rime formed on Deacon’s jacket and cap. The forest seemed crunchy and brittle.
The weather sounds like one of the most interesting mechanics in the Days Gone. Two players starting at the same point will go on to have completely different weather patterns. It varies between specific regions of the game, and not only affects how the environment looks, but your options for play style: snow limits visibility, rain dampens sound, and the Freakers — Days Gone’s zombies that aren’t zombies — prefer the night and wet environments. That’s why, in the preview we saw, there was no Freaker Swarm for Deacon to use as a distraction. So he just snuck in and shot them all instead. The story missions have the same outcome, but you can get there in different ways.
There’s also crafting, of course, based around a recipe system. Deacon can make molotovs and then, somewhat sadistically, throw them at a group of human marauders gathered around one of their fellows who got his leg stuck in a bear trap. He’d been screaming, and he wouldn’t shut up. One of his companions shot him, in case he attracted Freakers. And then Deacon lit them up. The idea is that this world is brutal, and you make it through however you can. The melee combat strengthens this, because it’s slow and desperate. Each punch looks like it splits a knuckle.
Deacon’s ‘Survivor Mode’ could water that back down, though, being essentially Batman’s Detective Mode but with the flimsier implied justification that Deacon has had to learn to survive super hard. Now, if he concentrates, weapons are highlighted in green and things he can use or present a potential danger in orange. It’s understandable as a mechanic to make scavenging and evading traps easier for the player, but if you’re scrambling through an abandoned camp, where’s the tension in weighing up the risk vs. reward of pausing to find useful stuff if you can make the useful stuff glow different colours? If Deacon gets twanged off his bike by a clothesline, it’s a great lesson in paying attention that he can apply later in the game.
Bend has said before that the bike is going to be important. We didn’t see too much of it, though you can tell it slaloms around differently on different surfaces.’We’re treating it as a part of Deacon. A lot of open world games have you get in a car, drive it for a bit, then leave it. The bike is a really important part of Deacon’s personality, though, you know?’ The bike can take damage, too, so you’ll need to keep it maintained as well as keep it fueled up (presumably another rare resource).
Days Gone is making use of some new, interesting mechanics, but mixing them up with some old, familiar ones — familiar especially in the context of zombie survival. Even Deacons bike sounds a bit like a version of a child escort, albeit a less annoying one. Though devs are quick to point out that the Freakers in the game aren’t technically zombies, and they’re keeping it fresh with the impressive, writhing swarms of them, we’ve all seen 28 Days Later. We’ve all played The Last of Us, too, which Days Gone is tragically, inevitably going to be compared too. Bend’s dynamic systems are admirable, but will they be enough to put life back into a rotting corpse?