Know this: in DayZ, death is certain and final. You could have an M4 rifle with 200 rounds, a canteen full of water, and more baked beans than you could eat, but all it takes is a sniper, an unlucky fall, turning your back on a treacherous ally or losing your tin opener to send you back to the coast. This is where new players spawn, with just a T-shirt and flashlight to establish themselves in this most brutal of survival simulators. But you probably know that already. What’s new is the paid alpha for DayZ’s reincarnation as a standalone game, having begun life as a mod for Arma II. And while there’s still a lot of work to be done, it’s already one of the most engaging multiplayer experiences on PC.
Chernarus is 225 square kilometres of post-Soviet cities, military bases, fields, forests, farms and monolithic grey tenement blocks. It’s a bleak, beautiful world that’s rich with detail and atmosphere, with shades of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Half-Life 2’s City 17. In this evocative postapocalypse, items essential to your survival – canned food, antibiotics, bandages, weapons and backpacks – spawn randomly in buildings. In the mod, only a handful of houses could be entered, whereas almost every structure has a modelled interior in the standalone game.
Your character’s needs are expressed through onscreen messages, rather than stats or meters: “I’m hungry”, “I need to drink something” and so on. As well as starvation and dehydration, you can break bones, get sick, get too cold, or bleed to death. There are many ways to die, and managing your health is a full-time job. If it rains, your clothes get wet and your temperature drops. If you eat too much, you’ll vomit. The mechanics of survival are remarkably deep, down to using the stars or the sun to navigate without a compass. It’s no surprise that creator Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall is a big fan of the outdoors, his recent endeavours including a climb to the summit of Mount Everest.
The key to enjoying DayZ is accepting that you’re going to die, and as such players who covet their gear will find it frustrating. You might go out in a blaze of glory, sacrificing yourself to draw fire from fellow survivors, or you might try to climb a ladder and be flung across the map by one of the alpha’s many cruel bugs. The game doesn’t care about you, how many hours you’ve played, or what your character has endured. This ever-present spectre of permadeath gives every decision real weight, and makes travelling through populated areas truly nerve-racking.
We’ve died because we accepted a transfusion from someone of the wrong blood type. We’ve died because a friend thought it would be funny to force-feed us rotten fruit, causing us to contract food poisoning. Once we threw ourselves off a building because we were starving and there was no food in sight. But mostly we’ve died at the hands of other players. The very first time we set foot on the coastline and started to head inland, three bandits in clown masks handcuffed, robbed and murdered us. More than thirst, starvation, zombies and every other danger in Chernarus, it’s people you really have to worry about.
It’s the social dynamic that makes the game so interesting, and such a powerful story generator. Like EVE Online, everything that happens in Chernarus is dictated by players, not scripted events or set-pieces. It’s rare to play it and not leave with at least one anecdote. Sadistic players will loot military bases, then return to the coast to toy with fresh spawns, forcing them to fight to the death at gunpoint. Rival groups will battle over territory in areas with rare loot drops. Some players will announce that they’re friendly over voice chat so that you’ll team up with them, only to get an axe in your back.
True to the postapocalyptic genre, DayZ highlights the very worst of human behaviour. You feel yourself becoming more monstrous, and less trusting, the more you play. Moments when you stumble into other players are always tense. If both groups are armed, guns will be raised in a standoff. But it’s possible to hide a pistol in your pocket, so even if a player looks unarmed, they might shoot you when your guard is down. You do witness occasional glimmers of humanity – altruistic players will sometimes offer spare food or give directions – but the savage nature of Chernarus means most players will attack on sight. Through this kind of interaction, DayZ has become a fascinating social experiment.
But what about the zombies? In the mod, they were a real threat, spawning around loot and able to kill you in a few hits. In the current alpha build, they’re a rare sight. They can still make short work of your health, but sparse numbers make them easy to dispatch. More will be added in updates, and eventually you’ll see large hordes roaming between towns, but they’re a mild annoyance rather than a hazard for now. Still, it’s testament to the depth of the PvP interaction and survival mechanics that the game is still enjoyable – and dangerous – without the undead.
Vehicles, too, are absent from the alpha. In the mod, players could band together to repair and pilot helicopters, and you’d often find motorcycles, tractors and bicycles dotted around the landscape to make traversing the huge map less time consuming. But their absence doesn’t damage the game. It’s clear that this is still very much a work in progress, and it won’t enter the beta phase until at least 2015. Planned content includes animals that can be hunted for food, resources to build structures and more complex crafting.
Hall has been frank about the state of the alpha, advising players to think carefully before buying it – although that hasn’t dissuaded more than a million people from doing so. There are a lot of bugs in the current version, some of which – like the evil ladders – can result in your death. Server troubles can cause characters to be deleted and there are cases of players getting stuck in the scenery, forcing them to wait patiently for their character to starve to death. But if you can stomach these bugs, and the lack of zombies, the standalone is already a better experience than the mod. The servers are more stable and the new drag-and-drop inventory is a vast improvement over Arma’s clunky system.
Even when it’s finished, DayZ won’t be for everyone. The learning curve is steep, much of your time is spent running through fields and forests looking for the next town to loot, and you can lose hours of hard work in the blink of an eye. But that’s also what makes it so special. It’s challenging, it’s open-ended, it’s memorable, it doesn’t hold your hand, and it fosters a powerful sense of danger and consequence, a quality so many games lack. The concept is strong enough that even murderous ladders and vanishing characters can’t stop it from being enjoyable, and it can only get better as more updates roll out.