The first time I heard abouty DayZ was when it was still a Arma2 mod. This friend of mine told me stories of breaking his leg and being dragged to safety by an ally from a swarm of a flesh-hungry zombies; of encountering self-organized player unions who lifted players from the spawn point, equipped them with basic tools, and dropped them. Other sources inspired me with their sheer surreality and hilarity that comes with encountering potentially hostile strangers. It would be a long time before I had to opportunity to actually play the game - in fact until last week when I finished building my first PC - but now I have, and my main take-away so far is that, while a true multiplayer sandbox is a terrific gameplay model, early access can be a tragic development model.
In my first ever run I wandered through fields for awhile before passing through a more industrial block along the highway. I found some nice gear in it - a flaregun, a welding mask, a pipe wrench, some canned food. But how am I gonna get the damn…? Oh. The pipe wrench smashes the can open. A bunch of food splatters everywhere but I can salvage enough to stave off starvation. This is kinda cool. I am feeling pret-ty tough as I head into town along the highway with my mask, wrench, and cold bean smell.
The town was a jackpot. Food, water, pocket-laden tactical vests! I fill to bursting with more tinned calories and bottled water. I find a hunting rifle with no bullets. I continue to sweep the town, throwing open door after door, until, approaching an intersection, my eye catches a flash of movement on a rooftop. I pull out my (useless) firearm and train it on the door as a man steps out, both hands gripping a pistol pointed directly at me. He cautiously approaches, and I remember there is mumble chat function. I immediately also remember neither of the goddamn microphones on my two headsets actually work, and this other player seems mute as well. We stand silently, facing each other down, and a thought occurs to me. I lower my weapon, step forward, and put a can of spaghetti on the ground. I take a few steps back. He trains his gun on me, then on the can … then lowers it, steps forward, and takes the can. Wow! Nonverbal peacemaking! Great job, me!
Eager to make progress on our newfound alliance, I head forward and see, in a fenced enclosure attached to the building this stranger came out of, there is a zombie shuffling about. Awlright! Let’s get him! I equip my wrench, my real weapon, pull open the gate, and the screen goes black and tells me I’m dead.
Huh. Guess that guy had a bullet after all.
In spite of the shock-disaster, that was an awesome gameplay experience. Long spans of nothing broken up by short bursts of tension, anxiety, release. However the game, being early access, is not consistent in producing this flow. In a later play session, I tried to meet up with my friend. But the way the game works, you spawn in random locations on the massive map, and have little resource for locating yourself in the game. Promising landmarks turn out to be distant replicas. My friend and I both spent an hour in a phone conversation trying to figure out how to meet up in the game. Over that duration, we each encountered nothing in the game world: no other players, no zombies, no weapons, and no food, and each died in total solitude and inertia.
Later runs have shown a 50/50 probability of being either shot dead on sight by the first rigged-out human being I encounter, or starving/bleeding/thirsting to death, alone, laden down with tinned foodstuffs and powdered milk. I think I may actually write a guide on how to clip off your own dying characters, because once you've gone terminal, it's a good 10-15 minutes of gameplay before you can actually respawn a healthy character and a better chance at survival.
Ongoing experience with the game has been fairly positive however. To anybody new to DayZ, I strongly recommend shopping around the different servers and finding a high loot, low violence server to suit your desires. For some reason I loaded into one spawn as a pantsless, shoeless white man, and before I could find a single inventory item, I was shot dead by a stranger in a motorcycle helmet. My now-working headset microphone brooked no favor with this man.
While early access has earned a great deal of revenue towards the development of DayZ, it seems constrained by its shaky beginnings. Between the horrible user interface, jittery gameplay and rendering, and untuned randomness, many of the game’s improvements over the years have been preoccupied with glitches and balancing, rather than bolstering the shoddy foundation of the game as a whole.
And what’s worse, though it more or less invented the genre, DayZ now struggles against dozens of competitor games, which took conceptual inspiration from DayZ and backed it with some variation of a better-funded, more stable game engine. These competitor games allow shared spawn points, or start with a navigational tool of some kind. While this may break “immersion” in the survival situation, it makes those games more enduringly playable, and dependably fun, in a way that casts DayZ’s emphasis on hardcore survival in a shadow of quaintness.
To drive the point further, Dean Hall, head designer of DayZ, has openly stated that DayZ improvements have taken inspiration from the game’s competing knockoffs. Sadly, kicking off the genre does not set the standard and perhaps it remains to be seen who can build the optimal zombie survival sandbox game.
In spite of tracts of utter boredom, though, I have been enjoying my time with DayZ and look forward to delivering more epic tales of failure from the frontline of Hiking Simulator Extre