Breaking Down Days Gone's Gameplay Loops
Earlier this week, we took a look at how Sony Bend is attempting to craft a different kind of open-world game with Days Gone, eschewing the activity-filled sandbox formula for a more focused and cohesive experience. But that doesn't mean players won't have plenty to keep them busy as they navigate the freaker-infested high-desert region of Oregon. Sony Bend is working hard to create compelling and rewarding gameplay loops that provide numerous forms of progression for Deacon. We got firsthand experience with several of these gameplay loops, which we detail below along with more hands-on impressions.
1. NERO Checkpoints
The National Emergency Response Organization was Oregon's best hope against Days Gone's society-ending "freaker" infection, but NERO didn't fare much better than everyone else. During his travels, Deacon will come across numerous abandoned NERO checkpoints, which the FEMA-esque organization used to check, treat, and sometimes quarantine infected citizens. These makeshift clinics contain precious loot – if Deacon can find a way inside the locked labs. "Each [checkpoint] has something for the player to obtain, and each one is locked down and needs power in different ways," says lead open-world designer Eric Jensen. "So players will find a challenge and a little puzzle element with each of those."
We investigated the earliest and simplest NERO checkpoint during our hands-on demo, but it still wasn't without its complications. Getting the lab's doors to unlock first required finding a gas can to fuel up the station's generator. Once we flipped the switch, however, a recorded message started blaring over the checkpoint's loudspeakers, drawing the attention of nearby freakers. You can disable the speakers before you turn on the electricity, but don't expect the game to point that out to you. "There's a contingent of hand-holders who are like, 'No, let me go into survival-vision mode and see the speakers up there and have hint text that comes up and says, "Before you turn the power on, be sure to turn those speakers off."' To me, that ruins immersion," says creative director John Garvin. "We don't want to telegraph everything to the player. We want them to figure stuff out, and not be too punishing if they don't."
Once you get the doors open (and clear out any invading freakers if you make a mess of things), you'll find a bounty of crafting supplies inside, plus an injection syringe that allows Deacon upgrade either his health, stamina, or the duration of his focus ability. Completed NERO checkpoints also act as fast-travel destinations and respawn locations, and let you access your universal weapons stash, making them well worth the detour if you spot one during your travels.
2. Ambush Camps
By far the most familiar of Days Gone's gameplay loops, ambush camps are home to the game's non-infected human enemies, and require Deacon to take out all of its inhabitants in order to neutralize the location. While this is well-worn territory for open-world games, don't expect to last long if you go in guns blazing; Days Gone's gunplay is far deadlier than series like Far Cry, and Deacon can't automatically heal by slinking off and crouching in a bush for 30 seconds. Because of this you'll want to take your time preparing for an encounter, setting up traps and using your binoculars to mark enemies.
Unlike other open-world games, you won't have to worry about your enemies calling in reinforcements if they're alerted to your presence – the marauders aren't organized enough to have spare soldiers waiting in the wings. What you WILL have to worry about, however, are freakers dropping by unexpectedly. "Sustained gunfire in a compact period of time is the formula that tells everybody in the world – humans and animals and freakers – that there's some chaos over there," says game director Jeff Ross. "This could be a lot of food that at the very least could be lying around, and they can go get it. So you want to make sure that you're not around when they arrive." That said, freakers don't have much in the way of a refined palate; bad guys are just as tasty to them as do-gooders, so drawing a freaker pack into an ambush camp can sometimes work to your advantage.
Like NERO checkpoints, completing an ambush camp opens it up as a fast-travel location and offers more supplies to scavenge. You'll also find underground bunkers in the camps containing maps that will remove the fog of war from your world map. Taking down ambush camps also makes the world a little safer for Deacon to travel through. "Ambush camps are filled with murderous thieves and marauders, and these guys are actually the ones executing these ambushes throughout the world," Jensen says. "If you want to lower the frequency of getting knocked off your bike from a clothesline or getting sniped at by somebody, then you're going to have to take out these ambush camps."
3. Freaker Nests
Freakers are an ever-present threat in Days Gone, but some areas in the sprawling open world are more densely populated than others. A red overlay on the map indicates that the surrounding area is suffering from an infestation, and in order to clear it out you'll need to locate and burn a variable number of freaker nests. These nests are typically located inside buildings and other dark places, offering freakers a reprieve from the afternoon sun – and an opportunity for Deacon to get to work. "The freakers tend to stay indoors and hibernate during the day, and when this happens you can attack their nests," Jensen says. "They will come out of their nests if you make too much noise; they're going to react to what the player is doing in the area."
