DayZ is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and compelling gaming experiences I’ve had in a while.
Before I get into it, let me say this: I love zombies. Yes, yes, I know, there are zombies everywhere now, it’s boring, blah blah blah. Shut up. The problem isn’t that there are zombies everywhere, the problem is that there are bad zombies everywhere.
See, I think most people making zombie fiction don’t seem to understand what it is about zombies that’s awesome. They often feel the need to spice them up, not understanding that adding freakish mutations, or mad scientists, or big explosions, or special weapons just isn’t conducive to a great zombie experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than in video games. Most developers just aren’t willing to tackle that extremely Romeroish, Dawn of the Dead type of experience, where the focus is on survival and human interaction in the shadow of a horrible, apocalyptic event.
DayZ is. And that’s why DayZ is cool.
This is a PC game, an Arma II mod, and it’s currently in alpha — so things are by no means complete. I haven’t been playing it for long, but what I’ve seen this far is fascinating.
There are no missions, no objectives. There are no experience levels. Your character is persistent, meaning that your location, inventory and general status get saved when you log off. (The mod has been super popular lately, and that means just getting into the game can be a challenge — the central database server where they save this stuff is taking a constant beating.)
Oh, and if you get killed? Start over from scratch.
So survival is the name of the game. That’s all — just don’t get killed. Oh, and you’ll need something to eat and drink on a regular basis, or you’ll die. In the latest version, you can catch an infection and get sick, and the only way that’ll get fixed is by finding antibiotics. If you get hurt, you’ll need bandages, painkillers and blood transfusions. Weapons and ammunition are limited to what you can find, which typically isn’t too much. You scavenge for supplies, you try to avoid zombies, and you will die. It’s not a question of whether that’ll happen — in DayZ, everybody dies. It’s just a question how long you can make it before that happens.
It’s not just the zombies that’ll kill you. It’s also that whole “dog eat dog” mentality — there are always going to be people who want what you’ve got. They’ll shoot you in the head for a can of beans. So seeing other players is a mixed blessing at best. Some are very nice and helpful. Others are not. Good luck.
At the time of this writing, the average life expectancy for players is 28 minutes, which tells you a lot about how popular the mod has become — when I joined up a couple of weeks back, it was around four and a half hours, but with the constant influx of new players, that’s gone way down. They’ll learn.
The game is set in a 225 km² post-Soviet world. There are cities, forests, hills, industrial areas, docks, airfields — and all of it is infested by zombies. They mostly concentrate around built-up areas.
All of this is just a preface to the actual DayZ story I’m about to tell — how I mounted a rescue mission in this bleak, dangerous and unforgiving world, and how that turned out.
It all started when a friend of mine told me that he got downed by zombies. He was still alive, but hurting pretty bad — when you lose enough blood, your character tends to drift in an out of consciousness and is generally pretty useless. He wasn’t making it out of there on his own. He needed somebody to give him a blood transfusion to get him back in the game.
I decided to go on a rescue mission, knowing very well that I might not actually be able to make it, but hell, it was an adventure, and I knew however it turned out, it’d be cool to try.
Of course, he didn’t know exactly where he was, and it’s a huge world. He didn’t have a map on his character, and neither did I. You can find one of the area on the internet, of course, but you can’t see your own location on it, and it’s not super detailed, so navigation based on that can be tricky. All he could tell me that he was somewhere near Stary Sobor (“or it could be Novy Sobor, I’m not sure”). It wasn’t a great fix, but it gave me something to go on.
I really wasn’t well-equipped for this kind of thing. I had one can of food. I was pretty well fixed for drink, though, what with two canteens of water and three cans of soda — so while I might very well die, it wouldn’t be of thirst. The biggest problem was that I had five bullets in my shitty little Makarov pistol, and that was all I had to defend myself with.
I set off.
Stary Sobor was almost straight to the north from where I was, so figuring out the correct general direction wasn’t that hard for me. I didn’t have a map (except the one on the internet), but I did have a compass, so at least maintaining a correct heading wasn’t a problem.
