February, 2013. Barack Obama is in the White House. ‘Thrift Shop’ by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is topping the charts. The Harlem Shake is taking the internet by storm. And DayZ, a mod for Arma II, has become such a hit, Bohemia Interactive puts a plan in motion to turn it into a full game. Part survival sandbox, part social experiment, the mod throws 64 players into a bleak post-Soviet apocalypse, sits back, and lets them make their own fun.
Five years later and DayZ is a standalone game, having gone through an extended Early Access period. And, well, nothing much has changed. There’s something weirdly comforting about the fact that DayZ is still DayZ, with its clunky controls, buggy zombies, and commitment to making surviving as punishingly hard as possible. It’s kind of absurd that, in a 1.0 release, there are still problems that have been around since the alpha days. But honestly, I wasn’t expecting much else. For better or worse, it’s almost exactly the game I remember, warts and all.
You still have to run for miles to meet up with friends. The zombies still get stuck in walls or just completely fail to notice you at all. You can scour an entire town for supplies only to find one dirty jacket, a tin opener, and no tins. And the chances that you’ll be killed by some unseen sniper, usually seconds after you finally find something good, is always high. At least those damn ladders have finally been sorted out. Veteran players will remember the agony of climbing a ladder and ending up inexplicably dead at the bottom of it.
If this all sounds a bit miserable, it is. Minute to minute, this is about as gruelling as survival games get. You have an ever-dwindling parade of meters to manage—thirst, hunger, temperature, and so on—and the general scarcity of items can make staying alive an ordeal. There’s nothing more disheartening in DayZ than trekking for miles to a town, only to see all the doors lying open: a surefire sign that someone has already been and no doubt thoroughly looted the place.
But this does complement the hopeless, melancholy atmosphere of the game. The map, Chernarus, is a former Soviet republic, and dripping in misery. You get the feeling that even before the zombies arrived, this would’ve been an unpleasant place to get lost in. But there’s a quiet beauty to be found out there too, particularly in the rolling farmland, dense forests, and sleepy rural towns. It’s a fantastic setting, and a welcome change from the more familiar Western post-apocalypses that usually feature in these games.
The largest concentration of players tends to be around around cities and military bases—where the best loot is often found—meaning you can travel in the wilds pretty much undisturbed. When I play DayZ, I’m constantly on the move, travelling between towns, landmarks, and other points of interest, grabbing whatever I can find, avoiding trouble if I can. But that means a lot of uneventful running. There are vehicles, but they’re often missing parts or fuel, and locating them can be a real chore for a solo player.
The sandbox nature of the game means that getting ‘geared up’ will be most players’ main goal: finding a gun, ammo, bandages, food, drink, and maybe a nice helmet or something. But the more you hoard, the more nerve-racking the game becomes, because you know that you’re just one trigger-happy survivor or mischievous troll away from losing it all. I actually love this, because it makes death mean something. When you die you’re unceremoniously dumped back to a random starting location with no gear, and knowing this makes every decision, especially with other players around, loaded with danger.
The real thrill of DayZ, and the reason I’ve played both the mod and the standalone version for hundreds of hours each, is in the feeling you get when you inevitably bump into another survivor. Even now my heart pounds when I’m exploring a town or wandering in the wilderness and I see another player ahead. Sometimes, but not that often these days, they might wave you down for a friendly chat and some beans. Or they might helpfully warn you about a group of bandits (DayZ slang for players who kill other players) in the next town down the road.
But they’ll probably just shoot you on sight. There are a lot of reasons for this. They might just enjoy killing people. They might want your loot. Or, and this happened to me, the game has turned them into a horrible person. See, I used to be friendly. I’d approach people, wave, say hello. I’d give them advice or ask if they needed a hand. But after several instances of people pretending to be friendly then stabbing me in the back (literally), or luring me into an ambush, I’ve become wary of other survivors to the point of fearful paranoia.
That’s brilliant, though. It’s what makes DayZ such a fascinating, compelling multiplayer game, and far more interesting to me than something like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In games like that, your only interaction with people is, ultimately, shooting them. But in DayZ, every encounter with another player is an opportunity for a story. Even if you get robbed or handcuffed or humiliated, it’ll be something you remember. Incidentally, make sure you play with a mic. Not responding vocally when someone says hello, or orders you to do something at gunpoint, will likely just get you killed.
I haven’t really talked about the zombies yet, because they’re the least exciting thing in the game. Which is, perhaps, a little odd in a game about a zombie apocalypse. When they aren’t stuck in the scenery they run dumbly at you, and sometimes they phase in and out of existence like your internet connection can’t keep up with them. Then when it comes to actually shooting or smacking one with a melee weapon, there’s no sense of physicality at all.
Fighting a zombie feels like swatting at a hologram. The combat really is abysmal, and there’s no sense of challenge or satisfaction attached to it. They’re better than they were in the early days of the standalone, but only just. The result of this is that, rather than something to be feared, the undead are just annoying. There was a point in the mod when the zombies didn’t work at all, and I enjoyed that a more because there was nothing getting in the way of the real heart of the game: the interactions between players.
DayZ is a difficult game to review, because a lot of the time it’s pretty boring. There are long stretches of nothing; of rambling across seemingly endless fields, not finding anything in towns, never encountering another soul. But what keeps you going is knowing that, around the next corner, something incredibly exciting might happen. A firefight with a rival group of survivors in a ruined city. A knife-edge stand-off with a gun-toting rival. Someone who hasn’t seen you, meaning you might be able to sneak up, stick an axe in their back, and steal that nice jacket they’re wearing. Hey, don’t judge me. It’s dog eat dog out there.
These snatches of drama are fleeting, but in the right moment there are few games as exciting as DayZ. And, similar to EVE Online, knowing that everything (except the zombies) is player-driven makes it feel extra special. If you get tricked and robbed by a group of bandits, it wasn’t some event scripted by a developer: it was dreamed up by a real, thinking human, and that really adds to the experience. In one combat encounter—my backpack stuffed with hard-earned supplies, my friend lying bleeding in the corner, two assailants hidden in the distance—the exhilaration was incredible. These were intelligent humans I was facing, not AI drones I could easily outsmart.
But then it was back to running around the fields, scavenging for supplies, failing to find any, then dying and restarting—again and again. DayZ comes into its own when you get a foothold, managing to locate enough supplies and weapons to defend yourself and stay alive. But getting to that point is absolutely gruelling sometimes, and that’s where a lot of people will bounce off it. It’s a game where you have to work hard to achieve anything, and even then it can be immediately snatched away from you if you make one stupid mistake, or a player decides they want to shoot you for no particular reason.
Occasionally, in small doses, DayZ is one of the best multiplayer games on PC. But a lot of the time it’s a slow, dull, frustrating, and meandering mess of bugs, broken zombie AI, and weightless combat. So I don’t know what to think, really. Some of the stories this game has created will stick with me forever, and that’s something to be celebrated. But it’s also unforgiving, messy, and doesn’t have much respect for your time. If you want a social survival experience that doesn’t pull any punches, set in an evocative and atmospheric world, then DayZ might be worth investigating. But if you’re after a solid, polished game that always does what it’s supposed to, you’re going to be disappointed.