It’s rare these days for games to really hold my attention fully. I buy a new game, play it for a few hours, I get quickly bored and move on. With the exception of EVE-Online, for me anyway, no game has really ever held my attention for more than a few weeks before I move on. Arma 2 was a different beast. Billed as an extremely realistic military simulator, it’s popular with those who really enjoy playing on a purely tactical level, requiring you to always consider your surroundings, how to get somewhere, plan of attack and so forth. Death strikes often as a single shot or explosion that you never saw coming. Sporting a map 225km² in size and a huge array of weapons and vehicles all modeled realistically on their real-life counterparts, this is definitely a game for military buffs.
Please note that this review is based on the v188.8.131.52 Alpha revision of DayZ of and is subject to constant change. DayZ requires Arma II Combined Operations (Arma II and Operation Arrowhead)to run. The Arma II DLC’s of Private Military Company and British Armed Forces add higher resolution textures but are not required to run DayZ.
Whilst mostly a FPS experience, it does have a dash of RTS to it with the ability to control AI squads of soldiers, tanks and aircraft. Movement within the game is not your standard FPS fare. As well as your standard WASD movement, there is leaning and proning, but more importantly you are able to look around without actually changing your direction. Coupled with a Track IR device if (you can afford one), you are able to have a much better situational awareness of what’s going on by having such freedom of movement, which is even more useful when using a vehicle or flying an aircraft . There is no jumping, only a ‘step over’ feature allowing you to get over waist high obstacles.
Graphically speaking the engine itself is fairly impressive, though it’s no Crysis. The game for me has a certain photo-realistic look to it, but upon closer inspection of some textures, they can seem a bit flat or stretched and some of the models, particularly the buildings, lack some detail. But it does a good job of portraying a picturesque countryside environment full of rolling hills, forests, mountains and open fields. With lots of environmental detail and a large view distance (of up to 10km), only those with the fastest PC’s will really benefit from having the settings at maximum, otherwise your frames-per-second will suffer.
It does however have its shortfalls, being such a complex and realistic FPS, most casual gamers will be instantly turned off by the lack of immediate action and difficulty in grasping all the various controls and nuances of the game. The UI is a horrible affair, quite unintuitive and difficult to master. The game engine itself is notoriously buggy, quite often in relation to the way the game handles its physics. A small rock in the terrain for example can flip your vehicle hundreds of metres into the air or cause it to randomly explode. Likewise, your player character can die by getting stuck between a rock and a slope or an opening door. They are not game breaking by any means but it can be very frustrating to travel half the map only to die due to a random game engine failure. Throw in the fact that installing any kind of mod is a pain in the ass, Arma 2 becomes a niche game that only a certain subset of gamers will tend to play.
So now that I’ve given you a brief overview of the game, let us look at what is billed as the most realistic zombie apocalypse survival simulator out there – DayZ!
Created by an employee of Bohemia Interactive – the company which develops the Arma series – Dean “Rocket” Hall has created in his spare time what has become a runaway success, much like Minecraft. At the time of writing, it has had nearly 1 million unique players and has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of new copies of Arma II being sold, causing it to top Steam’s Top Sellers list for several weeks now. The mod is still in its very early Alpha stages but is fully open to the public for use and testing. Features and fixes are being done on a near weekly basis and it’s said that Rocket intends to release DayZ as a standalone game in the future.
So what makes this game so popular? Well, your objective is to survive and that’s it. How you survive and what you do to achieve survival is entirely up to you. The main website at the time of writing says the average life expectancy of a player is 49 minutes. Bearing in mind all of the above I’ve written about Arma 2, this is basically a sandbox game where there are no rules or objectives other than your survival, be it against zombies, other players or just getting some food and drink in your belly before dying of starvation or thirst.
