After more than seven years of development, Days Gone is finally here, staging Bend Studio’s vision of an apocalyptic universe infested with zombies. It is a large-scale open-world with a particular focus on storytelling and characters. Long story short, it’s sort of a crossover between The Last of Us and Far Cry. And this formula works.

Let’s start with the setting. Days Gone offers an impressive glimpse of the Pacific Northwest, with incredibly detailed coniferous forests and sweeping plains as a backdrop. The scenario, thus, appears quite characteristic and is backed by an excellent dynamic system for weather and day / night cycle, in addition to other interesting features. Bend also chooses to walk a little beaten path in terms of the technology used, taking a different approach than that of Sony’s first-party titles.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. The Days Gone release marks a major comeback by Bend Studio in console development, and as its first IP dates back to the late 1990s, Days Gone represents a major turning point for the company. For more than a decade, in fact, Bend Studio has focused on delivering high-end experiences for Sony handheld consoles. Among them, there is a great third-person sequel on PSP to the Resistance series, as well as a mobile episode of Uncharted, which launched on the ill-fated PlayStation Vita.

However, aside from the platform change, Days Gone also marks a change in the game engine. While several Sony first party studios use proprietary technology, Bend preferred to use Epic’s powerful Unreal Engine 4, arguably an unprecedented case for a large Sony in-house studio. This choice also presented a challenge for the team, technology aside. In fact, the game offers a vast open world environment with a density similar to that of the Far Cry series titles, with motorcycle crossings. While the Epic engine has proven capable of handling such situations, there aren’t many examples of the caliber of Days Gone, and the result is interesting.

The final product is generally solid on both PS4 and PS4 Pro. On the more powerful console, Days Gone appears to use some sort of checkerboarding rendering to reach the 3840×2160 resolution, but while the implementation is impressive, it’s not without its flaws. While many scenes appear clean and unaliased and a good 4K experience, there are other areas where you can spot drop pixels from this implementation.

On the basic PS4 the resolution used is the native 1080p, as with many other Sony first-party titles. Thanks to the use of temporal anti-aliasing, both versions look extremely clean on the go. There is no evidence of dynamic resolution being used, but it is always likely to be used in games like this, and Sony has mentioned the term ‘dynamic 4K’ in the past, although this is a term that has also been used for fixed resolution checkerboarding titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War.

Resolution aside, both versions are very similar from a graphics quality standpoint, but there are some minor improvements on the Pro. These focus more on shadow detail, and this is mostly noticeable in dense areas of vegetation, but it also applies to all the others. Everything is decidedly more polished on Pro, but the game is fantastic on both machines, as is the practice for large first-party releases. No matter which console you play on, Days Gone cuts a good figure no matter what.

Speaking of performance, we are testing the game in its early days with version 1.03 (which provided improvements on the base PS4), which arrived only recently. Based on our initial impressions, gaming on the Pro delivers a mostly locked-in 30fps experience with proper frame-pacing and slowdowns occurring only infrequently. We are not at the level of perfection, but even the largest hordes are displayed at a constant 30fps. The PS4 also provides a solid experience overall, but can falter in some scenarios such as motorbike crossings in open areas and scenes dense with heavy alpha effects. But overall the results are good and the quality of the open world is almost the same in the two versions.

And this is of crucial importance. Bend Studio is based in Oregon, a very different territory from where other development studios work, and that clearly inspired the development of the game. The density and atmosphere of the settings is truly captivating and gives a sense of uniqueness. Everything starts from the base, from the rendering of the extremely detailed terrain. The quality of physics-governed materials is excellent, perfectly capturing the very essence of dirt, mud and moss in the undergrowth. Plants have a unique and different identity from each other and vary from species to species depending on the region. The forests are dense with vegetation and the wide plains are rich in tall, overgrown grass.

The increase in resolution and more defined shadows give the PS4 Pro version a notable boost in terms of image quality. Fine details benefit the most. The level of detail is overall the same between the two consoles, but that of the textures is markedly reduced on the base console, even on nearby objects. This is one of the best checkerboard implementations we’ve seen on PS4 Pro so far. Ambient occlusion and shadows appear less refined on the base system, as does terrain detail. Depth of field is much more pronounced on PS4 Pro during cut-scenes, but the character models look equivalent.

Abandoned factories look pretty high-tech, but it’s the interiors of the buildings that stand out the most. It is surprising how each building tells a story of its own thanks to a meticulous and characterized design. They are not like the empty buildings we find in battle royale. Days Gone has placed care and attention on each of them. This helps to give credibility to the game world, conveying the feeling that in those places we had really lived there for a long time. The atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the quality of its settings. And the feeling of abandonment of those places is palpable. There are in fact dense layers of dust on the surfaces of immobile objects that help convey the feeling of a world in ruins.

All of this is invigorated by a robust shadow system. Days Gone seems to use a screen-space shadow system that allows you to draw precise shadows from small objects, such as the small leaves of vegetation on the stones resting on the ground. This implementation surprises and impresses: it is not a new technique, but Bend Studio makes an intensive use of it, and it is not used only for the shading of the environment.

Dynamic lights, like those of torches, also highlight the use of this technique, although in this case one of its weaknesses also emerges. When the source where the shadow should come from is obscured, the shadow disappears and you can also notice the shadows disappearing from the edges of the screen. So it is not a perfect solution, but undoubtedly interesting to overcome this problem, and in general it allows you to increase the number of shadows and the detail of the same. Ambient occlusion is also well used, thus ensuring realistic ambient shading.

All of this combines to create a feeling of depth in the game world that is nothing short of incredible to admire, and the dynamic weather system reinforces this feeling. Thunderstorms can happen suddenly during gameplay and the result is gorgeous. A system that regulates the wind is used to increase the speed at which leaves and branches move, which are violently shaking around you. Move over a vast plain, and you’ll see conifers in the distance shaking violently in the storm.

