Plenty of people who were veterans of the original DayZ mod had been wondering whether the magic of the original experience had survived the making of a standalone game. I'm pleased to report that not only has it survived, but there's new magic, too. Rocket and his team know what they are doing, and the changes they've made have created some tense and terrible moments in this new game. The realism it strives for is simultaneously unreal and dark, and creates some of the most awkward and sinister roleplay situations I've experienced in any game.
Surviving is back. And it is horribly compelling.
Initially there's a concern that survival aspect of the game forces you into "vole person" territory: eating and drinking continually, just to stay alive. This can be hard to get past at first, but the truth is that once you've done a bit of scavenging, and become used to collecting water, the actual eating and drinking becomes a rhythm. Learning to eat and drink as soon as you are hungry gives that aspect a back seat, at least once you've managed to get some supplies together. It's the heartbeat of the game, a heartbeat that drums pretty fast when you don't find what you are looking for.
This aspect of course provides additional reasons for the players to encounter each other in tense, unpredictable situations. The most common of these is probably the encounter at the water pumps. We all need fresh water, and so more often than not you'll meet at these places, getting a drink or filling up a container. I've encounter numerous players this way, and most have moved on, not wanting conflict. Will someone kill me for this plastic bottle? (Not if my buddy is standing behind me with an M4.) There have been people laying in wait at these locations, too: hyper-patient bandits simply hoping for some loot. It's already fascinating to see people experimenting with approaches: from full bandit to the cautious, fleeting survivor who keeps to himself.
Patience, of course, is something that DayZ demands. It is one of the most slow-paced action games imaginable. It's possible to spend hours without seeing another human being, as Chernarus' hills and forests spill away into endless rolling vistas that you find yourself hiking across, just to explore that next town. It's all too easy to find yourself miles from anywhere, and in bad shape. Perhaps ending up back on the coast with a blank slate would be the best option, but the truth is that this is a game that is all about the journey. While that journey grips you, this is one of the most rewardingly threatening games available.
Once again Arma's in-game voice comms make for some weird experiences when you do run into other humans, as you get the actual reactions of the players you encounter. The panicked deference of the European guy we cornered in a barracks made us stand down. How can we actually do anything to this terrified loner? Meanwhile the cold "where you going?" calls of the guy with the axe I just gunned down in Elektrozavodsk, moments before sitting down before writing this piece (hi, if you're reading), are still giving me goosebumps. I'd just watched him murder another player, presumably persuaded that the axe man wanted to trade peacefully.
Oof. This game.
These tools are just a small part of what Rocket and Bohemia are doing here. They want survival, interaction, and team work to take us to some strange places, and already it means that much of the interaction between players is moving away from instant gun violence and towards a bleak sort of co-operation. You'll want a friend, because chances are you'll want a blood transfusion. Let alone the other sort of situations you'll get into. When surviving is all that matters, will you risk your life against the armed bandits? Or simply give them what they want?
Bohemia have facilitated this idea of the need for negotiation with the introduction of two systems. The most important is that any item can be damaged. If you gun down that well-equipped survivor, there's a chance his pristine goods are going to be ruined, and not be all that much use to you. Better to corner him at gunpoint, or simply offer peaceful trade. The second system is slightly more sinister: handcuffs and ropes make it possible to actually capture someone, and then keep them a prisoner. This aspect of the game isn't particularly well developed, but I'll be interested to see where it goes.
Seeing where it goes is part of the appeal of DayZ in its current state. It might have been delayed, but there's a long way to go yet. That there were 250,000 people buying in on the first couple of days (and that the game has sat sternly atop Steam's top sellers list throughout the Christmas sales) suggests that there are a lot of people interested in following that patch note saga wherever it might go. Right now I am beginning to believe that Bohemia have the resources and the popularity to take it as far as Rocket had been suggesting they would in his many hyperbolic talks and interviews about the game over the past year. With the patches now arriving daily, I would expect to see a huge amount of territory covered in the next six months.
In the meantime, well, I've got a rifle and a big backpack. And I mean to survive.