I think I’ll annoy some Arma fans when I say that Day Z is a better showcase for that tech than the original game’s campaign or multiplayer missions. But I have my reasons, and I’ll explain some of them below. I’ll also continue the story which we began the other day, which will serve to illustrate a bit more about why both Arma 2 and this modification are something singular and brilliant in the landscape of gaming.
James, whose adventures you followed in the last part of this series, ended up dying a horrible death. Not his own fault, as such, but in exploring a castle on one of Chernarus’ forested hilltops, he was unlucky enough to have an ally who let off a round within earshot of a few dozen zombies. The undead came screaming in. I was listening on voice comms, and heard the chaotic yelling as they died. That character had almost managed five days, and have been fully kitted out for wilderness survival. He could make fires for cooking, butcher animals we’d killed, and was armed with an M4. A rounded inventory that it would take a while to scrape together.
James was appalled, and dismayed. The loss was a punch in the gut. But he’d be back.
Meanwhile, my character was still alive, way back down the valley, miles from the horror at the castle. I was going to spend the next couple of days playing solo, and it was my mission to collect all the sort of kit that would allow me to survive without mere scavenging. I looked out across the landscape, checked the map, and began to plan my trek. The capacity to do that is what I mean about this being such a good showcase for the Arma 2 engine.
There’s over 200km2 out there for characters to roam around in, and it has some of the most realistic forests you’ll ever encounter in a game. They’re actually based on real terrain in the Czech Republic. That means nothing is really the whim of a designer (although buildings and so on repeat) because things are where actual forests, villages, and roads are placed in the real world. As virtual tourism goes, there nothing more accurate in gaming. The idea for Arma 2 was to create a huge, open world for military operations, backed with the kind of AI that would allow for a living world. This has made for an extraordinarily ambitious game, but I felt that the dry experience of being a soldier lacked the vital spark to make the experience compelling. With Day Z the context changes. This time it’s not about fighting a war as part of a larger event, it’s just about you, and about surviving in a vast landscape. That far simpler setting makes you think more about the world around you. It makes you notice things.
And, to be fair, every time I play Arma 2 I notice what an extraordinary accomplishment it is, but perhaps the constant threat of death that Day Z imposes on my heightens the experience. This time I am thankful for every tree and bush I can hide in, every shack or shed that might have a can of food in.
Anyway, back to our story. I headed south to a small town. I needed supplies, but also I wanted to find a hunting knife, and matches, so that I could survive in the wild. Every town is now patrolled by zombies, and since firing weapons brings them in, the best way is stealth. I crawled into the town on my belly, searching its shacks and barns for things I would need. It was a grim experience, with the moaning horrors lurching past me just a few feet away. At one point I was crawling through long grass only – nightmarishly – to see a zombie crawling through the grass toward me. My heart complained, and I crawled back out to nearby woodland. It began to rain. I hadn’t gathered much. Just some ammo and canned food. I set out to the next town.
This next town was much bigger, and was a good trek away. I spent a long time creeping around the abandoned settlement, dodging zombies and searching through crap to find what I needed. No point in taking that old rifle, or this jerry can, or that crossbow. None of it was going to help me survive solo. The weather got worse. Thunder rolled overhead. Then, as I squatted beside a fence – just planning how to get to the next barn – something worse that weather came in. A bullet thwacked into the scenery. It was a moment of pure chance: a miss. That first shot should have killed me, but the sniper fluffed it. I went prone and crawled blindly into the town. More shots. They were firing at where I had been. A quick glance: at least four bandits. Human players. More firing as they took out the wave of zombies. And then they came for me.
In global chat: “Don’t worry. We will find you.”
I crawled on. Then up on my feet and running for the woodland. I ran and ran. Stopping, I pulled out binoculars that I’d found in a hunting shack. I watched the town for a while. The bandits were moving methodically through the buildings, searching for me. I fled into the mountains.
After the initial fright had passed I realised I needed to be bolder. I might never find what I needed in these sheds and factories. What I needed to do was take it from someone who had already collected it. I would need to kill.
