Days Gone is a game that has been defined by its comparisons. When it debuted last year, it drew obvious parallels to The Last of Us. Its lush, overgrown world seemed remarkably similar to Joel and Ellie's, to the point that it seemed very possible that it was a spin-off or in-universe side-story. This year, developer Sony Bend has distanced itself from that comparison, but made another one in the process. Days Gone is essentially Horizon: Zero Dawn, with zombies swapped for robots.
An extended hands-off demonstration showed more of an encounter that was highlighted during Sony's press conference. Deacon went off to rescue an old buddy of his from raiders, and encountered pockets of zombies ("Freakers") in the process. The open world creates an immediate distinction from The Last of Us, but its similarities to Horizon are more than skin-deep. Everything from the stealth combat to the material pick-ups to the weapon wheel to the special tracker-vision seemed nearly identical to the recent Guerrilla hit. Even the way zombies could be turned on humans, which I had regarded as a neat change of pace for zombie games, is reminiscent of turning machines on raiders.
It's reasonable that two open-world franchises from internal companies would share tech frameworks, but the similarities are so striking that it may come down to a matter of taste. Those who didn't love Horizon's far-post-apocalyptic world or sci-fi tropes might find more familiar ground in the recognizable post-zombie-apocalypse of Days Gone.
Unfortunately, some of the comparisons just aren't very favorable to Days Gone. Deacon is a generic, gruff wet blanket compared to the curious and enthusiastic Aloy, and the world he inhabits was more typical and bland. We were told during the demo session that weather patterns would have an impact on gameplay, but the walkthrough we saw only took place against thick blanketed snow, so we couldn't see how a different type of weather might have changed it.
One more intriguing hint of differentiation came from the way NPC personalities interacted. At one point Deacon laid a bear trap and tempted some raiders to it–by throwing a stone (a la Horizon, naturally). When one stepped in it, he started shrieking in pain. This caused another NPC to train her gun on him and, when he failed to listen to her pleas to quiet down, shoot him. That isn't necessarily how such an encounter will always go down, and we were assured that some NPCs may not shoot the man to quiet him. That level of variation could create a living, breathing world, if we have enough variety in personality types and interactions.
None of this is meant to diminish Sony Bend's hard work. Days Gone is a gorgeous game, and there's nothing wrong with having some striking similarities to one of the best games of the year. It looks engaging and facilitates player creativity in many of the ways Horizon did. It just misses out on being first.