It had to happen eventually. With the internet abuzz about developer Rocket’s ARMA 2 mod and my fondness for zombie games, it was only a matter of time until I braved the glitchy war sim that is ARMA 2 once more, but this time to try out Day Z.
Allow me to explain my position. I have had ARMA 2 for a couple of years at least. I bought it on a recommendation from friends on a long lost forum that is now empty. I tried to play it three times before I uninstalled it in frustration. It certainly sounded great and, in essence, it was. ARMA 2 is a military simulator, it’s realistic to the point of silliness, which is fine, except that for all that realism to be incorporated into a game said game needs to be incredibly complicated. The obvious result of this is that it is far from user friendly.
Now, years later, Day Z has surfaced using the ARMA 2 engine. I was interested for a week or two, but didn’t try it out due to not wanting to be anywhere near ARMA 2 ever again. Eventually I had to give in to the hype and reinstall ARMA 2 (as well as buy the expansion that’s required). I’m glad I did.
Day Z is a superb/horrifying experience that’s unlike any other. Dropping you into a vast Russian countryside that’s roamed by zombies and other players alike, your only goal is to survive as long as you can. Also loot, you should find loot too. I love loot.[drop]It’s still not user-friendly, but I went in prepared this time. After having seen various videos of people playing I’d figured out the inventory, not to mention picking up a few tips for when I’m not in menus, and I’d changed some options (most notably turning off the dreadful head-bob) to make the game easier to bear and run a little smoother. I could actually play the game now, so I settled in for a zombie game.
Except I didn’t find a zombie game; I found a survival game that zombies happen to inhabit. You see, Day Z is not about zombies – the zombies are just a hazard, something that can usually be avoided. It’s almost a social game – no, it’s almost a social experiment. Day Z drops you into a huge map with loot, zombies and, crucially, other players. The experience is every bit as about the human condition as things like The Walking Dead, except that here it’s actual real humans on the other side, not just characters who don’t bother to watch their children.
When you spawn a new character, you won’t have a gun. This makes you prioritise getting to a building to search for some weaponry, but due to your unarmed nature you have to be very, very careful not to attract any unwanted undead attention – running will definitely be something you want to avoid, so walking whilst crouched will get you around. Once you encounter some zombies that you need to get around, you will come across one of the most tense experiences you will ever encounter in a video game.
The defining moment for me, the one that convinced me of Day Z’s validity for comparison to fully-fledged games, was my trip into a military camp near the beach. You always spawn on the beach and after a few minutes of walking I came across this military looking camp that had a bunch of tents inside and a deer stand in each corner. I don’t know where it actually was as I didn’t have a map handy, but I’d read that deer stands were a great place to look for loot so I started looking for a way in. As I got closer, I realised that it was overrun with zombies. I ended up having to crawl through the only gates into the area whilst weaving between the growling undead. Even as I made my way between the deer stands zombies roamed metres away from me, their groaning so close it was making the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Whilst working my way through the deer stands, I turned a corner (slowly, as I was crawling) and found myself face to face with the first player I’d encountered in the game. We both paused for a second. I asked if he was friendly and he said yes, and we just went our separate ways. I don’t know what it was about this moment, but something about that sudden, cold dread as we came face to face – a panic that I’m sure he shared, really rung true with me. I’ve never experience that same emotional parallel with somebody in a game before, both of us stumbling across our potential end and just accepting it, and I don’t think I’ll experience it in any other game.[drop2]I did eventually find a gun – it was obviously on the last deer stand I checked. It was only a G17 – a pistol, and not really a good one – with two magazines of ammo. It was such a tiny discovery, really, but the sense of achievement I felt when I saw that gun in my hand has been matched by very few games. I had managed to sneak past countless zombies, ‘survived’ an encounter with a human, if only because we were both unarmed, and I had a found gun. I was now armed, so I snuck back out and, an hour later, died. I didn’t even get to shoot the pistol. It was amazing.
When you die in Day Z, your character is deleted and you start a new one. Naturally, as a result if you come across another player in Day Z’s wilderness, you’re probably going to get shot. It takes time to find guns and, as such, people tend to be a little trigger happy when it comes to defending the character in which they have invested that time. It’s a shame, really, but it’s part of the game.
Teaming up with other players is great fun if you can find someone to do it with (or go into a server with friends and find each other), and can lead to some interesting scenarios. My favourites from Youtube are this and this. Seriously, go watch, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before in a game. It just isn’t possible in anything else.
So what is Day Z? It’s a game about other players, and how you interact with them. Whether you’re avoiding them, joining up with them, or shooting them, every single encounter is unlike every other one. Please do try not to just kill everyone though, we have enough bandits already.
Bear in mind that the mod is in alpha. It’s being changed constantly to try out new ideas, it lacks polish and is full of exploits and bugs (zombies can glitch through walls, opening a gate can kill you, etc), so you may need to make some allowances. You need both ARMA 2 and its expansion pack Operation Arrowhead to play Day Z. The bundle on Steam is £25, which is £10 more than my usual price limit for CPCG. You can reportedly use ARMA 2 free (the demo, available here) and just buy the expansion for £15 if you like though, which means this was a viable subject for CPCG. Technically.