The Problem With Days Gone’s Demo

Days Gone 2

I’ve now seen three different demos of  Sony Bend’s Days Gone and I’m still not excited.

Now before you close the tab or move on, allow me to explain.

At E3 2016, Sony revealed Bend Studio’s long gestating game, Days Gone. Gorgeous, for sure, but I remember thinking it seemed a little too similar to Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.

The tone and subject matter seemed to almost exist in the same universe, albeit with the “infected” replaced by “freakers”, and instead of having a linear guided experience like The Last of Us, Days Gone has an open world. The demo shown at the end of the show offered a different experience in gameplay with the key difference being the hundreds of fast moving “freakers” on screen, not unlike something we’ve seen in the film version of World War Z.

And therein lies the problem: Days Gone seems too derivative of things I either have already seen or already love.

That’s not always a problem, though. Through the course of history there are plenty of things that are similar that I enjoy. From first person shooters, superhero movies, zombie movies, even bands and TV shows, it’s hard for anything to be truly original these days. But for me to really get excited about these similar pieces of entertainment I need to feel like I will be getting a fresh experience in some meaningful way.

So far, Days Gone has only been able to do that once in the three demos I’ve seen and that was during Sony’s E3 2017 press conference. It was really was only one moment; when the playable character, Deacon, uses a makeshift bomb to blow a hole in a barricade and uses a hoard of freakers to attack a camp he needs to get into.

My mind immediately spun with possibilities regarding how many different ways I could approach situations and how cool it will be to use the freakers against humans and vice versa. That moment alone was exciting enough that I forgave the gameplay I saw before it; the visceral man on man violence, the stealth, the throwing of a rock to distract and lure enemies away, etc. For the next two days, Days Gone moved to the top of my list of games I wanted to know more about while I was attending the show.

My opportunity came on the final day of E3 2017 when I booked an appointment for the theatre presentation for Days Gone. Sat in my chair, Bend developers dressed as bikers explained that we would be seeing the same demo from the recent press conference, but they would be taking a different approach: things like weather would be different, as in-game it will be dynamic.

Immediately the first difference was clear, because it was now snowing in the demo. This will apparently change your motorcycle’s handling on the road. So far, so good.

Anyway, Deacon gets the same mission start cutscene, sets off on his motorcycle and heads down the road. This time we don’t see dogs chasing him and the player notices two humans setting the wire trap across the road. This is really where the gameplay changed from the stage demo. Deacon gets off his bike and then heads stealthily through the surrounding woods for a better view. Along the way, he silently kills a few lingering freakers before getting into it with his would-be ambushers. Here we see Deacon plant an axe into one of their heads and the other ends up much the same way, being choked out by the rope tied to tree. The dev playing through the demo makes sure to have Deacon disable the trap before moving on.

From this moment, Deacon then goes pretty much the same way as he did in the original presentation before diverging closer to the encampment and getting his hand on a crossbow. He uses this to take out a few perched and patrolling humans before the gameplay devolves into a cover-based shootout.

And it’s here that Days Gone lost me again. Once again, I’ve seen this before. Nothing in this moment seemed particularly fresh or interesting; I’ve shot at humans from behind cover during a zombie apocalypse so many times before.

Now let’s be very frank, creators can think of whatever new word they want for these types of enemies – walkers, infected, freakers – but the reality is, they’re zombies. Zombies existed long before George A. Romero turned them into undead flesheaters in 1968, and whatever form they’ve come in since, they still function much the same way.

And that’s the rub: Days Gone will always feel like a narrative driven post apocalypse zombie game to a lot of people. I’ve wrestled with this concern for a couple of weeks and I think I’ve figured out what the real issue is. Days Gone just hasn’t been demoed well enough to truly depict what sets it apart from the games that have come before it, including The Last of Us. Sure, it’s set in an open world and there is some variety to how you approach missions, but was showing a cover shootout really the best and most interesting way to explain this variety?

What’s worse is that both demos end at the most exciting part; a giant zombie-looking bear shows up, stands up and roars. I want to see how they deal with that! The first demo may have had the benefit of showing how to use the zombies – er, “freakers” – against human enemies, but the second one didn’t, and that bear moment really teased something different.  It also doesn’t help that a lot of the gameplay we did see seems like a greatest hits of Naughty Dog games.

I’m not sure when Days Gone will actually release – Sony claims it will be “early 2018”, and if so, then it really only has one more chance to get the people like myself excited about the game at this year’s PSX. Based on the conversations I’ve been having about the game, the reaction seems to be mixed between optimistic and doubtful, but I’ve yet to speak to anyone who is genuinely excited it about on the level of Sony’s other 2018 offerings, Spider-man and God of War. Hell, even the Shadow of the Colossus remake has generated more buzz.

Maybe the story in Days Gone is truly engaging enough to make up for the seemingly generic gunplay. After all, it worked pretty well with The Last of Us – a solid game mechanically, but let’s face it, the biggest reason why the game resonated with so many people was because of its exceptional storytelling and characters.

Bend and Days Gone have yet to prove themselves in that department so until I see otherwise, my excitement is tepid at best.