SANTA MONICA, California—Twenty minutes behind the motorcycle handlebars of was long enough to determine one thing: 20 minutes isn’t nearly enough to get us excited.
Greatness may very well hide within this upcoming PS4 exclusive from Sony Bend, but I got nowhere near excavating that during a pre-E3 hands-on event. Instead, I found an experience that sounds as standard and predictable as this description: an open-world, side-quest-filled, post-apocalyptic battle against zombies and survivors alike through which you must scavenge and craft to get ahead.
There’s clearly a bigger story going on in , and Sony Bend appears to leverage some incredible motion-capture and lip-sync technologies to bring its stories and actors to life in attractive fashion. But that’s not what I got to experience.
Loose hog in the forest
Instead, my skin-deep preview session focused on the kind of gameplay beats I’ve seen time and time again—the ones you would likely expect from such a familiar-sounding game description. I started my demo in the middle of a human settlement while steering a beefy, gang-worthy motorcycle toward a guarded chainlink fence, and I was encouraged to drive into a lush forest. (I later saw other testers ignore this advice and run through the village, but they ran into denizens with zero major stories, quests, or gameplay options to share.)
Two quests had been unlocked to drive toward, and these were cookie-cutter stuff. The first required me to find and turn on a power generator in order to help a sick ally—and, wouldn’t you know it, this loud generator attracted a ton of zombie attention. Some of these undead could easily be dispatched with guns or melee weapons, including a powerful spiked bat that had been conveniently left along my path. But I quickly learned that I was better off hopping on my bike and driving through this game’s brand of high-speed, high-intensity undead. Thus, I didn’t appreciate the game’s “wow, that’s a lot of zombies at once!” moments in my brief demo, and I’m admittedly curious how the final game will leverage such intense moments to stand out from other open-world adventure games.
The second mission, which asked me to invade a human compound and kill everyone in sight, exposed awful human AI and familiar stealth-and-kill strategies. I could sneak behind and choke a few enemies at first, but once a single compound member caught wind of my existence, the entire base camp of humans bee-lined in my direction no matter where I was hiding.
What exactly stood out in my gameplay session? Just one thing: driving a giant, noise-snarling hog through a dense forest. I needed to step back and watch other players’ sessions at the event to truly appreciate the scenery, and it confirmed that ‘s forest density is among the most intense yet this console generation. Tree variety is met by a ridiculous amount of untamed shrubs, grasses, weeds, and plants, and these are smothered in lights and shadows that bounce in every direction. I can still close my eyes and clearly recall the soft shadows that appeared in front of, on, and behind my biker as I drove through a wooded enclave that was set off by an encampment’s tiki torches.
Skittish frame rate, plot questions
This material-based lighting model, combined with rich plant geometry and roughly carved mud and dirt terrain, appeared to absolutely tax the PlayStation 4 system I tested on. That, unfortunately, wasn’t met by solid performance, as I can barely recall a single moment in which ‘s pre-release version reached anything near a locked 30Hz refresh. Right now, runs closer to 20fps performance.
Sony Bend producers insisted to Ars that the game will ship at a “locked 30″—and with every single visual detail from my demo intact, to boot. Part of that locked performance, according to those producers, will arrive courtesy of an “auto-generative” tool that builds assets based on whatever regional profile is assigned to your current gameplay zone (from rocky to forest to waterside). The march to a locked 30fps will also be aided by the fact that the game’s content is “locked down,” which leaves the team more time and energy to fine-tune and polish the engine’s performance.
Should the pre-release demo’s performance issues be ironed out, there’s no mistaking how handsome the final product will look. But whether we’ll care is another matter. A series of under-the-hood systems apparently improve the game’s progression, but we didn’t get a good look at those. So it’s unclear whether those improvements will lead to enough interesting customization and mechanical systems. And we only saw one brief dialogue exchange between the game’s hero, Deacon, and one of his crucial allies.
This was enough to prove the game’s mo-cap chops. But Sony Bend wants us to believe that will deliver an interactive, zombie-loaded, 35-hour take on —and from the look of things thus far, the plot will have to go a way to deliver on that promise. The open-world genre has gone many interesting directions since was announced in 2016, with , , and each putting unique, triple-A stamps on the old formula. Here’s to hoping can find a way to do so, as well.