Which is not to say I had no problems. Here’s the very first one: when you log back into the game, you sometimes don’t come back at the very same spot where you logged off. Sometimes, you’re a little off from your previous position. Sometimes, you’re a LOT off. Apparently, this can happen if the database server is very busy — and as I said, it’s very busy, these days, all the time — it doesn’t always record your position, and new players are always spawned on the coast. Whatever the reason, I was off by a bunch of kilometers. I thought I was between the two major cities on the south coast — Chernogorsk and Elektrozavodsk — but it turned out I was actually one city over to the east.
I didn’t realize it right away. It’d been dark when I logged off earlier, so I didn’t pick up on the surroundings being different. What I thought was Chernogorsk on my west flank was actually Elektrozavodsk, but I didn’t realize that. Still, I had this constant nagging feeling that things were a little off. That was confirmed when I spotted a dam, and realized that it had to be the Topolka Dam. At least that gave me a solid landmark to base my journey on. On I went.
Following the road nearby would have been a deceptively simple way of getting where I wanted to go, but roads can be dangerous — there are buildings next to the roads, and buildings generally mean zombies, and anyway, you never know when someone’s set up on the road with a sniper rifle, eager to put a bullet in your head and go through your pockets. And besides, I had a friend down. Going as the crow flies, or as close to that as I could manage, would save me a lot of time in getting to him.
Don’t Go Into That Barn
Of course, as soon as I got a good pace going, I suddenly ran into a hopper — a zombie that stays kind of crouched and moves along in these little hops. The good news is, they’re slow. The bad news is, they’re harder to spot in tall grass and bushes. I literally bumped into the bastard, but I managed to back away and take him out with just a couple of bullets without being hurt. Dumb luck.
Looking around in growing panic, I saw there was a barn nearby, in the woods — I just hadn’t noticed it before. More dumb luck: there weren’t any other zombies coming at me. I calmed down, and decided to take a chance. I went inside.
It paid off: there was more food, more drink, and most importantly, bullets for my gun. The downside was, there were a lot of zombies on the other side of the barn — but they hadn’t spotted me. I could sneak back out with my loot.
Which was, of course, when I managed to fall off the loft. Which not only broke my leg, but also made enough noise to get one of the zombies to come after me, and I couldn’t run away, what with the leg and all. So I had to put him down. That wasn’t too much trouble, except the gunshots attracted the rest of the zombies.
This is a good moment for me to point out that the zombies, except for the hoppers, tend to be of the “fast” variety. Those fuckers were right on me before I was done blowing the first one’s brains out, and then it was on — which basically means that I was very slowly and clumsily trying to back away from them and firing in a panic, and they were eating me. I fed them lead instead, but they got me pretty good. So now I was bleeding like a stuck pig.
I bandaged myself and popped some painkillers, which in the world of DayZ will fix up broken bones… although not instantly. I took a tally: I still had a more ammo than when I started, I had more food, but on the other hand, I’d spend some bandages and painkillers. I guess I was slightly better off than before, although the way the colors of the world kept shifting on me and all I could hear was my heartbeat, I wasn’t 100% sure about that.
At any rate, I was still functional, still able to defend myself, and on my way. Frankly, in DayZ, that’s just about as good as it gets, more often than not.
I continued on my way, and after a while, the leg was all right and I was making decent time again. From that point on, I spent most of the trip avoiding the roads and buildings altogether. I didn’t run into another live human, and I was glad about that; neither did I encounter any immediate danger. Opportunities for scavenging presented themselves regularly, but I decided against it. I saw farm houses, barns, even a village that I think was Kumyrna, but I didn’t get close enough to find out; the abandoned church and the dozen or so walking corpses made sure that I stayed the fuck away from there. Anyway, I wasn’t out here for loot. I was on a mission.
That’s Not a Tent, That’s a House, You Fucking Moron
Eventually, I started seeing a lot of buildings, and I was pretty sure I was near Novy Sobor. A sign on the nearby road confirmed that. This whole trip, until this point, had taken me almost an hour, real time… and the evening was approaching fast. DayZ has a realistic 24-hour day/night cycle, which means that when it gets dark, it’ll stay dark for a good while… and if the moon isn’t up, it gets real dark. I mean, dark. I was getting anxious about that, too.
The image above should give you an idea of what I mean. (It’s not from our situation, I snapped it about a week earlier — during my very first DayZ session, actually.) The red glare you can barely make out is a flare someone threw in the distance. You can see that light for a looong way, so it’s a great way to attract unwanted attention, whether it’s from zombies or other players.
