Day Z is the best thing I've played so far this year.
On my first go, I bled to death in the dark, alone on a forest trail.
I respawned on the beach. That's where all the survivors start out, with a Makarov pistol, some cans of food, a shot of morphine, and few other supplies. Those wouldn't last long.
My second attempt to stay alive in this brutal, zombie-infested version of Arma 2 was going to be a little slower. A little better considered. Or at least that's what I insisted to myself. Sure, it's a slightly broken alpha version of an unfinished mod of a game notorious for its wonkiness, but the challenge of it had already enthralled me. The potential for open-ended exploration, combat, and terror in the engine of a complex and sophisticated soldier sim were clear. The goal is simple: survive. And the chances of managing to do that are slim. Day Z (daze? daisy?) is a desperate, ruthless experience.
It was still dark – the game seems to have a 24hr day/night cycle – and I hoped that the shadows would give me some cover as I headed in-land. The vast Eastern European space that the soldier sim had created is now littered with supplies, and with zombies. An open world game of survival in a zombie apocalypse. A fantastic idea, made all the more compelling by a persistence of character, and permanent death. But what makes it all the more intense is that it is populated by players. They want to survive too. To not starve. To not bleed out. And they don't all want to be friends.
I hiked up onto a ridge in the dark. Something glowed red in the forest ahead of me. Someone had set off a flare. Human activity! It could be a friend or foe, but it was hard to tell. I could ask on the global chat, but I already new that could bring merciless players down on me. I crept closer. Just the glow of the flare. No sign of anyone around.
Then I heard gunshots. Back down on the road, someone was firing a pistol. I crept down, closer, trying not to make too much noise. I moved behind some buildings, leaning out to see what was happening. I could make out dark shapes moving rapidly about in the road. Zombies. And the guy who had been shooting was already on the ground. I stepped closer and fired into the zombies. But more were behind me. I backed off, trying to reload. The shrieking, snarling creatures swarmed at me. I plunged forward, dead. I'd been alive less than ten minutes. Worse than my first outing.
Another attempt, this time with a random companion survivor from the beach, again ended in rapid misadventure. We were just two uncoordinated strangers, not saying much. We fled from some unseen assailant firing on us from the dark. With not enough bandages between us, and no decent weapons, we died after our third encounter with the undead. We bled to death in a doorway.
Now it was time to rope in a real-world friend. It was time to take this more seriously. To make a determined attempt to survive. Having joined the same sever, we'd have to try and find each other in the world. With no map or compass (these must be picked up in-game) that was going to tricky. We described our location to each other, and then set out to try and recognise the same landmarks. I saw the old industrial buildings he'd described against the dawn gloom. With some excitement I stood up and ran towards the location. Then the bullet came in. Someone else had been watching. Someone with a rifle.
I was dead. Ambushed by two or more players. Bandits. They were well armed. Assault rifles and camo-gear. Survivors were clearly their main prey. They'd pick over my corpse to resupply themselves. And I'd be back on the beach, with nothing. Bastards. I'd agreed with my chum that should one of us die, the other would stay nearby and hope their partner could return to that location. He would keep his head down, and try not to get killed. I trekked back to him, more cautiously this time. He watched me come in, skirting along the edge of the town. We try to get atop industrial buildings, and then, clumsily, I fell down a ladder and broke my legs. We climbed down to bandage me up and pump me full of morphine. And it was in this sorry state that we set out, limping into the world.
After travelling some distance, we both realised we needed to attend to real life, and so we hit one of the most impressive features of DayZ, which is its persistence. All the DayZ servers are connected to a central server which tracks the persistent achievements, inventory, and location of a character. By both logging out on the same spot, we could be sure we could log in together later on, and we could do so on any DayZ server, not just the one we'd spent some time in.
Later, when we came to resume our quest, we encountered the least appetizing feature of the game: the fact that all the servers are rammed full. 50 of 50 for everything in Europe. We had to wait for space to open up before the two of us could set out.
It was in-game daytime now, and we knew it would be essential to find weapons and food if we intended to survive for a long period of time. We headed down the coast to do just that. Then, after a couple of minutes, we encountered another survivor. A newbie from the beach. He turned to look at us.
We looked at him.
“Let's take him out.” A snap decision, but a horrifying one. We murdered him under a tree. He tumbled down, flopping backwards in the grass. The corpse twitched and shuddered. “This is hideous.” A pause to look at what we'd done. “Just get his stuff.”
We agreed not to murder anyone else.
But such ethical decisions did not bode well. A few minutes later, as we searched for supplies along the outskirts of another town, we met another player. Within a few seconds he had gunned down my wingman. I hit the deck, and he must have lost sight of me. I rounded the building, and fired on him as he stooped to search the corpse of my slain chum. The pistol was crap. Weak and inaccurate. I was too far away. He got up and stumbled away, returning fire as he disappeared behind a tree. I lay there in the grass. Waiting. Had I killed him? Was he just waiting for me? I crept closer, and eventually saw the blood on his body. He was down. Ugly. I was wounded from one of the bullets he'd slung my way. I used my last bandage.
Fortunately, the respawn point for my chum hadn't been too far away, and he was soon back at our location to continue. We looted the bandit, and looked around. Even this guy hadn't had a better weapon. We decided it was best to head in-land, avoiding murdering coastal newbies, but also the bandits who were butchering them for supplies. Perhaps we'd find what we needed in less trafficked surroundings.
The hike was foreboding. The misty landscape stretched out around us, and flickering shadows in the trees looked like potential bandits. We knew we were prey to some of the 48 other people on the server. We had to be careful. We began to visually scout the buildings we encountered before getting closer. Covering each other, realising vaguely military tactics would be essential to keeping both of us alive. Occasionally there was the moan of a zombie. We were meticulous about not letting these get too close. They move quickly, and it can all be over suddenly. Our supplies were thin.
We moved at pace. Woods and valleys. Farms and villages. Eventually we found a small hide, the kind that hunters might use, and in it was our prize: an AK-47. Now we had a machinegun.
The next village's zombies were going to go down fast. A few in a shack. And then a howling zombie priest. Headshots to conserve ammo. We found a flashlight, bullets, food. We were getting more confident.
We moved onwards, back down towards the larger towns that dominate the island.
We stopped and went prone. Who was that in the building ahead? And why was he hiding from us?
DayZ is a mod for Arma 2: Combined Operations. It's a work in progress. There's not that much to it right now, but as you've read, that hardly seems to matter. It can be found here. It's regularly updated, and sometimes quite tricky to get working. There's plenty of advice on the forums. Good luck.