Title: Days Gone | Developer: Bend Studio | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Initial Release: 26th Apr 2019
Keen not to be just another post-apocalyptic zombie-fest, Days Gone is set in Bend Studio's native Oregon and follows the (mis-)fortunes of local biker-gang member, Deacon St. John, in the recent aftermath of a rather nasty biological outbreak. Infected humans, known as Freakers, are the headline threat but other groups of hostile survivors and the distinctly unfriendly wildlife help to create a world that really "comes for you" in exciting ways. The tropes may not be for everyone and several ideas borrowed from existing titles do invite criticism on the originality front but an interesting set of characters and easily formed attachment to the bike make each two wheeled trip out into the exquisitely designed environments an enjoyable adventure.
Somewhere that those criticisms cannot be levelled is towards the game's photo mode and Bend Studio have clearly set out to make a statement, tasking art teams with producing the feel of a real world camera and the flexibility of professional photo editing software. Perhaps spurred on by certain expectations for this title to deliver on the virtual photography front, the implementation is a level above what we may have become used to in terms of complexity with technical options that set some new standards. As mentioned in the earlier First Look, there is certainly a lot to get to grips with but the few weeks since release have allowed some time for it all to sink in, so let's take a look in more detail.
more than enough features in store to justify the effort
Key Photo Mode Features:
Realistic camera settings with focus lock
Switch camera attachment to nearby characters
Advanced colour grading mode
Controls & Implementation:
There is no denying that Days Gone offers a complex photo mode that could put some people off but the clever use of separate Basic and Advanced options help to differentiate the more technical features from the standard ones and keep the whole thing accessible to artists at all levels. It is clear that a great deal of thought has been put into this and so it is unfortunate to see an early oversight. With no convenient button binding, the photo mode is accessed via the in-game pause menu and requires a decidedly inconvenient 5 button presses to reach. This is obviously not the end of the world and there are more than enough features in store to justify the effort but repeatedly navigating through a menu can grate a little when better solutions are so easily implemented.
This particularly useful feature greatly expands the reach of the camera and facilitates more varied compositions
The camera itself can be freely positioned within a generous bounding sphere and moves with a sense of inertia that can make it feel sluggish at first but does help movement to be less sudden during composition. For precision adjustments, holding O further slows the camera motion on the vertical crane and horizontal truck / dolly axes, controlled with the L2 & R2 triggers and LS respectively. Incidentally, each of these movements operate relative to the environment at all times and so are not affected by camera roll. By default, the bounding sphere is centred on Deacon but a single click on R3 will switch it to the nearest NPC companion, enemy AI or even passing animal. This particularly useful feature greatly expands the reach of the camera and facilitates more varied compositions while also ensuring that nearby characters are rarely left frustratingly out of range.
Similarly useful is the focus lock feature which can be attached to any object by pressing L3, keeping it in focus as the camera is repositioned. A successful lock disables the manual setting and displays a small red ☐ at the chosen point of focus, much like the auto-focus of a digital camera. Generally, this aims to attach to whatever is at the centre of the screen although a degree of facial recognition will helpfully pick out character's eyes in the right circumstances, a very welcome addition for portrait work. It can be a little temperamental at times, occasionally refusing to lock onto clearly visible objects and instead focusing on the distant background, but overall this is much more versatile than a simple character focus lock.
It is not all perfect with the camera implementation though, a lack of pan & tilt functionality is a significant drawback and instead, the RS performs a circular orbit around the character centred at waist height. While orbit has its uses, this means that it is not possible to simply alter the direction of "look" from a fixed position, as you would by turning and tilting your head, and a simple horizontal slide to the left and look back right becomes a much less intuitive tussle of the LS & RS as you orbit and compensate. Similarly, attempting to crane the camera to ground level and look horizontally forwards will be met with disappointment as the lens remains aimed upwards towards the orbit centre. Real world feel, this is not.
Thankfully the UI is much less obtrusive, occupying the lower right corner of the screen and providing helpful tool tips for each setting as well as a full legend that is shown by pressing ☐. In Basic mode, the first of 4 tabs houses additional camera settings including tilt, which actually performs the roll function through ± 180°, as well as overall brightness and contrast sliders. Lens options are strong and offer a FoV ranging from 10 - 110° (effective 12 - 200 mm zoom), fully manual focus distance, a suitably authentic film grain effect and realistic aperture settings from f/1.8 to f/22. As with real world lenses, wide apertures create a DoF effect with a pleasing defocus of both background and foreground objects that is most pronounced at a narrower FoV / longer focal length.
