Zombie Country

June 22, 2012 by Tim

I’ve been hearing about Day Z for a few weeks, but up until recently I was pretty focused on Diablo 3. Now that I’ve moved on from that, I decided to look into this mod for Arma 2 because, hey, I love zombies.

It’s not what you would call a straightforward install… there are a number of steps you have to take to run this mod, which is apparently still in its very early stages. However if you get it running though, what you’ve gotten yourself is an open world, somewhat persistant, hardcore zombie survival sim.

When you first start, a character is generated for you. You can choose male or female and that’s the extent of it. You then spawn along the rocky coastline of the game’s fictional landmass with nothing more than a couple of bandages, a flashlight, and some painkillers. Apparently you used to start with a pistol as well, but that’s no longer the case.

Actually you may be lucky if you can even find your inventory right off the bat (it’s G, by the way), as nothing about the game’s controls are necessarily intuitive or explanatory.

Here’s how my very first Day Z game went: Spawned in, had no weapon. Couldn’t figure out how to interact with stuff, so I started running, looking for… well, anything. Ran through the woods, ran through open fields, ran through rain and mud… I ran for nearly twenty-five minutes, and as soon as I’d left the road (which had run out with a dead end), I saw no other sign of civilization for the whole duration. No other players, no zombies, no buildings, nothing but grass and trees. Finally I happened upon a small cluster of houses, and within thirty seconds I was swarmed by a small army of clone zombies, running in idiotic zig-zag patterns and beating me to death with awful sound effects.

Oh did I mention that when you die in Day Z, it’s permanent? All your stuff (not that I had any) is gone and you have to start a new character. So anyway, I walked away from the game pretty unimpressed, bored, and with no intention to play again.

However, the concept of the game gnawed at me, and I knew there has to have been something about the game I was missing. People had such great things to say about the mod, so there had to be something to it, right? I watched some videos of people playing the mod, and it was definitely more interesting than what I’d experienced, so I decided to jump back in. After hitting a wiki to learn about the controls.

I’m going to be entirely honest… I still think Day Z is largely “meh”. However I’m going to lay most of the blame for that on the game the mod is built on, Arma 2. I can’t figure out why anyone would buy this game for any other reason than to play the Day Z mod, as it’s clunky, buggy, unintuitive, the character animations are pretty awful, and the graphics are terribly bland. I feel like Day Z would be way ahead of the curve if it had been a mod built for another first-person shooter… let’s say, oh I don’t know… any of them.

Those gripes aside… there’s something about Day Z that grabs you. It fills a niche that the zombie genre is sorely lacking, and that’s a meaningful, open-world, full-on survival simulation with very real consequences for your actions.

You have to manage not only your health (bleeding, and broken limbs can lead to very certain death if you don’t have the supplies you need to take care of yourself), but also your hunger and thirst, and even your body temperature. The game takes place in real time, meaning that if you jump onto an East Coast server during the day, it’s going to be day in the game. And if you jump on that server during the night, it’s going to be night time in the game. For the entire time you’re playing.

You have to travel, and you have to scavenge for supplies. Not just guns and ammo, but medicine, food, water, even car parts if you want to try and repair a vehicle to get around. The zombies are mean, and they’re the fast kind. Noise draws them in droves, so simply shooting them is often more trouble than it’s worth. Running makes more noise than walking, and walking makes more noise than crawling. Hiding in bushes and behind fences reduces your chances of being seen. You have to be smart, and you have to act like you would in a real survival situation. No guns blazing scenarios found here.

If the zombies are dangerous, the other players are even worse. In an environment where death is permanant and every little scrap of gear is valuable, you have to constantly watch your back. Trust nobody, and always make sure you stop and watch other players before you get too close. Figure out what type of person they are… are they friendly and interested in teaming up, or are they a bandit who will shoot on sight?

The design goal behind Day Z is spot on, and you immediately recognize it as the sort of video game that always comes up in conversations with friends, prefaced by something like “If I could make a video game, I’d…” or “I wish there was a video game that really captured the feel of…”

Day Z is rough around the edges. It’s still in its infancy, and remarkably it’s being developed by a single guy. It’s not perfect yet. It can be pretty frustrating when you lock yourself in a room to hide, and the zombies just glitch through the walls anyway. Or when you inexplicably get stuck trying to exit a doorway that is twice your size. All the zombies look the same, and their animations are terrible. The controls can be a little sluggish.

I can easily rattle off a dozen more things that bug me about the mechanics, but I can also name one thing it does right that trumps them all, and that is that Day Z is fun. It can be pretty easy to overlook a lot of technical shortcomings in a game if what lies underneath is fun, interesting and engaging. Left 4 Dead and The Walking Dead are fantastic zombie games for their own reasons, but neither of them do what Day Z looks to do, and that’s plop you down into a huge, harsh, zombie-ridden landscape and say “Go ahead, try and survive.” Last I looked average life expectancy in Day Z was 37 minutes.

The mod is far from perfect, and while it is free to grab and play, you have to own Arma 2 to do so (and let’s face it… who just happens to already own Arma 2?), so there is a small price of admission. However the idea of surviving as long as possible in a bleak, zombie covered environment is infectiously fun, and Day Z is going about it in a really interesting and in-depth way. I’m excited to see if they continue to develop it, and if the mod can reach its full potential in the coming months.

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