Ok, first of all, please take into account that this is just a hasty review on an alpha of a mod.
I am going to write it after only 18 hours of gameplay and beleive me, that is nowhere near enough. I have decided to write this down because this mod is currently overshadowing the almighty Diablo 3 in the PC gaming space. It is a huge sensation and a lot of people are asking themselves whether they should invest in ARMA2:CO or not just to play an unfinished mod.
ARMA2: Shooting at tiny, tiny pixels
ARMA 2 is a relatively unknown game, specially if you compare it to other big modern military FPS. It is a hardcore simulation tool, with heavy emphasis on infantry combat. As most east european simulatons do, it is basically a level designing tool where the programmers give you a very deep physics engine, a very well designed map and lots and lots of cool toys to play with. In this case you can use tanks, helicopters and all sorts of infantry to create any and all types of combat situations.
Once you get in the game it becomes the slowest, most open first person shooter you’ll ever play but also the most complete. It uses advanced damage models and ballistics, a very interesting voice comms engine and it can be used to play massive multiplayer battles. You can hop on any vehicle, go anywhere and do anything you want. It is absolutely fascinating.
As most east european games, the menus are really old fashioned but functional and the interface is counterintuitive and complicated. ARMA2 is also hugely resource demanding and quite buggy. But, also as many good east european games, ARMA2 looks fantastic. It is more ambitious than any other FPS, feels incredibly realistic and once you get into it, is a wonderful story making tool. I really like ARMA2.
However, ARMA 2 has a flaw that has kept me from playing it more: the theme is really dry. The more realistic it gets, the more obvious it is that real modern military is really boring subject matter. Even when you play it in ideal conditions, there is nothing interesting happening in this game. Modern real soldiers act more like doctors than like heroes. Also, because it is realistic, the distance of the engagements is such that you’ll basically shoot at single pixels and announce their deaths with no hint of emotion. Cold and calculating with no hint of emotion, ARMA2 is a game in desperate need of epicness.
DayZ, an alpha of a mod for a buggy game
Of course, over the last years, ARMA2 has developed your typical small core of rabid hardcore fans, who mod for it, play it in huge 200 multiplayer battles and generally bother no one while they have fun testing 40 different models of fragmentation grenades.
However, it is out of this slow trickle of mods and this small community that came DayZ. A New Zealand programmer from the company that designed ARMA2 (Bohemia Interactive) used his holidays to program the mod. He did it with a clear goal: player freedom to create stories and take decisions. He told no one about his project and when he thought it was more or less ready for a little bit of stress testing, he asked some friends to hop in on the server to see how it would handle the load. He had a single server for 50 people. That was 2 weeks ago. As of today, there are 74000 unique players, ARMA2: CO has become the number one bestseller on Steam and this guy keeps adding servers trying to catch up with demand. And it is not working, demand has not reached it’s peak yet.
Simple, DayZ takes the huge accomplishment that is ARMA2 and makes a game out of it. It is a hard, brutally difficult, slow paced realistic game, but it is a game.
The setting is classic, there has been a zombie apocalypse and you are a survivor. You are stranded on the beach somewhere with some basic equipment, but you’ll need to scavenge heavily to survive. You’ll need an steady income of food and water, you’ll probably need new medical supplies and even if you do not want to, you are going to need more bullets.
The area where you’ll survive is called Chernarus and it has everything in it: Cities, villages, forests, castles, hospitals, airfields and lots, lots and more lots of infinitely respawning zombies. Oh and 50 other players, I somehow forgot about that.
In order to get supplies, you need to explore abandoned structures, where you’ll find that random loot keeps respawning. This seems trivial, except that zombies spawn from those same structures. In other words, if you stay in the forest you’ll starve. And if you go in the cities, you’ll die horribly.
If it sounds easy, believe me, it is not. Zombies run, see and hear. They hurt a lot and will mob on you at the sound of your (very few and very precious) bullets. They zigzag and will pursue you relentlessly for hours until they get you somehow. Getting into a town is a nerve wrecking stealth game, where patience is key. It is extremely difficult to avoid those zombies and still keep on getting enough supplies in order to survive. But it gets worse, much, much worse.
There are survivors that have guns with sniper rifles. And even worse, they have friends with more sniper rifles.
Bandits (survivors who have killed other survivors) tend to populate the hills around the biggest coastal cities, where poor survivors enter at their own risk in order to get some food. When they manage to get out with some supplies, they are actively hunted by those bandits who have spent their time getting better weapons and are ready to use them. Sometimes they’ll even act as survivors to lure the trusting loner into a deserted area where they can shoot and kill the survivor without alerting the zombies around them.
If you add all these factors, you understand why as of this writing, average life expectancy in DayZ is 28 minutes. It had gone up to over an hour, but the programmer updated the mod and more than doubled the number of zombies in the game.
Good people is being killed, robbed and betrayed all over Chernarus, all for a can of beans.
Sandbox simulators as storymaking tools
So there you have it, a huge chunk of beautiful terrain, lots of zombies, some ammo and bean cans and nothing else. This game has literally nothing else.
And yet, I would argue that that is plenty and more than enough for a game. It allows you to decide and out of those decisions, create your story.
The first meaningful decision is whether or not you are going to play as a killer. If you do, you’ll become a bandit. Your skin will change to reflect that and your humanity score will go down. Everybody will see you and know that you are a killer so it’ll be difficult to trick other into trusting you, whether or not they themselves are bandits. However, it can be done.
If you do want to become a bandit, then you can simply start hunting players and taking their stuff. You’ll die often but your career path is simple.