The varying intensity of the rain is fantastic and the drops enjoy dynamic lighting, while a wet shader is used to make clothes look soaking wet. And then there are the reflections. Those of the screen-space type are applied on bodies of water such as lakes and streams, as well as in the numerous puddles. SSR (screen-space reflection) are used on various other surfaces. But as much as SSRs pair with water, this technique has an Achilles heel. Water flows on the surface reflect and refract light well, but the interaction of the pools with the player’s movements often appears a bit odd. This is not a real problem, but something you end up noticing. What is surprising, however, is the way in which the bodies of water react to conditions,

Another important element of the graphics library is lighting. Days Gone supports real-time daytime shifting, offering a variety of indoor and outdoor settings. A volumetric lighting system is used to emphasize the atmosphere of the world both during the day and at night. Also noteworthy is the way in which volumetric lights can interact with shadows, moving in gloomy environments such as tunnels. In addition, there is a high, dense fog throughout the game. As for the illumination of the world, we cannot establish with certainty what the technique used here by Bend Studio is. The lighting is dynamic and changes depending on the time of day, but we suspect there is a mix between real-time and pre-packaged lights.

Days Gone also enacts what appears to be a procedural system for the sky, which perhaps uses a noise pattern to give the impression of moving, dynamic shaped clouds. Clouds are drawn in relation to the weather, so you will have a mix of sunny days and clear skies and cloudy days with overcast skies, and lots of shades in between. The rendering of the environment is overall very solid. We have no difficulty in saying that this is one of the best examples of open world games made with Unreal Engine and being the first large-scale home console project by Bend Studio, the final result is excellent.

There are undoubtedly also obvious limitations that need to be taken into account. While the game contains a variety of objects that react to fire and physics (such as oil barrels), much of the world is inert. It is not possible to shoot branches or objects scattered here and there. The fire does not cause any burn damage and does not spread like in Far Cry. Physics is also applied only to specific objects. It is true that there are several objects to interact with, but there is a feeling that a higher level of interaction would have increased the feeling of immersion.

And I say this because the game reminds me of Far Cry 2: there are resources to manage, like gasoline, and you have to worry about damage to the bikes. Moving from one point of the map to another is a real challenge, but Days Gone lacks some of the features found in the now-old Far Cry 2. That’s not to say the game mechanics aren’t interesting. Going off the road and being forced to research resources to fix the motorcycle sets up some interesting moments. Once it happened to me that, after returning to the bike with some gasoline, I came across an individual trying to steal parts of my bike, but I was quick to stop him in time. It was just a scripted event, but moments like these are great touches.

Days Gone also places great emphasis on motorcycle riding. This is the best way to move from one point of the game world to another, and it is therefore important that you have full control of the vehicle. Fortunately, that’s right: the physical system allows you to control the bike with satisfaction regardless of the type of terrain you face. Cutting curves in mud is incredibly fun and is sometimes reminiscent of Motorstorm series games, especially after getting the turbo boost via nitro. And the bike can also be upgraded over the course of the game, further expanding the experience.

The bike is truly one of the most interesting and most successful mechanics in the entire game. Driving it is fun but its fragility plays a big role in survival itself. You have to take care of the vehicle and that’s a lot of fun. But equally important is the rendering of the characters. Days Gone offers a truly deep narrative, with tons of dialogue and cut-scenes in real time.

The main character, Deacon, is also voiced by Starkiller’s Sam Witwer, who is able to deliver a solid vocal performance, but it’s the rendering of his character that is most interesting to us. The team did a good job but Days Gone doesn’t beat any uncharted terrain. However there are some nice touches. The skin is made with the subsurface scattering technique both in the cut-scenes and during the gameplay, a situation that is evident around the light sources. The faces and hair are made with care, but it is the clothes that strike the most. Physics-governed materials go a long way in conveying the lifelike feel of moving textiles like leather and the like. Deacon himself is drawn with a maniacal detail:

Performance remains solid overall even when encountering the scariest hordes, although results may vary based on location and weather conditions.

Titles like Days Gone live or die based on the quality of their battle system and CPU AI. There is a great variety of enemies and tactics vary based on who you face, with a good mix of action and stealth. Sometimes you will only encounter zombies and other creatures and other times large hordes of enemies, which are one of the distinguishing features of the game itself. These big waves can be difficult to sow and it’s good to see performance isn’t affected. At times the AI ​​seems to act out of the ordinary, with enemies getting stuck in behavior that doesn’t conform to others in the same scene.

I really enjoyed playing Days Gone and the package is overall solid from a visual presentation standpoint. The world is large and detailed, the lighting is natural, the shadows implemented beautifully and all of this gives more depth to the environment. The characters are well drawn and there are a lot of zombies. However, it lacks the clean-cut feel of Sony first-party titles, as bugs and glitches are sometimes encountered, and performance on the standard PS4 sometimes falls short of the Pro, despite the new 1.03 patch. Although the zombie genre has already been widely explored in all its meanders, the way in which Days Gone proposes it is fresh and different so as to be interesting and extremely enjoyable.

Retracing all the games developed by Bend Studio over the years, Days Gone represents the culmination of the experience accumulated by the team. It offers a mix of action and stealth no different from the formula seen in Siphon Filter, also taking the best of the Resistance series and the typical storytelling of Uncharded: Golden Abyss. This development studio has grown a lot if we think that a long time ago it dealt with a very simple Bubsy 3D. Days Gone took a long time to develop, but the studio has grown immensely, perhaps setting the stage for a great new title destined for the next generation of consoles.

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