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Zombies of Agony - Hands-On with Days Gone
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 08:33pm 07/03/19 | Comments
We went hands-on with one of the latest builds of Days Gone -- the open-world biker zombie action romp from Bend Studio. Read on for our full thoughts...

From the outset, Days Gone presents itself as a hybrid of ideas around a central theme, driven by character archetypes that don’t really exist in games. Deacon, Boozer and Sarah, Deacon’s wife are tattooed bikers. Boozer has a bald head covered in tattoos, Deacon’s neck and body are covered in tattoos, and what we see of Sarah’s tattoos is two full arm sleeves at least.

I’m a tattooed person. Heavily. So this kind of representation is welcome. Moreover, while people who ride motorcycles (in Deacon and Boozer), and Sarah a scientific researcher, respectively, all don’t represent ‘bad’ biker culture to a degree, there’s enough of an aesthetic angle here to already craft all three of them, if need, as modern anti-heroes. Not that having tattoos makes you a bad boy -- anyone who knows me will attest to my being overly safe, cautious, (somewhat) responsible and a massive nerd. So what Days Gone does, is paint itself with a modern paint brush while also giving itself enough room to allow for the prototypical bad boy (or girl) image to equally shine.

This “hybrid of ideas” I mentioned earlier, comes in the form of a coalescence of an open-world to explore, action, RPG-like character growth through progression and skill trees, and NPC interaction. On top of these elements is the all-important concept of looting in modern gaming (though in the context of the game, this actually makes sense), crafting as a result of this and, even more importantly, riding your sweet, sweet ride.

If I can focus on one component of Days Gone for a minute, it’s that riding your bike in the game is very rewarding. Nailing motorbikes in games that don’t start with “Trials” in their title(s) is hard. And Trials nails it because it’s a side-scrolling arcade anxiety-inducing product. But Deacon’s bike you get to ride early on -- his KITT, his 1973 XB Falcon, his Airwolf (for variety), his General Lee (maybe more than we realise) -- it’s glorious. The road almost beckons to just keep on motoring across, but as is the case with many an open-world game, tutorials and narrative setup gets in the way. Though a promise of “riding north” does loom from dialogue. And so that red herring hangs wet, smelly and scale-loosening in the air (any fishing people out there?).

In fact, if I can leverage anything significant from my three hours of hands-on with the game, it’s that it does take too long to remove the training wheels. But what you learn from this is that this is also a heavy-handed narrative romp. It’s clear the guys at Bend were heavily influenced by Horizon Zero Dawn, and the two have a very similar cadence, though I’ll tip my hat to Bend for giving us meaningful interiors (sick burn). Once you do get out into the wild, proper, though, the game does open up significantly. Checklisting the modern open-world landscape once again, Deacon can track, which means you have “Survival Vision”, which can produce ‘echoes’ of events not too dissimilar to those we’ve seen in The Division and other games. You can craft on-the-go with things like meds, molotovs and more.

And while most action scenarios do give you agency to deal with them how see fit, with cool things like raiding car engines to use parts to muffle your pistol so as not to alert the ‘Freakers’, as the zombies are called, the actual open-world itself, at least in the first three hours, is heavily gated. Missions have a “You Are Leaving the Mission Zone” warning, circa Far Cry 2, and the narrative as mentioned earlier is very heavy-handed. You have a safehouse, but there are also ‘safe’ camps strewn about the game-world where you can go and trade, collect new missions and do all other manner of survival-esque survivaling. None of this is to be construed as bad, but if I can wind it all the way back to my initial point about the open road in front me, riding on my sweet, sweet bike. Well, it does come off as a bit grindy early.

Some of the cool, unique ideas I did discover though, really play up to the context of the world in which you all now live. The camps mentioned just before -- you gain more from them, with more Trust. But you only earn Trust by performing missions and the like, or by selling items and generally being a good survivalist. Deacon is a bit of a loner dick, however, but this does create a dynamic sense of tension throughout the camps, and is an equally welcomed part of the game’s character makeup. Money is scarce and there’s a weird human faction called the Rippers who prey on other survivalists, End-of-Days cult-like.

Other ‘gangs’ or ‘groups’ of survivalists you run into can either be friendly or not, and it’s in this space I’m most excited to explore Days Gone’s world. In the early throwings of my hands-on, my safehouse was being stalked by a group who thought they could take it from me and a very injured Boozer (no more spoilers), but I soon made quick stealth work of them. Remember that Horizon Zero Dawn parallel reference earlier, well, yeah, Deacon loves tall grass too, and no one has learnt to look through the blades yet. But hey, it’s a mechanic that works. Adding to this is that you can use this mechanic to takedown Freakers stealthily with a knife instead of using precious ammo.

The reason for this being so important is that the Freakers are just bloodthirsty zombies, naturally, but making enough noise won’t just bring a few, it brings hordes, and seemingly the deeper you get into the game, the more you’ll have to face, erogo making you face tough decisions on how to approach certain scenarios. I didn’t really come across a situation like the one I saw at E3 but I saw enough to suggest this engine knows how to render the undead and their hungry mouths. Melee is your friend. From the grass. Out of site.

Weapons do have a lifespan on them though, which plays into both post-apocalypse and zombie-apocalypse tropes, in that ammo, ammo-conservation, stealth and crafting/cleaning play integral roles in your approach to survival. It’s currently not standing head and shoulders over some of the competition, but as a management system, it’s welcome in the space. And on management, stylish as it is, one of my final gripes with what I played was in the convoluted and busy nature of the game’s menu system. It’s stylish, sure, but seemed overly complicated as part of a game that holds your hand so much, so early. Naturally, just three hours into what might be a 100-hour experience means it’s too early to judge, but there was a lot to digest in that from an early perspective.

Right now, there’s a lot to like about Days Gone: the characters are different, though the setting familiar. Dynamic weather and the promise of an open-world to explore beckon. And the bike riding is good. Enemies were sponging bullets, but this was a preview build, so we can throw up a yellow card here, instead of a red. Dynamic situations do stem from contextual story moments, which means the team has looked long and hard at how to try and balance their disparate systems, but it’s too early to know how deep this goes.

The prepper side of the game is certainly enticing, and we’re now starting to see a trend with this lifestyle. That being said, I’m worried Days Gone might only be relying on the tattooed, biker ‘bad boy’-but-good part of its makeup to really stand out, because trends tend to stick around like some sort of strain of virus that turns everyone, and everything, into zombies -- the Lemmings of videogames… oh, wait.

We’re definitely keen for more. But more polish, more differential gameplay, less hand-holding and an open-world we can manipulate and make our own are high on our list of priorities.
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