The characters tab enables users to toggle the visibility of Deacon as well as that of his bike or other NPCs and animals while 8 facial expressions are available to add a little personality. Creative frames include useful photographic and cinematic crops plus 9 graphical surrounds such as a broken window frame or burnt photograph edges while a stamp-like game logo is also available with 2 colours and 8 positions. It is especially nice to see that these positions respond to the selected frame crop by placing the logo within the visible region rather than overlaying the black border. Finally for Basic mode, there are 18 preset filters covering a wide range of artistic styles from simple B&W or vivid colour to several creative split-tone options, each of which can be used as a starting point for the Advanced options and re-saved as a custom preset in one of 5 available slots.
Without even entering the Advanced mode though, Days Gone offers a photo mode with a wealth of features that will be more than enough for some people, providing everything needed to compose a shot and make it your own. If that is you then you may want to skip to the end at this point but, as is ever the case, more options means more creativity and that is squarely where the Advanced mode is aimed.
understanding the subtle differences between each group can help to make the most out of these powerful tools
Advanced Colour Grading:
Switching between Basic and Advanced requires a single press of the X button and, far from one replacing the other, the two modes work in unison with the latter actually being advanced colour grading. It would be fair to say that Basic represents the camera and Advanced the editing software; different tools for different stages of the process. The editing tools are delivered via 3 expanded UI tabs consisting of colour grading, depth colour grading and bloom, each with very distinct uses.
The primary colour grading tab is perhaps the easiest to jump into and lets you set the overall tone of an image with several options that should be familiar to anyone who has used photo editing / development software to work on real world photographs before. Temperature and Tint give full white balance control across the blue-yellow temperature and green-magenta compensation scales, Brightness carries over from the Basic settings and Contrast is now available with individual sliders for the red, green and blue (RGB) colour channels to give you more localised control of the contrast of each colour. Saturation uniformly boosts every colour in an image whereas Vibrancy is used to boost more muted colours such as blues and greens without causing an unnatural orange increase in skin tones - something that does occur when using saturation alone. Vignette intensity and falloff settings are fairly self-explanatory and so far there should be nothing to worry about getting lost in.
Perhaps the first area that may be unfamiliar to some is in the Gamma, Gain and Offset sliders, all of which use three separate RGB channels to adjust the lightness and colour balance of an image in subtly different ways. As a broad generalisation, gamma primarily affects the midtones, gain affects the highlights and offset shifts the output of the whole image but understanding the subtle differences between each group can help to make the most out of these powerful tools.
Gamma is used to adjust overall brightness on a non-linear scale based on the fact that the human eye perceives more subtle differences between darker shades than between lighter ones. Whereas brightness affects the level of every pixel linearly and contrast stretches the range between black and white, increasing / decreasing gamma shifts the output of the image towards the lighter / darker tones and alters the perceived contrast of everything in between. Consequently this can be used to control the definition between the midtones and ensure that details are distinguishable.
Gain meanwhile, replicates how a digital camera sensor amplifies the signal generated by light reaching it to produce a brightness value in the saved image. Higher gain means more amplification of light sources and hence highlights are boosted while blacks are left unaffected. This setting is conveniently used to re-colour or control the intensity of an area of bright light.
look out for the illumination of individual raindrops as they pass in front of a light source
Finally, Offset shifts the entire tonal range of the image and is most immediately noticed in the darkest regions by shifting blacks to greys, remember that is where our eyes see the difference in tone most clearly. The separate colour channels can be used to apply an overall colour cast without affecting the balance between light and shadow although the implementation here is very strong and only a small portion of the slider scales seem practically useful.
It is worth noting that with each of these options, adjusting all three RGB sliders equally will produce an overall effect on image brightness without altering the colour balance and it would have been nice to have a single master slider with which to do this for each type of adjustment.
Moving on, the depth colour grading tab offers some of the most creative options in the Days Gone photo mode and allows you to apply a different colour grading to the foreground (near) and background (far) regions of the image, the transition between which is fully customisable of course. With separate RGB adjustment of tint, saturation and gamma for both the near and far regions, this feature allows the creation of unique colour tones for each area with extremely broad creative possibilities including the subtle pop of a subject against a subdued backdrop or highly stylised images with false colour or silhouette effects.
There are some quirks here too as one or two of the depth grading options don't work entirely as expected, sometimes to your advantage and sometimes not. For example, while the tint option enables full colour correction, is also affects luminosity and so can be used to preferentially lighten (or darken) the foreground and background independently. Saturation meanwhile, should be straight forward enough but each RGB channel also boosts its complimentary colour (red-cyan, green-magenta, blue-yellow), making certain adjustments a little unpredictable, furthermore, red saturation is almost ineffectual at distance and causes a cyan boost only. Gamma is especially tricky here as each slider operates with an inverted scale and so causes the opposite effect to that of the main gamma adjuster. Altering near gamma also produces a counteractive effect on the far region so adjusting one area without affecting the other is difficult. It is also worth watching out for Deacon's beard and eyes matching the background as well as a series of striations which can appear across objects that are out of focus, perhaps as an artefact of resolution economy / upscaling such as pixel interpolation on less important areas.
