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Impressions: DayZ

Starving in a Zombie Wonderland

I'm crouching indoors, peeking out of a window at a man in the street. He is carefully searching this row of houses, getting closer and closer, toting an axe and wearing what looks like a clown mask. He's looking for me. I know this because I said 'hello' and there was no response. DayZ is about a zombie outbreak. But there's a clown at the door, and the undead are nothing next to the living.

Hit the jump.

This guy's a player-killer. In almost any other game I might have a chance – a default weapon, perhaps, or something to use in an ambush. But in DayZ you spawn with nowt but a torch, and I'd come to this little hamlet to try and find something – anything – useful. The door swings open and he sees me. Nothing heroic happens. His first swing misses but the second hits home, and I'm dead. I vaguely hope my only possession, a rotten banana, makes the bastard sick. And then click respawn to do it all over again.

DayZ is a (very) early alpha release of the standalone version of what was ArmA II's most brilliant mod – the realisation of an idea so strong that, even in its original state, it shone through the shonkiness. The improvements here are legion, and range from an overhauled inventory system to the gorgeous texture work on humble things like a pipe wrench. Even the fact I was hiding in a house, for example, would have been unlikely in the original mod, where buildings were mostly inaccessible blocks on the landscape.

The majority of buildings on Chernarus having interiors is the kind of change with knock-on effects. Loot can now be secreted in hard-to-see crannies, under beds and in corners, which means you spend much more time exploring towns – though this doesn't always mean you've got something to show for it. DayZ's world is permanently short on goodies, to the extent that finding two mouldy kiwis and a tin of spaghetti feels like hitting the mother lode. The first time I saw a fireaxe I just stood there looking at it, scarcely believing my luck.

The first half hour with any new character is pretty much hell-for-leather, because you've got nothing to lose and so there's little point in sneaking about. But the instant you find something good – a can-opener, perhaps, or a baseball bat – the whole atmosphere changes. Now you're Mr Softly-Softly. Now it matters.

This kind of change in pace runs through DayZ's world, and is what makes it such a tense experience. You can be on top of the world with a backpack crammed full of goodies, and the next dead – without even seeing the player that snuck up on you. Paranoia isn't wise in DayZ, it's essential.

This can be brutal, and DayZ makes no concessions towards new players – or even somewhat experienced ones. In part this is down to a desire for purity, so a character will be constantly telling you they're thirsty but there's no such thing as a 'hydration meter'. Laudable as this is, it means that some of the game's complexity is buried in a frustrating manner.

You might think that thirst can be solved, for example, by drinking a can of soda. In fact this will make a negligible contribution to your character's dehydration, though it will increase their energy (a 'hidden' mechanic) – because soda's full of calories. Nowhere does the game explain this, and the mod's various useful meters have been replaced with frequent lines of text: 'I need to drink', or 'My stomach grumbles violently' and so on.

But the absence of visual guidance isn't the problem – it's the lack of any guidance. Want to quench that thirst by drinking water from a well? You better boil or purify it first, for which you need containers and equipment, otherwise illness could await. Oh and don't just take one drink – you need multiple.

These survival elements are a massive leap in sophistication over the original mod and, to be crystal clear, I think this kind of depth is what makes DayZ fantastic. But things like the differences between drinking soda and drinking water are only clear through a bunch of trial-and-error or googling, and I don't think giving players some basic guidance towards obvious and hidden mechanics would be a bad thing. The balance also seems a little askew at the moment, with your character constantly thirsty regardless of how well-hydrated you keep them, but this is the kind of parameter that can be easily tweaked.

These are all minor issues. The problems in DayZ standalone I eventually lost patience with all revolve around the zombies. First is the melee combat. It's not so much that the animations are poor, but that the collision detection when facing zombies is so random. One hit from a zombie can screw up a character you've invested hours in, so when they simply walk through an axe swing and whack you it's enormously frustrating.

In a sense this is a legacy issue – after all, ArmA is hardly optimised for melee combat – so there may always be a shonky aspect to this side of DayZ. But this is a game about consequence, and despite the setting its appeal is in creating a 'realistic' zombie simulation. So hits have to register, as simple as that. There is no leeway for phantom blows.

Second is something that will surely be fixed in time, but is currently a nightmare. Zombies can walk through walls and floors. Have a look at this screenshot:

To escape from zombies, in the absence of something to kill them with, you need to break line of sight and be quiet. Buildings are theoretically a useful way to do this. But it turns out that doors and floors are no obstacle to the horde, and they'll simply pursue and hit you through solid surfaces. I've tried this in multiple buildings, and it's not an occasional bug but something that happens consistently.

This was a problem in the original mod, too. So at this point we come to the question of what DayZ standalone is for, and what this alpha release is for. With an alpha you expect bugs, a lack of polish, and missing elements – all of this is fine. But when an alpha costs £20 and basic stuff like this is happening, things are much more troubling.

Clearly this hasn't deterred the game's large fanbase. But if you're waiting and wondering whether to take the plunge I'd say hold off – and so would creator Dean Hall. The desire to release something playable as soon as possible gets a thumbs-up, but it's important to be fully aware you're paying £20 for the eventual game and what is clearly a work-in-progress in the meantime.

This does not mean I think DayZ's bad in any way; it's just super-early, and a few months and many patches away from being fantastic. And you can kind of wrangle your playtime into shape. Don't go into buildings when there are zombies around is an obvious first step. Don't try and fight zombies with melee weapons is a slightly harder one.

The most important rule, of course, is to be paranoid. If there is one stellar achievement that DayZ carries over from the mod intact, it is the simple dread at the sight of another player – the kind of feeling that is twisted into you through bitter experience. Someone that might be an ally, or just another bastard out for your backpack? You never know and, by the time you do, it's often too late. DayZ's Alpha might have its problems, but even now the core message shines through. Hell really is other people.

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Rich Stanton