You come to life on a deserted shore. No map, no gun — no scrap of anything that might tell you who you are or where you came from.
After wandering for a time, you might find a road. Should you follow it? There’s strange writing on the signs you pass — Russian, perhaps? You see a small village in the distance. Meandering shapes dither between the cottages, walking with little to no direction. As you walk a little closer, bleak, you hear rhythmic percussion. Now you can see faces — they look hungry, and they’re coming full-bore.
After you, Mr. No Guns, No Map and No Idea What to Do.
Welcome to the post-apocalyptic world of “DayZ”, a modification of the first-person war-sim “Arma II.” In its brief existence as a playable “alpha mod” (a full, stand-alone game is in the works), it has emerged as one of the most original and inspiring games of 2012 for one simple reason: it offers a compelling, bleak and altogether original world of survival-horror with absolutely no coddling and no mercy.
You start “DayZ” with no tools, no advice and no explanations. There are lots of places to visit scattered through this 225-by-225 kilometer stretch, but exploring them is something you’ll want to be cautious about. To start, you might just want to run to the nearest small village, pillage what you can as fast as you can, then hide.
“DayZ” is survival-horror like no other. The average lifespan of any player, according to the game’s statistics on dayz-mod.com, is a meager 68 minutes. Death is permanent, meaning if you die, you lose everything you’ve accumulated. Your goal is simple: stay alive. Yet in no certain order, you might want do other, more risky things, like finding weapons, food, tools and maybe a vehicle or two. You don’t level up in this game, but your progression as a character is marked by how much cool stuff you can get, and how long you can stay alive with it. There are cans of beans, broken bottles, sniper rifles, compasses, maps, toolkits, bicycles and even ATVs — but you have to explore to find any of it.
These items, or parts of them, are found in the cities that dot the landscape. Unfortunately, that’s also where zombies like to hang out. Even more unfortunate, that’s also where other players might be.
“DayZ” is a persistent MMO, hosted on thousands of volunteer servers across the world, but each server can host only 40 players at one time. Your character’s possessions and location are sent to a central database, which will feed your info to any new server you join. The game, therefore, acts like you never left, even when you switch servers. Brilliantly, the game slowly switches from day to night using the server’s local time, meaning days in “DayZ” are 24 hours long. Some players are scared of the dark (understandably so, really) and switch to servers farther down the international datelines as the day goes on.
Even though it’s massively multiplayer in a manner of speaking, you won’t want to run into another living being unless you’re playing with a friend. Although there are certainly undead looking for a pound of flesh, it’s the living — starving, paranoid, and totally unpredictable — that are your real enemy. “DayZ” fosters player hostility in two ways: By making it hard to communicate — voice and text chat can only be done when characters are geographically near each other — and by making death so terribly powerful. Everyone’s got everything to lose and no way to keep what they have safe. If you can’t be sure of the other guy’s true intentions, you might want to just shoot first and ask questions never.
Fittingly, the controls in “DayZ” are just as horrifying as the gameplay. Clunky is the best word to describe them, but it’s probably not negative enough. Commonly used buttons are all over the keyboard, and buttons often ignored by most games are used for important commands here. For example, “Mouse 3” (clicking on the mouse wheel) picks things up; “Enter” on the number pad puts you in third-person mode. “DayZ” might be the only game since “Flight Simulator” to use that one. In addition, many menus and displays are holdovers from the parent game, “Arma II,” and have nothing to do with “DayZ.”
One important thing works just fine, however: your ability to go prone or crouch. “DayZ” involves a lot of stealth. While you can run from zombies, and easily lose them if you duck between a few trees, you’ll want to creep around more often than not just to keep a low profile. The noise you make and your ease of visibility are shown on the in-game display.
Also, sharing screen space is your character’s health, indicated as “blood.” Getting bitten or shot are two quick ways to die, but there are a bevy of other ways as well. Hypothermia, dehydration, starvation, shock, broken bones — the list goes on. While not everything is fatal immediately, every little condition is cause for concern — and a reason to keep on the move to find new medical supplies.
You can and will put up with all of this, however, because the survival element is just so compelling. The game’s music is a haunting collection of tracks that sound like John Cage rejects; pounding drums that lead you from one town to the next village. Maybe you’ll find a store full of empty cans, maybe you’ll find a bigger backpack, or maybe you’ll find one of the 50 parts you need to get that helicopter you saw off the ground.
A pack of flares could help you make camp in the dark, or help you make a trap for another player you think might be stalking you. Maybe all you need is a sniper rifle, a can of beans and a new set of camo you found in the back of an abandoned military base five clicks northwest.
“DayZ” gives you the chance to create your own survival story. Much like “Minecraft,” it creates a world with few rules, and leaves you in a veritable sandbox of options and possibilities — but with no guarantees.
What would a zombie apocalypse look like? We have a thoroughly plausible answer in “DayZ”: scarcity, paranoia, every man for himself, and equal amounts of heart-pounding running and crawling in the shadows.
It’s you against the world, or rather, you against “DayZ.”