Updated: January 4, 2013
I do not like zombies. They do not frighten me, and that's about it. A theme of horror should horrify the audience. However, most of the time zombies are merely funny, silly, awkward, or annoying. They lumber about, smeared in blood and make growly noises. Been there, done that. But what happens when you translate your typical zombie scene from a typical American urban setting to a small village in Russia? O-o.
This is what DayZ is. It's a free mod for ArmA II, currently the finest first person shooter ever made, after its equally awesome predecessor, Operation Flashpoint. The mod takes you back to Chernarus, where you start as an unarmed dude, against a horde of Russian grannies dripping blood from their canines. What do you get when you combine the two? The best, most frightening bloody game ever made. Follow me.
DayZ, first steps
I have a whole LOT in store for you, when it comes to this game. But let's focus on our first impression. What started as an innocent mod has turned into an epidemics. Literally. DayZ has spiked ArmA II to the top spot on Steam for several months now. There are approx. 1.5 million active users playing the game. And there's going to be a standalone version, most likely any day now. The only thing you need to enjoy DayZ is the original version of ArmA II and its expansion pack Operation Arrowhead. And then, some balls, because this game is scary.
The mod runs in the multiplayer mode, where you and unlucky fellow games across the globe spawn in random locations somewhere in Chernarus, armed with nothing but a bit of food and drink and maybe a weapon, if you are lucky. But there's a fair chance you might spawn barehanded.
So what you have to do is very simple - survive. That's the only objective. Roam the map as you please, do whatever you like. It's open-ended, there are no scenarios or tasks. The only problem is, you might get eaten by zombies, killed by your fellow human players deliverance-style, die from hunger, thirst, exposure, your wounds, and a slew of other reasons. Well, that's your range of problems.
Scary, really scary
I do not want to overemphasize the word scary, but this game has it. The bleak atmosphere of the 1980s Soviet pasturalia, with classic European villages touched by neglect and a bit of violence. You get your empty stretches of grassland and forest, and suddenly, when you are all alone, subject to elements and mercy, it does not look that idyllic anymore. Oh no.
There's a very soft, barely audible music in the background, which adds spice. As you begin running around, you start noticing the crucial details that make this game such a hit. Your HUD consists of a small number of icons that tell you just how unlucky you might be. You have the eye and ear symbols that tell you how much noise you're making. Then, your health, food and drink meters, as well as your body temperature. You also have the pistol icon to denote your weapons and ammo state. They will change in color toward red as you get worse. Or things get worse. And they will get worse.
You head in some random direction. And then you see a village. You think, oh there's shelter. But then you think some more. Where are you most likely to find zombies? In their homes, most likely. So the village does not look like a promising refuge anymore. But you shuffle closer, because you need sustenance and you desperately yearn for a gun.
As you approach the ruins, you start seeing them, and hearing them. Like those things in the movies, except some look like the guy working in an apple orchard, and that guy looks like a Greek Orthodox priest, and there's an old lady there, and it's not funny anymore. We're not talking Hollywood. We're talking Lars von bloody Trier. As the English people like to say, this shit is scary.
If you're lucky, you will find yourself some grub and maybe a knife or even a whole rifle. Then, you will hear a guttural scream, and you will know you have been discovered. From that moment on, it's Run Forrest Run. You can fight back, but you have only so much ammunition, and the zombies seem aplently. The worst thing is, fire a gun, and you will suddenly draw the whole bloody lot of them.
Oh, did I mention permanent death? If you die, you're buggered. There's no save, no respawn. You start over, from the very beginning. So you may plod along for hours, get yourself armed nicely, think you might be a great survivor, and then some fellow human snipes you down out of spite, rivalry, jealousy, their own selfish survival instincts, or even an accident, and then it's over. Or you might think you can fight all those zombies and end up with your flesh consumed while you're still alive. Sort of.