Starting with nothing but the bare necessities you can likely find in your home, you must scavenge for basic amenities and navigational equipment as well as finding weapons. All the while avoiding the zombies crawling around any building you happen to be near to. This is not a game that rewards you for shooting the zombies. Alerting zombies to your presence often will end in death or severe injury and since shooting a zombie only alerts the ones within hearing distance of your gunshot, it’s generally best to avoid them. As well as the extremely dangerous zombies, you will have other players who are just trying to survive like you and if they have a gun, will often just shoot you first and ask questions later. There are various hotspots on the map for PvP, often at military bases where one may find the best weaponry and gear in the game. For you to really imagine what the game is like, let me give you some greater insight into what you may expect to happen when you play.
When you start the game, you start with very basic supplies. You have a flashlight, a single bandage, a single box of painkillers and a basic backpack. You are usually spawned at a random point on the coastline of the Chernarus map. Taking a look around, you can see the ocean behind you, some trees and hills in the distance and you’ll likely be near a town as well. You have some minimal GUI icons indicating your body temperature, blood level, food and drink meters with an additional debug monitor which shows how many zombies you killed, how many players you’ve murdered, how much blood you have left and a few other things.
With no point of reference of where you are (since you don’t even have a map), your first port of call would seem to be the nearest buildings to you. As you get closer you see some figures in the distance, some walking, some hopping, some crawling. These are the zombies. They seem quite docile, very slow moving, no threat to you just yet. To be safer, you go into a crouch or prone position and start crawling your way slowly through the crowd of undead wandering around.
You come across a building you can enter and go inside. There are some items on the floor. A quick inspection shows you’ve found some tinned food and soda cans. Excellent, you’ll now at least be able to keep your character fed and hydrated for the next hour. A further inspection reveals nothing else but some empty tin cans and an empty whiskey bottle, so you exit the building in search of the next loot pile. Unfortunately it seems you didn’t take good enough care exiting the building, and a zombie has noticed you. Suddenly what appeared to be a docile, moaning creature turns into an extremely fast running, snarling monster that is on top of you before you know it. Your vision blurs as you are hit by the zombie, in a panic you start running away but all this does is alert the other zombies in the area where you are. Before you know it, a small army of them are chasing you relentlessly. Your character is bleeding and constantly losing blood as a result.
Then you break a bone. You collapse to the floor and are now unable to run, a swarm of zombies are upon you, your body in shock and now unconscious – an egg timer showing how long until you regain consciousness… then you’re dead. This has probably been your first 10-15 minutes in the game.
Ok, so that didn’t go so well, did it? No, but you learned something about how the zombies work. So try again.
Once again you spawn on the coastline, a different area now. You’ve just learned your second lesson in DayZ. Character death is permanent. You find a town and head towards it, playing it more cautiously now, closely watching the zombie horde for any sign you might be spotted. The first couple of buildings you look around having nothing to loot, only some empty tin cans again. You continue your search, the moans of the zombie horde around you. There’s another building ahead of you. Going inside you hit gold, a pistol with a couple magazines of ammo to go with it! Finally you are armed! Now those zombies shall be easy enough to take care of next time. Feeling empowered, you throw your caution to the wind and start relaxing. As you move to the next building, a zombie spots you and gives chase. That’s ok though, you’ll just gun this guy down and just move on.
However it seems hitting a zombie is easier said than done. As you attempt to aim, the zombie zig zags randomly and rapidly, making it very difficult to effectively aim at it and before you know it, he’s once again on top of you and attacking. Panicking you fire your whole clip at him and he falls to the ground dead. A sigh of relief, until you realise the other zombies heard your gunfire and are now swarming you. You just wasted an entire magazine on a single zombie and now only have one magazine left to deal with 5 more coming towards you. Further panicked, you fire trying to take down what you can. Then your gun is empty, you’re defenceless again and you’re once again knocked unconscious. Broken bones. Dead.
You may have lived a little longer this time, 30 minutes perhaps if you’re lucky. You now have a much greater appreciation of just how dangerous the zombies are. Even with a gun, its very easy to just end up using all your ammo before you realise it and getting more is not a simple task. But let’s jump forward a bit. Assuming you’ve had a few failures, this time round you managed not only to pick up a pistol, but got yourself a rifle now as well, a few magazines for each, maybe you found a map, a compass and some binoculars. You’re better equipped now to navigate your way around the area and find better gear. As you run through though the forest to your next objective, towards a town in the distance, you suddenly hear distant gunfire. Someone else is in the town! Is this player friend or foe? Looking through your binoculars, you can see the towns horizon and suddenly see a player running with a handful of zombies after him. Now you have to decide whether to help this poor sod, put him out of his misery and loot his corpse or just let the zombies do the work for you if he gets caught.
