An extended demonstration of Days Gone came a few announcements into PlayStation’s E3 press event, surrounded by the rest of the console’s upcoming releases. This is fitting placement for a game that, as it’s being presented in behind-closed-doors sessions, feels buried beneath the features of its contemporaries, never elucidating how or if it will be ready to break loose and establish its own identity.
An open-world zombie game, Days Gone follows the members of a motorcycle-club-cum-survivalist-group stationed in the Pacific Northwest, raising the question: is there a tax incentive to set video games in Oregon? In the big public demo, available on YouTube, the burly protagonist hops on his motorcycle and ambushes a collective of shabbily dressed people we are to assume play the villains. In the attack, we get a hint at the game’s potential differentiator: a horde of zombies approaches the compound, systemically, and is manipulated to feed on the protagonists enemies like a litter of very bad kittens fighting for a single saucer of milk.
The horde didn’t make a repeat performance in the more intimate press demo, which featured the same mission, but showed a different approach the hero might take. Now, in theory, a variety of ways to go about a quest is appealing, but that assumption is predicated on the various options being interesting unto themselves. What we were shown was not.
If you’ve seen the most recent Tomb Raider, then you have a seen a better version of what was shown. The hero sneaks about a camp, setting traps on enemies, performing gruesome stealth kills, and, once spotted, unloading into enemies, while taking cover behind serendipitously placed trees and boulders. At one point, time slows, and a perfect headshot is aligned.
Familiar as it is, the moment is beautifully drawn. I can think of few moments this E3 where I thought, “Hey, this really benefits from 4K.” But this moment — a firefight in dense woods during a snow flurry — had a depth and texture that I think will be lost on lower resolutions.
But 4K and HDR don’t make a game; they elevate it. And while the setting, on its own, is sincerely breathtaking, it never felt like a place I’d want to spend more than the time required for this demo. For a game about a band of motorcyclists that roam the zombie apocalypse on souped-up, mud-sliding hogs, the story is immensely bleak, and a little inconsistent. In the early portion of the game, a marauder begs for his life, only to have it stomped out of him with the hero popping the man’s noggin on pavement. No more than a minute later, our guy sees a corpse with an axe embedded in his temple, and he reacts in genuine shock: “Jesus!”
When asked about the game’s tone beyond the demo, the developer clarified it would be serious, lightly seasoned with humor. They pointed to a moment in the demo, in which the hero tells a colleague he saved, “I wasn’t going to let them kill you. Besides, who around here knows how to repair a carburetor?”
What is this game? It seems to take inspiration from Brutal Legend and the motorcycle club expansion for Grand Theft Auto IV, while also resembling — often quite literally — Sony’s other zombie series, The Last of Us and the ever-growing pile of third-person action-adventure games that combine crafting, stealth, and gunplay with varying degrees of success. The second demo, somehow, leaves me even further from an answer.
And here’s where I belabor the point that E3 is not so much a showcase for games as it is for moments within games. Ideally, those moments embody the whole, but more often than you might think, E3 presentations can miss the point. In these cases, a developer or publisher presents what they think will sell (the safe, the familiar, the gory) and conceals what may actually makes a game special. (In Days Gone’s case, it’s the roaming zombie hordes that can disrupt the otherwise familiar design, converting it into something new.) Asked about the game’s story and systemic design, the developers were unable to provide specifics. Many questions from the handful of press at my appointment picked at what might make this game unique. The response was the PR standard: we’re not ready to talk about that at this time.
Days Gone doesn’t have a release date. I suspect it will have a number of chances to put its best foot forward this year alone, as Gamescom, Pax, Tokyo Game Show, and a litany of other public events stand between now and the holidays. I hope there’s something beneath it all. But here at E3, Days Gone resembles so much else, without establishing itself.