Tackling an infestation proved to be the most difficult portion of my hands-on demo; the area I was in required me to track down and burn six nests, but even as I approached the first one, the drip-feed of freakers I was attracting steadily increased with each successive gunshot. By the time I made it into the first building and started torching the nests, any semblance of stealth was out the window. Instead, I was frantically sprinting from one location to the next with an unceasing parade of freakers snapping at my heels, improvising with whatever melee weapons I could find in the environment and using explosive barrels to my advantage. After a few failed attempts, I realized that I simply wasn't prepared for such a big undertaking – I had neither the items nor the skills after an hour of play to tackle the challenge at hand, and the world won't simply acquiesce if you're having a hard time. The smart play would be to regroup, gather more supplies, and come back when I was better prepared.
As with Days Gone's other gameplay loops, dealing with these hotspots is worth the effort; infestations prevent you from fast-traveling through the affected area, even if you've unlocked your final destination as a viable travel point. Clearing out the nests also decreases the local freaker population, making it a little easier for Deacon to scavenge nearby areas for supplies.
Deacon will come across several friendly encampments during his travels, but "friendly" is a relative term – while the inhabitants won't shoot him on sight, Deacon will have to do some hired work if he wants to enjoy the full benefits of their community. Encampments offer several types of jobs that are grounded in the day-to-day struggle to survive, such as hunting deer for meat to feed the local population or completing a variety of bounties to shore up their protection. "There are bounty chases that involve the bike, where you're trying to get somebody who also rides and you have to go after them," Jensen says. "Then we have survivor rescues, which are guys who were abducted from a camp and you have to go back out and rescue them." Sony Bend showed off one such survivor rescue during E3 2017, where Deacon worked to save an NPC named Manny from an enemy encampment, culminating in the surprise arrival of a freaker bear. As it turns out, Manny plays a vital role in the first friendly encampment you encounter: He's the camp's mechanic, and can supply Deacon with a variety of invaluable bike upgrades if you can get him back in one piece.
Deacon can also collect freaker ears during his travels, which act as a universal currency at friendly encampments – proof that he's making the world a safer place. But Deacon isn't just doing these jobs out of the kindness of his own heart. "All of [the jobs] play into the economy of the encampment, and you're rewarded for doing all of those things," Jensen says. The more effort you put in, the more an encampment will trust you with their weapons and supplies, as well as discounts. Just don't expect your sterling reputation to ring across the whole of Oregon – the next encampment you come across won't care much about what you did to help out another group of starving survivors.
Sony Bend's piece de resistance of game design, freaker hordes are what set Days Gone apart from all the other zombie games we've played. These massive roaming hordes make infestations look like child's play, and you never know when you might stumble across one. "Hordes are all over the place," Jensen says. "They have migration behavior... There's kind of a puzzle element to any encounter in the game, you have to be aware that a horde might be passing through at any given time. They have to eat and drink like anybody else, so they move to locations where that's available."
Sony Bend debuted Days Gone at E3 2016 with a live demo of a horde encounter, but the impressive early footage didn't convey your ultimate goal. Deacon isn't simply trying to escape or survive the horde for a set amount of time – he's actually trying to kill every last freaker in group. Like my attempt at clearing out an infestation (but 10 times more so), trying to take down a horde puts Deacon in constant danger and requires on-the-fly tactics to stay one step ahead of the pack. You'll have to improvise routes and use any environmental traps at your disposal, plus the stockpile of ammo and explosives you (hopefully) brought with you for the encounter.
Horde battles are considered late-game encounters, and are as exciting as they are challenging; our attempt to take down what game director Jeff Ross described as a "baby horde" of "just" 300 freakers took several tries, even with a geared-up Deacon.
While we got a good look at some of Days Gone's main gameplay loops, players can expect plenty of other surprises along the way. "There's a lot of stuff in the open world," Jensen says. "There's a lot of content. We have roughly 1,200 dynamic events that can occur throughout the regions." From roadside ambushes to massive freaker hordes, Sony Bend is pulling out all the stops to make Days Gone its biggest and most ambitious game yet.
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