It's a bit muddled in places then and may require some trial and error but the depth grading really is an excellent creative tool and is immediately followed by another. The final tab is home to Bloom, simulating the effect that occurs when an intense light causes brightness to bleed into neighbouring pixels on a digital camera sensor. Two groups of bloom settings offer the same functions of Intensity - the overall bloom extent; Threshold - the brightness needed to create bloom; and Max. Intensity - opacity of the bloom effect, with the main difference being that Bloom 2 creates a stronger effect than Bloom 1. The two are best used in conjunction with one another by combining different bloom effects to create an overall look and, along with the now obligatory RGB channels and neat X & Y-axis width adjustment can be used to create a very effective soft glow or characteristic anamorphic lens flare effect.
With such an extensive creative suite, it is all the more important to have good content to photograph and Days Gone delivers plenty of it. The Oregon wilderness is created with the love and attention of people who experience its real world counterpart and includes several different biomes each with their own beautiful vistas and intricate details. Far from a static place of serene beauty though, the world is dynamic with full day / night cycles, including a quite stupendous night sky, as well as varied weather effects from sunny morning mist to thunder and snow storms. Unfortunately neither of these can be altered via the photo mode so it's back to the more realistic approach of finding the right conditions but it will almost certainly be worth the wait.
A truly stunning environment, high level of detail and exciting opportunities mean that you will find no shortage of inspiration
Character models are also pleasingly detailed with impressive clothing textures and gruesome enemies, although you may notice the same ones repeating throughout larger groups. The array of crafted melee weapons can be especially interesting to get up close to and the fact that Deacon's bike feels as much like a companion as it does a mere tool, will likely have you photographing that just as often.
Days Gone also presents a lot of photographic interest from a technical standpoint as the stunning use of volumetric lighting combines environment and weather effects in outstanding ways. Keep a look out for shafts of light in woodland mist or clouds of dust and even the illumination of individual raindrops as they pass in front of a light source. There is also excellent use of screen space reflections to give a very realistic look to wet roads and water surfaces while screen space shadows are also utilised to create very crisp and believable shadow effects.
Days Gone may be the game to prove that developers are serious about virtual photography. An advanced photo mode aims to enable artists with realistic camera tools and extensive editing options. A truly stunning environment, high level of detail and exciting opportunities mean that you will find no shortage of inspiration on which to use them though a few niggles make some of the more technical features more difficult to use than they could have been. Still, Bend Studio have raised the bar for open world virtual photography and this could be a sign of great things to come.
View the Days Gone game page
Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: Via Options menu
Camera Movement: Free (with bounding sphere)
Tilt (Roll): -180° to 180° (± 2.25°)
Brightness: 0 - 2 (± 0.025)
Contrast: 0 - 2 (± 0.025)
Field of View: 10° - 110° (± 1.25°)
Focus Distance: 1 - 5,000 (± 16)
Aperture: f/1.4 - f/22
Film Grain: 0 - 100% (± 1.25%)
Deacon: Show / Hide
Deacon's Bike: Show / Hide
Other Characters: Show / Hide
Facial Expression: Default + 8 presets
Frame: None + 14 presets (incl. 21:9, 4:3 & 1:1)
Logo Position: None + 8 positions
Logo Colour: White / Black
Preset (Filter): Default + 18
Save Custom Preset: 5 slots
Temperature: 1,500 - 15,000 K (± 84 K)
Tint (Green - Magenta): -1 to +1 (± 0.025)
Brightness: 0 - 2 (± 0.025)
Contrast R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Saturation: 0 - 2 (± 0.013)
Vibrancy: 0 - 1 (± 0.006)
Gamma R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Gain R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Offset R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Vignette: 0 - 100% (± 1.25%)
Vignette Falloff: 1 - 8 (± 0.087)
Near Tint R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Near Saturation R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Near Gamma R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Far Tint R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Far Saturation R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Far Gamma R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Transition Depth (Near / Far): 0 - 10,000 (± 125)
Transition Spread: 0 - 1,000 (± 13)
Bloom 1 Intensity: 0 - 1 (± 0.013)
Bloom 1 Threshold: 0.1 - 16 (± 0.199)
Bloom 1 Max. Intensity: 0.01 - 2 (± 0.025)
Bloom 1 Size X: 0 - 256 (± 0.5)
Bloom 1 Size Y: 0 - 256 (± 0.5)
Bloom 1 Colour R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Bloom 2 Intensity: 0 - 2 (± 0.025)
Bloom 2 Threshold: 0 - 1 (± 0.013)
Bloom 2 Max. Intensity: 0.1 - 32 (± 0.499)
Bloom 2 Size X: 0 - 256 (± 0.5)
Bloom 2 Size Y: 0 - 256 (± 0.5)
Bloom 2 Colour R/G/B: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Hide UI: Yes
(via in-game settings)
Disable HUD: No
HDR: On / Off, Brightness