Though still an alpha release, DayZ, a zombie apocalypse mod for military simulator Arma II, already has over a million player. This article takes a peek at the phenomenon and helps sort out what sets DayZ apart from other zombie games out there.
Once in a while, an independent game comes along and sweeps the world by storm, and the latest one to do so is DayZ, a zombie-themed modification of military simulator Arma II. Though still in alpha stage of development (keep that in mind during this review – it is still a work in progress, and thus, the information given here may be redundant in the future), the mod has, since it's original release five months ago, gained 1,250,000 players, and has quintupled the sales of the now three years old Arma II, keeping it in the Steam top charts for seven weeks straight. The statistics are staggering, but after spending time with the mod, the numbers begin to make sense. DayZ is a unique and immersive experience, and unlike just about any zombie game you've ever played.
DayZ was created by Dean "Rocket" Hall, a game developer from New Zealand. Hall's idea was spawned while he served in the army, where he hoped to use the game as a training simulator for soldiers. The players would learn how to deal with, amongst others, emotional situations on a battlefield; Hall has stated on numerous occasions that emotional involvement and immersion were key components to DayZ. The New Zealand army never picked up on the idea, so he released the game publicly instead, and the rest is history. Currently, he is employed with Bohemia Interactive, developers of the Arma series, as project leader for a standalone version of DayZ, expected to be out before the end of the year.
DayZ is a sandbox MMO with elements of first person shooter, role playing and survival horror elements baked in; and that's keeping the description very brief. Whereas many of today's zombie themed games place a gun in your hand and ask you to kill anything that moves, DayZ instead wants you to imagine what the reality of a zombie apocalypse would be, and asks you how you'd live in that setting; how would you find food, shelter, weapons; where would you go; what kind of person would you become?
The mod accomplishes this by placing you in a persistent world with no direction and as much freedom as possible; there are no missions, no overarching goals other than survival, and how you play is up to you (one could quite easily draw a few parallels to minecraft, which offers a similar goal-free experience). The focus on survival speaks to Hall's army background and it works excellently to draw you in and create an immersive experience.
The mod plays out in a 225 square kilometer region of "Chernarus", a fictional eastern European country. In reality, the game map is a satellite scan of a portion of the Czech Republic, and all the features from reality are present in game, from forests and fields, to farms and towns. When you first enter the game, after a rather complicated installation procedure, you are spawned somewhere on the southern coast of Chernarus.
A quick look in the inventory reveals a small 8-slot backpack, a package of painkillers, one package of bandages and a flashlight. You are given no weapon, no compass, no map, nor any other tools you may be expecting. All of those objects (and many more) exist, but have to be looted from buildings throughout the game world where they randomly spawn. Not to make it too easy, zombies also spawn near any building a player approaches to within 150 meters of. Apart from tools, weaponry and medical supplies, you also need provisions, in the form of food and drink, which can also be looted from buildings, or gathered in the wilderness.
A few handy icons in the HUD reveal how hungry or thirsty you are, whether you need medical supplies (which vary depending on your ailment), as well as how visible and audible you are to zombies. Accompanying the inventory system is the fact that your character is persistent. Anything you do and any object you collect, is saved when you log off. If you die, you loose it all and have to start again. This means that the longer you play, and the more stuff you gather, the more desperately you feel a need to survive, because dying means losing days, or weeks, of playtime.
These design elements come together in many ways to shape your experience of the game. There is a constant level of stress permeating the game: From the first moments, you are under pressure, because you need to get supplies before you starve, and that means approaching a zombie infested village with no weapon. If spotted, zombies will pursue you endlessly, unless you manage to distract them, lose them or kill them.
Eventually, you'll find something to defend yourself with, and approaching settlements becomes safer, but as you now have supplies, the price for failure goes up, so you never truly feel safe. This, in combination with the randomly spawned loot which takes time to track down, made some players rethink their role in the game, and decided it was easier to prey upon unsuspecting players, looting their corpses for supplies, rather than kill zombies while venturing into towns. These "bandits" where something Hall didn't anticipate when he first created the mod, but has since become one of the most appealing aspects of the game.
Much like you'd expect in reality, a player confrontation is extremely dangerous and you never know if the other player is a friend, or someone out to murder you when your back is turned. The risk for bandit encounters has taught experienced players to avoid open areas at all costs, to approach cities with extreme caution, and even to work together for survival. Meanwhile, the bandits have learned how to trick honest players, trap them or otherwise gain the upper hand.
DayZ is fantastically fun to play. The depth and immersion the game offers is addicting and thrilling. DayZ still has many kinks to work out, however: Bugginess is expected for an alpha-release, but and is ever-present here too. Many features which could be improved, such as the inventory system's clunky interface and poor hit detection for certain weapons, will no doubt be worked out in the future as well. In addition, the game isn't always entertaining; wandering through the woods endlessly can get dull, especially if you don't have friends to play with. I always come back for more, but indeed, it isn't a game I play every day.The overall experience though is good, and the pros outweigh the cons by a lot: the freedom it offers, focus on survival, and dynamic between players is unique and very welcomed in the realm of zombie games.
In my humble opinion, this mod deserves a 9/10. It needs polishing, but my god is it good.