Anyway, it wasn’t quite that dark yet, but I knew it’d be that way soon. But I couldn’t move too fast, because there were a lot of zombies here. Shuffling around in back yards, hanging out on the roads, wandering aimlessly across the nearby fields, half-hidden by bushes and fences — pick a spot, see a zombie. Dozens and dozens of them. A fucking horde. I absolutely wasn’t equipped for taking them on.
So I kept my head low, resorting to crawling a few times when it seemed like they might spot me, and circled around from south until I found a good spot to cross the road that runs between Stary Sobor and Novy Sobor. (The two cities are right next to each other.) He’d told me that he was at some “army tents,” which meant pretty much nothing to me, given that I didn’t know where they were. He also said that he thought he was somewhere northeast of Stary Sobor, and that was a little more useful.
Finally, I spotted the tents. I made my way for them. They were right next to a huge box-like warehouse. The place was crawling with the undead, so I had to crawl, too — I went prone and hoped like hell I could make it in without any of them spotting me. I was doing more or less okay on ammo, but it would only go so far, and if I had to fire a gun in there, with the horde so close by, it’d bring every damn zombie in the area on my head. If that happened, I was as good as dead — or even if I made it out of there, that would put an end to the rescue right quick. Crawling means you’re hard to spot and make very little noise moving.
I made it in there. I was out of the bushes, lying on concrete and looking around, and that was when I realized that what I thought were tents were actually the gabled roofs of some nearby houses. See, it was really getting dark now. The darkness plays tricks on you — things like scale can be tricky to work out. I thought they were tents on the concrete. Turned out they were rooftops further away. I was surrounded by zombies, and I was in the wrong spot. I’d just seriously fucked up. No exaggeration: if I’d stood up, I’d probably have been dead in thirty seconds, or as good as.
With my heart in my throat, I crawled into the warehouse, which I was amazed to find empty — just this huge, cavernous space, with nothing in it — no loot, no zombies, no nothing. There were catwalks above, and when I climbed up there, I saw that there had to be easily twenty, thirty zombies nearby, and those were just the ones I could see. I knew there was more behind the buildings, eager to dash out if provoked by a gunshot or a scream.
I resolved to get the fuck out of there as soon as I could. I climbed back down, and crawled out — another hair-raising experience, but at least this time around things got a little easier the more distance I put between the building and myself…
…and that’s when I spotted the tents. Well, they were more like Quonset huts, but anyway, they were right there, no more than a hundred meters from the warehouse. Success! I was overjoyed. I crawled in there, and there weren’t even that many zombies around. I started looking for my friend.
And that was when I found that he’d crawled into the warehouse. I guess because it seemed safer, what with all the zombies walking around. At least in there he had some visual cover. We had literally crawled right past each other, just a couple of minutes ago. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry — I just didn’t want to crawl past those zombies again. What if I ran into a zombie that was crawling? That can happen. I wouldn’t spot that bastard until I came face to face with him. He’d literally be biting my face as soon as I became aware of his existence…
…but hell, I had come all this way to rescue the guy. So I had no choice, really. I’d have to go back.
And that was when I heard the scream. There was a zombie right there. I’m not sure where that fucking thing came from, but clearly, I’d taken my eyes off the ball.
So I put the fucking thing down, and with the gunshots, all hell broke loose. I’m not quite sure exactly how many of them came at me — four or five, at a guess. I ran out into the field, a group of the living dead after me, and then I turned around and started shooting. All I can say is that I’m glad I was no longer right at the warehouse, because this was a manageable number. I got hurt, but I made it. Of course, at that point I was down to three bullets.
Once I’d gathered my wits and patched myself up all over again, I went prone and crawled back to the warehouse. At that point, it was so dark that the entire warehouse interior was almost pitch black. It took me a while to even spot my friend in there — but I managed to give him a blood transfusion that picked him right up, and there was much rejoicing.
The Exciting Stary Sobor Nightlife
We knew we couldn’t stay there, so we crawled out. We made it out of Stary Sobor without incident, to what felt like a reasonably safe distance away. By then the night had really fallen, and as we have established, it was almost impossible to see anything. We took stock of our situation, and because he already had a rifle, he offered me his revolver and ammo for it. My Makarov was almost empty, so I gladly took him up on it.
