With 2012 just about wrapped up and the Steam Christmas Sale chugging along until January 5, I decided now might be a good time to catch up on a game that’s been generating a lot of buzz this year: the DayZ mod for ARMA II.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – ARMA II? How does an aging military simulator from 2009 belong on a list of this year’s greatest hits? Thank Dean “Rocket” Hall and his zombie apocalypse mod for that one. Released this past May, DayZ is a hyper-realistic simulator that answers the question: What if there really was a zombie apocalypse? It’s true survival horror, with the emphasis on survival. Food and water are scarce. Ammo is as valuable as gold. Death is permanent. And most of all, other survivors are not to be trusted.
The game takes place in the sprawling land of Chernarus, a fictional Soviet-inspired tract of land filled with mountains, valleys, and temperate forests and speckled with small villages, outposts, and military bases. Civilization has collapsed – the zombies have taken over and there’s nowhere to run or hide. The game’s two biggest cities, Chernogorsk and Elektrozavodsk, are teeming with hordes of ravaging zombies. Further inland, wide swaths of wilderness and abandoned villages offer more privacy and protection, but supplies are hard to come by. However, even worse than the zombies are the other survivors – the players fighting along side you for survival. Food and water are scarce, and most players are willing to shoot a fellow player if it means taking their supplies. The game’s colossal map means that depending on where you are, you may be alone for miles in every direction, or you could be surrounded by hordes of zombies in a matter of seconds. The game’s only goal: Survive.
I heard about the DayZ mod for ARMA II: Combined Operations when I read this magnificently written article about it on Ars Technica. It was the greatest pitch for a zombie video game I had ever heard. The author fantastically conveys the sense of danger that surrounds the player – not just from the monsters themselves, but from the other players as well. Long journeys are planned with painstaking caution. Detours in remote, heavily wooded hills are preferred over risking detection in well-traveled areas, settlements, and open fields. Players are forced to survive by cooking food, drinking water, and mending wounds and broken bones.
As you can expect, DayZ quickly propelled ARMA II to one of Steam’s highest-selling games when sales exploded during the Steam summer sale. It reached 1 million players in roughly four months, and a commercial product is already being collaborated by Hall himself and Bohemia Interactive, the producer of the official ARMA games. When I finally saw ARMA II: Combined Operations on sale for $15 during the past Christmas sale, I decided now may be the best time to see what all the fuss was about.
Unfortunately, the installation process serves a stark reminder that the game is still very much an experiment at this point. DayZ is anything but simple to install. It took me a little under 3 hours or so to get everything running from initial purchase to gameplay start up, and that mostly had to do with installation times. You need two games to play it: The ARMA II core game, and its expansion Operation Arrowhead. Both make up the Combined Operations package required for the DayZ mod. I chose the simple route and picked up a copy of ARMA II: Combined Operations off of Steam. There is a way to get a free version of ARMA II and combine it with Operation Arrowhead to make Combined Operations Lite, but apparently this does not come recommended, so I didn’t try it out. If you want a better idea of the number of steps involved to get the game running, the DayZ wiki page will give you a better idea of what’s involved.
Thankfully, there is a quicker installation method using the Play withSix Installer and Launcher. The program installs the ARMA II beta patch, updates your DayZ mod files, and also functions as a handy server launcher for the mod. It also installs with a simple executable. Its interface is surprisingly sleek for a mod that seems so messy to install, and the latest versions of both the ARMA beta patch and the DayZ mod can be downloaded with the click of a button. So if you’re a gamer who likes simplicity, buy through Steam and get the installer. And remember, if you ever get stuck with the installation, be ready to either check the installation FAQ or head over to the forums for help. Trust, me you wouldn’t be the first.
Let me tell you one thing though: If you plan on going the manual route, prepare for some pretty technical stuff. In fact, you’re going to be cruising through a lot of installation guides if you choose to do anything but a Steam installation. For a brief overview, there’s a beta patch you need to install plus the mod itself, which requires manually editing a Windows command file. It’s really no wonder the Wiki page lists “balls” as the fourth requirement to install this god damn game. The engineer in me was kind of attracted to the idea of building this thing from the ground up, but in the interest of saving time, I couldn’t be bothered with it.
Day 1: The Whimpering
To begin, all new players are spawned on a random beach somewhere along the southern or eastern coast of Chernarus. There were a number of indicators on my screen that were interpreted easily enough to mean thirst, hunger, body temperature, etc. Despite the seemingly straightforward interface, the controls were far from intuitive for me. After some walking around a bit and turning off the annoying head bob I managed to open up my inventory to discover that I had some bandages, some painkillers, and flashlight. I did have a bag strapped to me, but there was nothing in it, and I soon came to the realization that the game was pretty leaving me to fend for myself.
