Sunday, 18 November 2012

Thank you for the DayZ (war stories from zombie-infested Chernarus)

This guest feature comes courtesy of Ed Allen, writer, gamer and man of taste. His website can be viewed here. And yes, I had a cold when I recorded the audio bits.

How can I describe DayZ? A multiplayer zombie survival game, set in 225 square kilometers of eastern European forest, coastline and townships the title is based on the aging ARMA II engine and is currently a free mod (to people who own the original game) that functions as the alpha stage preview of a standalone game due to be released in the coming months. [‘phew!’ – ed]

DayZ Mod
It’s a sandbox type game that leaves players entirely up to their own devices. The only objectives are to keep yourself fed, watered, healthy and not get killed by zombies... except that all sounds too cold doesn’t it? It doesn’t explain the near-cardiac arrest I experienced the first time another player shot at me, nor does it account for the relief and gratitude I felt when I was rescued by two friends on a roadside in the middle of nowhere - half blind, half deaf and repeatedly passing out due to the blood loss I had suffered two kilometers to the north whilst attempting scavenge for supplies alone in a village full of enraged zombies.

It’s those real emotions - dread, elation, excitement, determination, loss - that I’ve felt through DayZ and the memories that it has left me with which set it apart from any other game I’ve played for quite some time.

The cheerfully modable ARMA II

Once you’ve got the game downloaded and correctly installed, you log into a server, select a gender (best to go with male because the camo clothing doesn’t work with females yet), and suddenly there you are: on a beach, alone, somewhere near one of the many coastal towns with only a bandage and some painkillers. If you’re lucky the zombies (or worse: other players) haven’t seen you yet. You’ll need to find food, drink, shelter and guns - so you’d better get to it. Survive. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: when you die (and you will) it’s back to square one - you lose everything.

I don’t want to bore you by dryly describing the things the game allows you to do, if you’re still interested when you’ve finished with my spiel then you can find out all you need to know at the official website: Even in it’s alpha stage DayZ’s engine is capable of some truly impressive feats, including masses of players operating simultaneously on a single server in a gargantuan map (seriously, it’s ridiculous), surrounded by hundreds of zombies at any one time and allowing you to use a range of vehicles including cars, boats and helicopters to get around. Impressive as those things might sound, they don’t add up to the emotional highs and lows I’ve felt whilst playing and I think it’s fair to say that my experience of DayZ has been greater than the sum of its core mechanics (and if there ever was a sentence written that could completely alienate non-gamers from the rest of this piece I think that was it).

With that in mind, I’ve got a few stories to tell you...

Battle by Berezino

Campsite Ambush!

My experiences haven’t always been as good as those though. As an incomplete alpha release DayZ suffers from some discouraging gameplay problems. The zombies themselves only present a real threat to unequipped or inexperienced players in urban areas and their animations are often like glitching robots on ecstasy attending their first drum and bass rave. The AI’s behaviour (which I must say has significantly improved since I first started) is far too easily outsmarted and the landscape of Chernarus is too sparse to make the player vs environment experience a challenge once you’ve figured out how to equip yourself. Another game-breaking problem (one which has also been improved upon recently but still occurs) is that there’s no guarantee that the player-generated camping tents used to your store items will exist beyond the next server reset. There’s also the intolerable graphics bugs created by the NPC soldier corpses in several locations, projecting terrain colored triangles across your vision when you get too close, sometimes to the point where they completely fill your vision and make the area unplayable; while this problem can be temporarily fixed by tweaking your advanced graphics settings, this is something likely to be viewed as unacceptable by less forgiving players than myself.

DayZ creator Dean Hall
DayZ creator Dean Hall
 Whilst the issues that arise from flaws in the ARMA II engine or the mod itself will surely be fixed by the regular development patches or by DayZ’s commercial release, I am most worried by those that are caused by the behaviour of the players themselves. Hackers are an ever present concern: utilising infinite ammo weapons, teleporting, giant bombs, invulnerability, auto-aim, and occasionally even an auto-kill button that wipes out the entire server, they can ruin an entire afternoon’s session for the sake of a moment’s ‘lulz’. A milder form of ‘item hacking’ is effectively destroying the balance of balance of DayZ’s weaponry too; when I started playing the higher tier weapons like sniper rifles and ghillie suits were extraordinarily rare but now they’re everywhere, (while the chances of finding one legitimately hasn’t changed). Unfortunately, due to the deliberate openness of ARMA’s engine it’s unlikely that proper hacker protections will exist until the standalone game is released.

DayZ Penny Arcade
Penny Arcade takes on DayZ

The ‘shoot first, rob the corpse, don’t ever ask questions’ attitude of most players is understandable but becomes very grating when you’re a newly spawned character. If everyone is a bandit and is stealing off of everybody else, what’s the point in leaving the starting towns? or gathering rare equipment and establishing a base when everything you own is going to be stolen by the team with the helicopter? or even playing the game when all you do is player vs player and other shooters offer a superior PvP experience? It doesn’t add up to a sustainable community in my mind.

My fear for the future of DayZ is that as the hype dies down gamers who lack the masochistic tendencies required to cope with the relative cruelty of the game’s mechanics will feel alienated by it, while even its most committed evangelists will grow bored and move on to fresh pastures long before the full version is released. Once you grow tired of the player vs player combat, gathering supplies or building helicopters there’s not much else that you can do at the ‘endgame’ of DayZ. On the other hand, the current alpha test version is far from complete and according to the developer there’s a host of new features coming soon that will expand the range of possibilities available to players; the DayZ community has also been hard at work, converting the other ARMA II maps into modified versions of DayZ which relocate the zombie-survival action to radically different landscapes and offering players a welcome change of pace.

In spite of the negatives, I think DayZ has a lot to offer gamers. If you’re willing to commit a good chunk of time and able to gather a group of friends together on Skype (or similar VoIP program) for a DayZ session then you can share an experience that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever known in my quarter-century of misspent videogaming excess. These days it’s very rare for a game to pierce my emotional armour and actually make me feel something - and DayZ has. Big time. In that spirit, I’d like to share one more ‘war story’ with you before I finish...

The Chernogorsk Not-Quite-Rescue Department

Since those heady days we’ve been playing on other DayZ maps (mainly Lingor Island) or other games, including an ARMA II mod called ‘Takistan Life’, but that’s another story...


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