The story, such as it is, begins on the beach. In your hands is a pistol. Ahead of you is a massive level modeled after a bucolic Eastern-bloc. Aside from a handful of other survivors, it is populated entirely by zombies, the exact number on the server that is publicly displayed to taunt you. We’re not told how it happened, nor why, nor why you’re even here. Maybe the heroes come from the sea, but if you’re like me, you’re a bandit come to strip what’s left of value from the land.
In either case, the imperative is the same: survive for as long as you can.
DayZ is a mod of the military simulation game Arma 2: Combined Operations. The base game is known for an attachment to realism in ballistics, weapon modeling, and the overall military experience. In Arma you can run 5 klicks and maybe see one enemy. With DayZ you’ll need to belly crawl through the tall grass to avoid the ton of zombies that surround you. It retains the hardcore spirit of the base game but channels the classic question: “How would you survive the zombie apocalypse?” In travelling across Chernarussia you will have to stay hydrated, eat to maintain your “blood” level, and avoid the zombies at all costs.
It’s an alpha-state mod of a game with some stability problems, so it’s difficult to recommend to those who haven’t already bought Arma 2, but the tension it creates is palpable despite low production values. The compelling aspect of the mod is the incredibly simple goal of survival. Simple, of course, is a relative term when you are pitted against complex survival mechanics, a large map filled with powerful enemies, and bandit players who’d rather steal your scrounged supplies than team up. As of this writing, the life expectancy of a DayZ survivor is 28 minutes.
A zombie encounter can be survived, but if you die that character is gone forever. Permadeath meant my first instinct was to avoid conflict altogether; just take to the woods and explore. That’s where the survival mechanics kick in. Your character has to eat, drink, and stay warm, all of which require finding supplies. Supplies are in towns, where zombies are thick as thieves, forcing a constant risk/reward evaluation on the player’s part.
With patience and care a town can be picked clean even without a friend to watch your back, but DayZ does a remarkably good job of lulling you into a false sense of security. One incarnation had a nice rifle, a pack of supplies, and quite frankly I was sick of sneaking around every goddamn zombie. One zombie over by a shed, maybe twenty meters away? Why not shoot him with my shiny new rifle! As my shot rang out across the town, I instantly recognized my mistake. Growls issued forth from all around me as the twenty or so zombies within earshot came to answer the dinner bell I had just rung. Once a zombie locks on in DayZ hiding won’t do any good, and I was swarmed before I could line up a single shot. It’s amazing how fast you can go from set to screwed in this game.
Upon respawning, I murdered several players in a row and was again flush with supplies, only to put myself in the noose once more. I walked myself into a “trap” created by the semi-random paths of zombies in town. Several minutes in the grass, it was clear that the only way was to shoot an escape path open. I knew I’d aggro the other zombies, but vaulting a low fence delayed them enough to create separation. I turned around, shocked at just how fast hungry zombies were, but managed to drop all nine. I’d lost a lot of blood, however, and died shortly thereafter.
Spawns are semi-random, clustering around one of several different towns on the coast, ensuring a chance of supplies nearby. Emphasis on chance. It’s completely disheartening to spend ten minutes carefully creeping to a house only to find three empty cans. For atmosphere’s sake, this is great, as at least I could enter the house. It’s clear, though, that Arma’s Chernarussia was never designed for a game like this. Far too many buildings can’t be entered at all, meaning I’ve exposed my survivor on the main street in plain view for nothing. Other curiosities abound, such as weapon racks full of assault rifles you can’t loot and wells that you can’t fill your canteen from.
The game tells you which town you just spawned near, which is as much direction as you’ll likely ever get. There is no map unless you find one in the game world. If you’ve just washed up on shore, after all, why should you know your way around? Part of a permadeath game’s appeal, however, is keeping track of how far you got this time. As the mod gestates it would be nice to see some sort of automap function which reveals itself as my character progresses, rather than purely relying on landmarks and (bad) memory. It’s a hardcore game, yes, but it would help to have some semblance of progress amidst the powerful despair of the setting.
Maybe this time I’ll actually find some water.