If you do not want to become a bandit and will only kill in self defense, the question is simple: How are you going to survive? What will you eat? Will you stay near the coast, where there are more supplies but more bandits and zombies? Or will you go inland to the small villages where it is hard to scrape by but there are less enemies?
This game is about deciding about all the details that can make you succesful and failing catastrophically or succeeding epically. If you want to compare it to anything, you can compare it to Dwarf Fortress, EVE and the upcoming Project Zomboid. Losing is fun because it will end the unique story that you have created. These games are all about consequences and about enjoying the dilemmas you face. DayZ adopts this design philosophy to the extreme.
The triumph of the zombie
DayZ would simply make no sense without the zombies. They are the great equalizer, their presence means that no one can stay put and build a strong defense. Everybody has to be on the move constantly as there is no way that you can hold a building against the zombies. No matter how good your equipment is, you never can forget the zombies in this game. They will kill even very strong players if they stop being careful. In my case, I have fallen prey to the zombies specially when I was very well armed, because I got reckless and paid for it. I will tell a typical DayZ story that happened to me yesterday.
I joined a server where it was nighttime and decided to cross the whole map in order to get to a famous weapons depot. It would not be easy, there were many dangerous zones in the way and the zombies could jump you at any time if you approached a village carelessly. I narrowly escaped many times the wandering zombies, but I was actually more worried about bandits. This particular weapons depot is famous all over Chernarus, there are many bandits who choose to stay around it and get easy prey. So I approached the zone really carefully and in the middle of the dark. If they found me, they’d probably shoot me on sight.
Sure enough, I saw a team of survivors get out of the depot, just as I was approaching a hole in the fence to enter from the back. They were using good infantry tactics and would have killed me easily, but they passed at less than 15 metres from me and I moved inside undetected. It had taken me around 3 hours of gameplay to get to this point, navigating in the dark and avoiding enemies.
I entered the depot and quickly found my price: a bolt action Remington shotgun with a flashlight attached. It is an awesome weapon for this game and pretty rare. The flashlight is a very welcome bonus as flares and glowsticks are completely useless. In the depot I got loads of good gear, like ammo, a bigger backpack, smoke grenades… I was loaded.
My mission had been a resounding success, I just needed to get back to my meeting point with Tokey and we’d go on looking for a weapon for him. In one hour, I’d be there.
And then it happened. Just as I was crawling in the dark to get from the weapons depot and into the line of trees, out of nowhere a zombie stepped on me. Zombies usually will not see you in the dark if you crawl and don’t make noise. I have had zombies pass at less than a meter from me, no problem.
However, this one stepped on me.
I rose up to run away and ten meters later, it was not one zombie but five, I was bleeding profusely and it was then when I realised that I had no ammo for my shotgun, I had put it in the backpack instead of in the gun. I tried to change weapons to get my pistol, but that slowed me down and I fell under the hits of five angry zombies, not 50 meters away from the weapons depot.
I died horribly, shouting curses in the night and respawned on the beach, very far away. Probably my body was looted by another survivor.
I loved it.
I think this is a very difficult game to reccomend, simply because I do not know if you are going to see cool stuff or not. It impossible to predict. For example, I once watched from within the trees as a survivor lit some flares in the ruins of a medieval castle and tried to kill off the zombies within it. The flare projected against the wall of the catle the shadow of the survivor falling under the zombies, it was really atmospheric and cinematic. And it also was unscripted, it happened like that because that guy had decided to go there and I had decided to be there and to not help him.
Those moments are awesome and more powerful than any other game I can think off right now. No one strives to create those stories in a package that is so elegant as DayZ. It is a FPS with very, very complex technology and very deep decision making. But mechanically, it is simple to understand how it works and it has a ton of atmosphere. It is amazingly well designed to et out of the way, to just let you take pure decisions and cope with the consequences.
I think any gamer would enjoy that part of the game, but I think there needs to be a big warning. This game is very, very rough. It is an alpha. It is still going to change a lot and maybe it’ll never be finished or polished. Right now, it is difficult to install, difficult to update, difficult to join a server and even more difficult to find a daylight server. There are 70000 people trying to play a game that should be testing with 50. If we are lucky and Bohemia Interactive are clever, they’ll give this guy resources to prepare a serious DayZ module for the upcoming ARMA3. Then we’ll be cooking with gas.
I realise that I have been frustrated with DayZ’s lack of polish and I feel that some gamers will feel even more frustrated than me. Personally I think that the game is way worth the price of ARMA2:CO, but be prepared to be patient. You can lose your equipment to bugs, be reset in a server crash… many bad things can happen, but that is also part of the fascination and remember that we are talking about a free mod.
All in all, I think DayZ is the best PC game this year and much better than anything I can think of from last year (yes, including Portal 2, Saints Row 3 AND Crusader Kings). I absolutely reccomend it to you. If you are ready to cope, that is. Cope with the bugs, cope with the servers, cope with zombies and most of all, cope with bandits. Be ready to suffer, as this game is about overcoming the huge odds against you. If you do, the moments you live will be yours and only yours. Nobody will discuss with you what did you do with the prisioners in the airport, it’ll be just you there and nobody else will ever be in that same situation, ever.
If you are ready to cope, I will tell you only one more thing. As of rigth now, only 64000 of the 74000 players are alive. The other 10000 are victims to the bandits or to the zombies. It is unfair and I want to do as much as I can to stop it. I am slowly trying to build a YWBL4DA police force that will protect the innocent in the sandy beaches of Chernarus and I am looking for volunteers. It’ll take a load of time and effort, we’ll have to be ready to store extra weapons and ammo, find the right tools for the job, find out how to avoid losing our own men and try to find ways to help survivors.
So what do you say? Can you cope?