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Monday, December 16, 2019

Days Gone and Last of Us 2: the video games predicting the end of the world

Two anticipated PlayStation games make different post-apocalyptic pitches: hordes of virus-infected undead walking, or romance in a pitiless, violent world. Pick your pandemic …

Who knows what could possibly be driving this, but post-apocalyptic video games are having a moment. In the past year we’ve already seen Fallout 76, Anthem and Metro Exodus, while an open beta for Ubisoft’s online shooter The Division 2, set in a ruined Washington DC, started on 1 March. Arguably, however, the two most anticipated genre pieces are still to come on PlayStation 4: Days Gone and The Last of Us 2. Both set after most of the population has been wiped out by a pandemic, their different approaches tell us a lot about what it takes to stand out from the shambling, undead crowd.

Days Gone, out April 26 from Sony Bend Studios, takes an open-world approach. Set after a virus has turned most of humanity (and a lot of animals) into bloodthirsty monsters, you play as roving bounty hunter and motorcycle fanatic Deacon St John. Cruising around Oregon’s High Desert region with his best friend Boozer, he gets into confrontations with the infected – called freakers – as well as the low-life thieves and bandits who prosper amid the anarchy. The world is a vast space, featuring dense woodlands, sparse mountainous regions, small towns and deserted compounds, all freely explorable.

What you do in this savage world will be familiar to anyone who’s played anything with the words Far Cry in the title over the past five years. There’s an overarching narrative involving a sinister government agency known as Nero (a sort of hyper-weaponised Fema), and also a personal backstory centred on Deacon’s wife, Sarah, for whom he appears to be grieving. Side-stores and characters can be discovered around the various friendly encampments dotted about the place, and outside of that you can busy yourself raiding bandit camps (like the camps in Far Cry) or destroying freaker nests, which opens up fast travel points (like, er, the camps in Far Cry).

What’s new of course is the concept of hordes – vast groups of zombies, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, that migrate across the landscape. Battling these is a major undertaking, with players needing to assess the local terrain, using traps, explosives, pinch points and lots of ammo to cope as the sprinting monsters swarm to get at you. Players who love to stake out a survival scenario, intricately planning offensives and taking their time over preparations, are going to really enjoy dealing with these gigantic death gangs.

Sound triggers local freakers – and wildlife – to investigate the player. I got into a major shoot-out at a bandit camp on a mountain ridge and within seconds, hordes of freakers descended on us, helpfully taking out several enemies – but then I was attacked by a pack of wolves also drawn to the scene. A day/night cycle and changing weather also work together to vary conditions and risks immensely – zombies are stronger in the dark, but rain dampens their senses, so your plans have to take the environment into account.

There are some big questions that Sony Bend will have to wrestle with. Days Gone has all the ingredients of a decent, involving open-world shooter; there looks to be masses of freedom to approach things the way you want. But everything – from the mission structure to the Pacific Northwestern landscapes to the damaged male protagonist – looks and feels extremely familiar. When Sony started rolling out trailers featuring a flashback to Deacon and Sarah’s wedding, then present day scenes of him standing alone with a photo of the wedding, looking vengeful, the internet collectively rolled its eyes: the dialogue on Twitter was: “Great, another story where a man’s emotional depth comes from the death of a woman”. This grieve-and-avenge trope has become a cliche in the action movie and action game genres, as has world-weary bros bonding over a dying world: Days Gone doesn’t just remind me of Far Cry, but also Red Dead Redemption 2. (Deacon’s motorbike, is, let’s face it, a substitute horse.)

2013’s The Last of Us originally looked like another entry in this genre playbook, with protagonist Joel losing his daughter then developing a paternal relationship with feisty teen Ellie. But in choosing a linear, narrative-over-freedom approach, developer Naughty Dog crafted a much more focused, complex story, in which Ellie has agency (and, you know, she’s alive), and where the power dynamics constantly shifted between the two characters. From what we’ve seen so far, the sequel, The Last of Us 2 (also likely to come out this year), takes a similar approach, centring its post-apocalypse on people rather than dramatic events. The latest trailer focused largely on a romantic relationship between Ellie and a new girlfriend, Dina.

These seem to be the ways to tell a post-apocalyptic video game story in 2019 – make us think about how the world works, how natural and manmade systems interact, or make us think about individuals caught in the maelstrom, trying to live their lives. We see this dichotomy throughout post-apocalyptic fiction: on one side, the big set-piece global thrillers such as World War Z and 28 Weeks Later and on the other, quiet, intimate tragic tales such as The Road and the recent Netflix movie Cargo.

What we’ve yet to see – and what The Last of Us 2 will hopefully provide – is a post-apocalyptic game that really challenges the gender dynamics of the genre. One day it would be fascinating to play a post-apocalyptic adventure where the pandemic kills all the cynical tough guys first – but we’re likely to be kept waiting a long time for that.

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