Of course, this is an alpha version of the mod, and things can be… weird. Or maybe we just screwed something up. Either way, what happened is that he gave me the ammo for the revolver, which was nice. Then I got the revolver. So far, so good. Less fun was that the ammo had mystically disappeared from my inventory — so now I had a revolver, but it was completely empty. Oh, and the Makarov had disappeared, too. The exchange had essentially left me unarmed. I guess it was the equivalent of two dumbasses fumbling around in the dark and just dropping the bullets in the tall grass or something.
Well, whatever. Here’s the fun part: our timing was perfect for this kind of stupidity, because that was precisely when somebody started shooting at us. I didn’t even hit the dirt right away, because I heard the rifle, and I thought it was my friend shooting. I was looking frantically for the zombie he had to be taking shots at, only to realize that no, somebody’s shooting, and it’s not him. Somebody wanted what we had. We were about to get killed for a can of beans and an empty revolver.
But our luck held. We hit the dirt, and the guy was a rank amateur. He didn’t manage to hit either one of us even once. I saw the muzzle flash, so I had some idea where he was, but he wasn’t silhouetted against the sky, so all I saw was blackness… until he started shining a flashlight around in a vain attempt to spot us in the tall grass and bushes — a fucking dumb move, because that turned him into a big fat target.
“Should I cap him?” my friend asked. He had a rifle.
“Go for it,” I replied.
But he didn’t. I’m not sure why — I didn’t ask. Maybe he just didn’t want the bandit rep, or maybe it was just that once the initial scare was over, the shooter didn’t seem like much of a threat. Maybe he didn’t want to waste the ammo. Make no mistake: if the would-be killer had known what he was doing, he could’ve hunted us down, but he didn’t. After a while, the flashlight was turned off, and we didn’t hear anything about the guy. He’d left.
We took off towards north, in the dark. I followed my friend for much of the way, barely able to see him in the darkness, losing him among the trees every once in a while, then spotting the movement a little further ahead. We were still alive, and just about as safe as we ever would be.
Throughout the entire experience, I’d felt tense as hell; it was only at this point that I started to relax. After a while, we called it a night and logged off.
For me, this felt like a fairly epic undertaking; I was extremely skeptical that I would actually make it. This is not an easy game, or a forgiving one. There were at least three spots where death was very, very close, and a dozen others where bad judgment could easily have had disastrous results — for example, I thought about scavenging for supplies at various buildings at least a dozen times, but always decided against it because that wasn’t the task I’d set for myself. And I got lucky in that I didn’t run into anybody who wanted to take what I had and knew what they were doing.
Above is a rough approximation of the route I took. I won’t swear to its accuracy, but I think it’s pretty close. I was pleasantly surprised by how good my navigation was — I was taking a lot of shortcuts, and I had to occasionally change direction pretty drastically to avoid trouble, and I still managed to hit Novy Sobor at a pretty much perfect angle of approach.
In a lesser game, there would have been a glowing marker out there, telling me where to go. Here, all I had was my wits, a compass, and (probably more than a little bit of) luck. And a browser open with the generic map, of course — without that, I wouldn’t have even known what direction to take in the first place. That helps, but not as much as you’d think — there’s a lot that just isn’t on the map, and because the scale and detail is what it is, locating suitable landmarks can be a challenge.
The fact that DayZ understands and treasures these challenges is a big part of what makes it so much fun.
If this sounds like something you’d be interested in trying out, the DayZ website should be your first stop, obviously.
As I mentioned, DayZ is an Arma II mod. Arma II is a a military simulation with a heavy emphasis on realism — it’s most decidedly not a run and gun game. You can get the Arma II Combined Operations pack (which includes the main game and the Operation Arrowhead expansion, both of which are required for the mod) on Steam.
There’s an interesting PC Gamer interview with the mod’s creator, Dean “Rocket” Hall.
And if you want to get a good idea of what the gameplay can be like, I strongly recommend CHKilroy’s “The Days Ahead” videos — they’re done on an older version of the mod, so some things have changed, but it’s pretty fascinating stuff:
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