The survival dynamics
This is the best part. The game is UNPREDICTABLE. Completely. Zombies are relatively easy to digest [sic], the problem is with your fellow humans. Everyone thinks and behaves differently. While the Game Theory says you should all band up into a huge mass and cooperate, thus ensuring everyone's survival, most people will do just the opposite. They will fight. Don't get surprised if someone guts for a can of spam. And when I think about my world apocalypse short story, the motif is not that far from the reality how I see it.
In my first game, I was not killed by the zombies. I was shot by another player, who found my weaponless form useless to his survival. So after he and a friend defeated some zombies, he shot me. Game over. Ten minutes into the game, my first human contact ended.
My second attempt was more successful. I managed to live for about an hour, kill a few zombies with an axe and climb into a lighthouse, where I waited for the rain to pass. That's another terrible thing about the game. The weather. And let's not speak of the night. Real day and night cycles, yup. No electricity, no.
The third time around, I got really lucky. I managed to outrun some zombies and find a barn with not one, but two guns, an Enfield rifle and a double-barreled shotgun. Dandy. Really dandy. I shot a few, then ran toward the woods, chased by four undead Chernarussians. The battle was quite intense, as you will see in the video review next week, oh yes, did I mention that? Yup. You're getting video reviews next week!
After I managed to kill the zombies, I found an old van and drove off, searching for other survivors and equipment. After about half an hour, the server crashed, but that's a minor complaint for later on. The thing is, you can find all kinds of stuff on the map, in random locations. You will need to scavenge for food and drinks. You will need blood transfusions to help you recover lost blood, but that will only work if another fellow human decided to aid you. You will find pretty much anything you expect to find in a post-apocalyptic world, abandoned vehicles, helicopters even, sniper rifles, night vision goggles, flares, hunting knives, and much more. Since your gear is limited, you will have to choose carefully what you take with you. While you may assume that weapons are primary concern, the chances you might want to consider a light sidearm rather than an assault rifle, so you can spare other slots for bandages and food.
When you combine all these elements together, you really veer off from the first person shooter genre into human psychology, as you are trying to figure out how to handle difficult survival situations. It no longer becomes the question of pwning and teabagging noobs, it becomes the matter of staying alive. And that means, you trust no one, you think twice before approaching someone, and you carefully ration your food and drinks and ammo, because you do not know when you will next find something that can be of use.
Overall, the game is perfect. It builds on a superb game with extra realism, so there's little that can go wrong. But like all Bohemia Interactive games, ArmA II, and consequently, DayZ suffers from some funny glitches here and there. In a few instances, I saw zombies walk through solid walls. Then, quite a few servers crashed while I was playing, which is rather frustrating. Moreover, the servers are supposed to retain your state in between your sessions, but most of the time, I was forced to start playing anew. This can really anger you after you've managed to score a lovely van, a rifle and all that, and then when you connect the second time around, it's all gone, and you're back in your khaki diapers.
However, other than that, the game is truly great. I played on ultra settings in full HD, and every little scene is a visual delight, nature and characters alike. Throw in great sounds, excellent physics, and all the other random elements that the apocalyptic chaos entails, and you're in for a one-of-a-kind digital experience.
I am not easily scared or impressed by zombies. But DayZ is something else. You get hairs rising on your arms and neck when playing this game. And while most would-be horror titles try to achieve dread by placing you in dark, confined spaces, DayZ achieves terror by unleashing you into a beautiful, wide-open world, just like it is in real life, which makes the sensation all the more acute and realistic.
I love Operation Flashpoint. I love ArmA II. And DayZ is a total blast. It's hard to make perfect perfecter, but DayZ manages that. It blows you away, beyond any expectations. Apart from some expected bugs for an alpha release, there's nothing bad you can say about DayZ. It's visually and thematically stunning. Everything is just designed to lure you into the world of Chernarus and make you believe you're actually struggling for your own survival. The game deserves 11/10 rating, if that's possible. You must buy ArmA II now and start playing. You must.
So what happens next? First, there's going to a video review next week, a whole series of video clips. Reviews slash unofficial trailers, I'd like to call them. So stay tuned. Second, I will show you how to install the mod, how to manage mods for ArmA II in general, how to sort various little issues here and there. It will be absolutely awesome. That would be all. I'm off to play.