The first thing I figured I try to find was either some matches, some food, or hopefully a gun to defend myself with. I briefly looked around my area and saw a village a few hundred yards inland by a highway. From where I was standing, it didn’t look like there was too much there, and would contain 5-10 zombies for me to take down, tops. Afterwards I could check the buildings for anything and then maybe try to figure out where the hell to go from there. However, not fifty yards outside of the village proper did I hear the unmistakable growl of the undead. Without much chance to look around, four walking piles of rotting flesh were right on top of me and kicking the ever-living crap out of me.
Now, being a gamer, my first assumption was that left click was mapped to some sort of attack, while right click did some other important thing. Well, my left and right mouse buttons must have been mapped to “bleed” and “whimper,” because that’s all my character pretty much did as I frantically clicked away at the enemy before me. I slammed my fingers on to the keyboard hoping I would… I don’t know… slap the zombie to death or something, but I only managed to open up every single other god damn command window there was to find in this game. Soon I was starting to lose a lot of blood, and realizing this was a pretty pathetic way to die, I quickly disconnected from the server.
Okay, new start. I load up another server. However, my screen is shaking uncontrollably, and I’m still losing blood even though I’m not being attacked. I deduce that now would be the right time to open up my inventory and pop some painkillers and let all the pain just melt away. I open up my inventory. Double click the painkillers. Nothing happens. Okay, don’t panic. Maybe they’re in my bag this whole time and I need to retrieve them. Okay open the bag. Now double click the pain pills. No wait, don’t store them. Take them out. Okay close the bag. Maybe click this. No, don’t drop the fucking pain pills! Eat them! Pick them up, pick them up. Losing blood fast here. Okay, just double click them now. Jesus, JUST EAT THE GOD DAMN PILLS ALREADY.
By now my screen is going black and white and I’ve got a few more seconds of life left in me. Finally I decide to give up and await the sweet embrace of death so I can at least start over with full health. In the very least, I didn’t really have anything to lose. Well, except maybe any shred of dignity I had with me. Soon I’m realizing that I’ve definitely bitten off more than I can chew, and that if I’m going to get anywhere in this game, I’ve got to do some research.
I spend what seems like hours reading every beginner’s guide to DayZ there is, starting with the Wiki. And then I go on to view some helpful YouTube videos as well. All in all, I spend a good two hours looking at every possible beginner’s guide I can get my hand on. What is abundantly clear is that dying within the first 30 minutes of playing DayZ is expected, and is apparently quite common. In many ways, DayZ is not a traditional game. It lacks any balance and has no real goals. It is designed to be frustrating to the player. Learning is done through trial and error, and not through any semblance of an intuitive interface.
I actually die a couple more times before I finally get the hang of anything, so let’s just skip ahead for now. After about a dozen playthroughs, I think I have the basics down to starting a new character:
Step 1: Get off of the coast
DayZ starts every single person on the coast, but I’m not sure why, because it’s actually the last place you want to be. It’s literally filled with zombies and has no weapons in sight. Getting off the coast is rather simple because there’s really only a small strip of coastline between the ocean and the mountains. Remember what your parents told you though: look both ways before crossing. You never know if there’s a zombie waiting for you behind a tree or in a nearby building.
Step 2: If you see a zombie and don’t have a weapon, run away
I originally hadn’t considered this an option because it’s not really an instinct to run away in most modern video games. Either you are trapped and are forced to fight an opponent, or you’re going to have to fight him to get passed him anyway. In DayZ, running is practically your only option when you’re either unarmed or out of ammunition. It is, in fact, completely possible to flee a pursuing zombie. The down side is that you often have to run quite distance before giving them the slip. This can be a huge nuisance when you’re trying to get somewhere, since it wastes both time and energy. It can also be especially dangerous when running away will give your position away to the dozens of other zombies in your area. So, staying low and remaining undetected is your best option.
Step 3: Find a place in the woods to loot
Most of Chernarus is vast, unexplored wilderness. Dirt roads lead on to logging paths lead on to dead ends in the godforsaken lands of Chernorussia. The good news is that the woods can be the safest place in DayZ. They’re big and they’re empty. Additionally, the mountains are also speckled with hidden houses, farms, and log cabins ripe for the picking. Your first job after fleeing the coast should be to find one of these building and then loot it. Typically the easiest areas to loot are not too far into the mountains. Remember not to go too far north, though. There you’ll find airports, military bases, and warehouses. And while you can imagine that all of these areas have fantastic loot, this also means that this is where you’ll encounter the most brutal PvP. It also goes without saying that these areas teeming with hordes of zombies.