But I didn’t want to kill another peaceful survivor, I wanted to take it from a bandit. And I knew the bandits killed along the coast, where the highest number of newbies could be found. So I headed down through the valleys. I had a map, but no compass or GPS, so I was orienteering from landmarks. I got turned around a few times, but eventually I found myself on the outskirts of Elektrozavodsk. I watched the place from the woods for a while with my binoculars. I saw survivors come into the town, try to shoot zombies, and get swarmed by the horde. I watched a well-armed chap exploring the powerstation, and then then he too slipped up. I saw zombies racing inside the building. The survivor did not come out.
I glimpsed bandits skirting along the edge of the town. Perhaps the same guys who had hunted for me. I could not kill them with my ancient Winchester rifle. It was looking grim. And each moment I was here I risked being found and killed.
I headed back up toward the hills. And by this time I was beginning to feel a little defeated. Perhaps a solo quest was foolish. I’d need to log off and wait until chums were online to play alongside me again. I’d search a few buildings first, and then log out. My character would be saved to play on any server in the future. I checked a barn for the stuff I needed, but there were more crossbows, more bits of vehicle-fixing material I would not use. And then I turned around to see a bandit on the stairs behind me. In my surprise I let off a shot. He dropped down, and returned fire. He missed, and my second shot ended him.
I waited. Did he have friends? They would surely not come into the barn and risk an ambush. I frantically searched his backpack. A compass. Matches. A knife. A GPS. Painkillers. Food. A sniper rifle. Ammo. He’d been carrying everything a Day Z player could need.
Without thinking, I ran outside, and then realised my mistake. If others were waiting for me, I’d be dead. But there was no one. I ran for the woods. I was all set. I logged off in the dark.
It was this character’s seventh day. I joined James, ending my solo mission. He was fresh off the beach, and had nothing. We killed a goat and cooked the meat, so that he had some supplies, and then we headed north. There was more luck coming our way: tents! The first one was empty, but the second was packed with supplies, including another sniper rifle. We were set up within minutes. And we set off along the coast.
But Day Z’s dice roll fast, and favour no one. “Guys by the powerlines friendly?” Someone was talking to us in global chat. How quickly it could have been over had this survivor been hostile. It took us several minutes to spot him. He came running up and saluted. He could so easily have put us down and taken all this precious kit. I indicated that we should continue along the coast, keeping to the woods. Our friend, however, seemed intent on raiding buildings and fighting zombies. We watched as he met up with two other survivors in the next village, and holed up inside a barn, killing the waves of zombies that charged in. After watching this slaughter for some time, James and I decided to head north, and away from so much danger.
We explored ruins and villages. We kept off familiar highways. Fog came in as we headed into the highlands. The game’s weather delivers some bleak moments. And then, from the gloom, a car engine!
We hit the deck, and crawled further into the woods. There was a car on the road, stopped 300 metres from us. At least one bandit. And…. the server disconnected us. It had rebooted.
We logged back in immediately, hoping to steal the car from under the noses of its previous owners. But when we got back the car was gone. The bandits, however, were not. They had not seen us. We fired on them with our sniper rifles. We missed. They fled down into the valley. Panicking, we retreated into the woods.
They’d head back to the town they’d come from, I reasoned. The car they’d fixed up might still be there. We decided to skirt along the woods and come in from the other direction. That way we might be able to ambush them as they came back up the valley.
Except they never did come up that valley. As I watched the road and the town, James turned around. “A bandit,” he said. “Fifty metres from me.” They’d followed the exact same arc of trees as us, coming in on the other side of the town, just as we had. I should have realised they’d make the same move. I should have realised we could have made the counter-counter-intuitive move and ambush them. But I hadn’t. I was an idiot. James fired. And then the woodland buzzed with returned fire. I could hear bullets smacking into trees around me. Then I saw a bandit standing up. I took a shot, and missed again. Fuck! I saw him kill James with a single shot. “I got one of them,” said James. “Please don’t die.”
Then I heard the screaming. Perhaps twenty zombies were hurtling out of the town towards the woods. I hoped they go for the bandits, but they did not. I tried to run, and a sniper shot came from the woods. I died under a pile of the undead.
And it was all over.
We woke up back on the beach.