You decide to be the hero and try to help the poor fellow. Using your rifle at range, you manage to pick off most of the zombies whilst the other guy finishes them off with his own weapon. You go up to him, expecting a thank you for the help. With two of you working together, the chances of surviving go up surely? So its to your surprise when, as you go up to the other player, he looks at you and shoots you in the face. You’re dead again and he just picked up some free loot and possibly better weaponry. You’ve now learnt another valuable lesson of DayZ. Other players are even more dangerous than the zombies, being likely to simply shoot you and ask questions later. Indeed some players find it easier to simply kill other players for supplies. The players who have managed to survive for longer periods of time are likely to have hi-grade military sniper rifles, ghille suits or other forms of camouflage. The best sniper rifles have effective ranges of over 1km (which incidentally is the maximum range of the view distance for the mod in good weather conditions) and so it’s very easy for you to get shot in the head and have no idea you were even being tracked in the first place.
This is just a sample of the gameplay you can expect. The emergent, unscripted encounters are what make this game entertaining. You never know when you’re going to bump into someone else and all hell breaks loose. Playing together with friends is the best way to go if you want some team based gameplay, but even then you’re going to have difficulties. Identifying who is who is a difficult task at the best of times and friendly fire incidents can be a regular occurrence. Only those groups with the most militaristic of disciplines are going to survive for any length of time. I have played with a group of up to 6 people. You’d think this would make things easy but it really does not. Its easy to get separated and lost and its easy (this has happened to me at least three times) for your group to be in the middle of nowhere, all within a few feet of each other when shots start ringing out.
“What’s going on!?”
“Who’s that running over there!?” “Its me!”
“I’m next to a tree!” (You’re surrounded by trees).
Before you know it, 3-4 of you are dead, the surviving members of the group panicking and running in random directions for some cover. And all it took was one guy stumbling across you.
This is all from a mod which is in it’s early Alpha stages and its a great achievement. Perhaps something the AAA corporations like EA and Activision should take note about when it comes to making games in general. Rocket has tapped into something here which is very appealing to a broad range of gamers. It also lends itself to some amusing forum threads being posted by people coming from other FPS games like CoD or Battlefield and moaning about how hard it is and it should be made easier.
This said, DayZ is not without its faults. Apart from Arma 2’s inherent game engine faults and quirks, the mod at the moment suffers from a lack of ‘endgame’ content. When you have the best gear, the best weapons, what do you do then? Sniping zombies is not rewarding, so the only real option is to kill other players, even the unarmed ones. There is a lack of incentive for players to work together for common goals at the present time and so it tends to descend into a player deathmatch in some areas. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be quite rewarding for you to hunt other players, especially those who do prey on the unarmed or weak. Some have made niche roles for themselves. There is a group which are basically a band of roaming medics, who will come to your aid if you have serious injuries and are far from any hospital or place where medical supplies may spawn. You just need to go to the DayZ forums, get in contact with them and give them your location and they will try to get to you. DayZ has a central hive server which stores your players current status and location, so no matter what server you join, your progress will be saved. But the mod is only in Alpha stages, and I’m sure more content will be added in future to make sure there is greater longevity and incentive to the actual surviving part of the game.
In conclusion, I do highly recommend DayZ to anyone looking for a brutally hard gaming experience. The current lack of endgame content may mean your interest will wane after a while, but bearing in mind it is an Alpha, I hope to see more things added particularly with regards to incentivising players to work together more. There will be times of frustration and anger amongst those of joy and gleeful, maniacal laughter as you headshot someone 800m away, but its ultimately quite a rewarding experience for those who like sandbox games. As the mod website states: This is DayZ. This is your story.
Review by Jason “Angel” Millward.
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