You’ll notice in the above photo that I’ve found a quiet little farmhouse in the valley below me. This is your gold mine in DayZ. While there will definitely be zombies surrounding the farm, there’s guaranteed to be good supplies in the barn. We’re talking first aid, food, water… maybe even a decent gun.
Step 4: Tippety-toe… let’s go slow!
So the zombies in DayZ are fast, ruthless, and deadly. Even worse, you can’t attack with your fists, and you’re given no weapons to start the game. What the hell are you supposed to do? The secret is stealth. Zombies in DayZ have good senses of sound and smell, but poor eye sight. This means that if you’re crouching and taking a slow approach, zombies have to practically stumble over you before they’re alerted to your presence. This is how you get your first supplies without dying. On your approach to the barn, make sure you crouch to make less noise. If you’re out in the open, go prone and lie in the grass. While prone, you are practically invisible to any and all zombies unless they are practically right on top of you.
Step 5: Loot smart and fast
Once you are inside of the barn, a lot of your sounds are muffled and you have about a minute of grace period before the zombies detect your scent and come in to investigate. Do not waste any time. Quickly check the entire building, grab anything of value, and then prepare to leave. What should you look for? Most of all, weapons, food and water. There might be some other useful items too, so grab them if you can carry them. However, do not waste your time picking up useless junk like tin cans. In barns, the best loot is typically found behind the haystacks on the ground level and up on either side of the loft.
Here I’ve found exactly what I need: a Lee-Enfield rifle, complete with extra ammo lying about. It’s not an arsenal, but it’s enough to make me feel safe from a few of the walking dead. Speaking of which, a lot of their groans are starting to get a little loud at this point…
No matter what, the zombies you avoided outside will eventually make their way into the building and start to mill about. If you’re good about it, you can usually hide from them long enough to find a quick escape route. This brings us to our final point…
Step 6: Run like Hell!
Once you’ve gathered everything of value from the barn, it’s time to make your escape. At this point, there’s no use in keeping up the stealth charade, since you’re going to be spotted once you get up to leave. Simply wait for an opening and then get up to make a dash into the nearest set of trees.
The other good news is that the zombies in DayZ have very poor coordination, and because of that they have a lot of trouble with indoor environments. With any luck you won’t have too many pursuers as you make your escape. If a zombie or two manages to catch up with you in your flight, head to the nearest set of trees. Remember the zombie coordination rule: the more things there are to bump into, the harder it is for them to catch you.
By the time I stop to catch my breath, I’m a good distance into the woods and have found my way to a dirt path. I stop to listen if anyone is following me… but it looks like I’ve made a clean getaway. At this point, armed with a fairly decent weapon, I’m ready to continue deeper into the mountains and see what I can find. Along the way I will most likely bump into other survivors, possibly friendly, but also quite possibly very hostile. As I continue north I will likely find better loot but also face much fiercer PvP. Things aren’t going to get any easier with this gun though – I’m starting to hungry and thirsty now, and I didn’t manage to find any food or water in the barn. Unless I plan on chewing my bullets for dinner tonight, I better find another barn or outpost to loot before the sun starts to go down.
At this point I will leave it to you to decide what to make of DayZ, and whether or not it is worth your time to tackle its steep learning curve. I will admit that the game does look a bit dated, and it has it’s good share of glitches and bugs. But none of that seems important to the DayZ community right now. What is important – and why so many people have flocked to it – is that DayZ gives you enough freedom to build your zombie apocalypse story. And trust me, a lot of people have already started doing just that.
It’s this type of emotional immersion that I hope Dean Hall and Bohemia Interactive carry over into the standalone version of the game. After all, a good zombie game is not about action, gore, or even horror. Games like Left 4 Dead or Plants vs. Zombies are not zombie games – they’re games using zombies as copy-and-paste targets for players to shoot at it. True zombie games are about thinking. They’re about conserving resources and planning your moves carefully. They’re about the emotional sacrifice and strain a survivor goes through in trying to survive in an undead world. DayZ, in my opinion, does a phenomenal job doing all those things, and I eagerly look forward for Bohemia Interactive’s future – and hopefully much improved – standalone release of the mod.