You’ll never forget your first horde.

Until that point, Freakers – Bend Studios’ zombie alternative and Days Gone’s most common scourge – have been a mere nuisance, and with enough space and time are easy enough to pick off stealthily or gun through larger gatherings as you make a swift exit.

But a horde is altogether different. If you are fortunate you’ll see a few stragglers on or near the road you are travelling along, and be afforded the chance to form a proper plan of attack; the unlucky player might be scavenging in the woods, decide to venture into a disused mine and hear them before they see them…

There’s a subtle shift in the soundtrack punctuated by those awful, screeching cries before a full-on encounter unfolds. Methodical exploration gives way to frenzied running and gunning as you desperately scramble back to your trusty steel horse in order to live to fight another day…

Sony’s PlayStation 4 has been blessed with some stellar exclusives during its lifecycle. Horizon New Dawn, Spider-Man and God of War to name but a few have generated critical and commercial success and given the console plenty of cause for celebration. 

It would be safe to say Days Gone didn’t quite meet those stellar standards. 

Debuting at E3 2016, and slated for a 2018 release, the game’s bikers Vs zombies premise was met with as much intrigue as it was scepticism. While it looked the part questions were raised about how entertaining the gameplay could be and the robustness of the zomb-, sorry, Freaker AI. 

As is the way of modern AAA titles, after that E3 reveal delay followed delay and the game finally released a year later than planned. It was met with a pretty lukewarm reception. The Sons of Anarchy meets the undead via an apocalypse gameplay drew some attention for its novelty but the game, unfortunately, fell off people’s radars and became a somewhat cautionary tale of over-hype and under-delivery.

That’s not to say some of the game’s early criticisms weren’t warranted, particularly the number of bugs and overall jankiness that could be found in those Oregon woods and beyond. Thankfully Bend didn’t abandon their baby on gamer’s doorsteps, before riding off into the night never to be seen again. Instead, patch after patch came down the funnel and the game grew to be rather more pleasing than launch reviews suggested.

Of course, those launch reviews were entirely valid; you can only critique what is put in front of you. Ire towards AAA titles releasing under-developed states is also thoroughly deserved but not without acknowledging some of the caveats that can cause well-intended projects to fall foul of external pressures.

AAA game development is far from a linear project to manage. With budgets on a par with major Hollywood releases there are going to be multiple stakeholders insisting their needs are met. While perhaps Bend fell foul of a development timeframe beyond their scope – as repeated delays suggest – they still deserve credit for not abandoning their work after that initial, underwhelming release.

There is no question that at times Days Gone is meandering. The on-boarding is thorough to the point of overkill, but there are a lot of systems within the game to manage and understand, all of which contribute to a story that starts off cliched but slowly manages to grab your attention, then draw emotion.

As much as Bend needed a little more patience in releasing the game, the game itself rewards those who stick with it. The main protagonist, Deacon, is a gruff biker with a harsh world view but as his story becomes not just about survival but renewed hope in finding his one true love, that hard exterior is shown to be somewhat of a facade. There’s hints of such early in the game in how he cares for his injured friend, Boomer, and his mask slips further as the hours spent playing as him tick along. 

Looking out for Boomer paves the way for a succession of missions designed to familiarise players with the world and its mechanics. And what a world. Oregon might not be the first locale many would pick as ripe for a setting but the lush forests are at times hauntingly beautiful, the game’s dynamic weather adding plenty of atmosphere. These surroundings give way to other environs as the game’s map opens up, although to say too much more would reduce the wonder of discovering them firsthand. Safe to say the experience of Deacon’s world expanding is satisfying and, at times, surprising.

As the map extends, more characters are introduced and more reasons to fight for survival are given. Deacon seeks knowledge of his lost love – Sarah – leading him to a mysterious figure called O’Brian, a government researcher at the heart of the Freaker outbreak, and with plenty of secrets up his hazmat suit’s sleeves.

With O’Brian’s guidance and revelations during missions comes progression, until even the largest hordes, and some number in their hundreds, become a challenge to accept rather than flee. There comes immense satisfaction in laying traps, herding a horde and picking them off with the game’s beefier weapons, as unlikely as that feels after surviving your first encounter.

Audio lends to the survival mood, be it through the finely-tuned sound effects or the reactive score. Of course, it has to be acknowledged that using raucous motorbikes while surrounded by enemies that attack primarily based on noise is somewhat of a contrivance, but after a few hours of exploration, those meaty hogs makes much more sense than cars given the agility, and acceleration, they offer. Plus there is little denying riding along abandoned roads with the sun cresting the horizon is a simplistically pleasing gameplay moment that tarmacs over such a plot hole by adding to Days Gone’s strong sense of atmosphere.

Most of the rough edges mentioned in the first wave of reviews also appear to have been smoothed out. Perhaps too little too late for some, but for anyone now tempted to see what the game has to offer, they might be surprised at the game’s mixed reception. While entirely different to Horizon New Dawn’s narrative, Days Gone is comparable in its attempts at world building. The setting is believable and there is plenty of meat on the game’s bones. Attaining the game’s platinum trophy at a leisurely pace offers well in excess of 50 hours of game time, with very little of that time feeling arduous. The gameplay loop of completing missions while further your skillset and expanding your bike’s range is moreish, with the right amount of intrigue to prompt more than a few, “I’ll just see what’s around that bend in the road,” moments.

Days Gone, thanks to extensive care since its release is finally a AAA title and available in most good stores, and some bad ones too, at a bargain price. The gameplay will more than satisfy any open-world itches you might have. Its length, which might be seen as a blessing by many right now, thankfully avoids too much mindless busywork. There are collectibles and icons on the map to check off, but all but a few of these distractions from the main story feel worthy of the place in the game.

The story, while overwrought in places, is constantly engaging and filled with several major surprises, completely at odds with any early impressions as you’re shown the game’s mechanics. The ‘true’ ending, after the game’s epilogue, is a marvellous moment that changes much of what went before, and hopefully means this won’t be a game remembered for what might have been but as the rewarding start of something much more memorable, maybe even more than your first encounter with a swarming, ravenous horde.

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