Ok, I have to admit it. Even after all these years, I still have a soft-spot for the original Counter-Strike beta era wherein I first cut my teeth in online competitive squad based gameplay.
As with many aficionados of the old CS beta days, version 5.2 still stands out as the ultimate version of CS (ever – it all went downhill after that). There was something incredibly compelling about the game despite (or some would say, because of) it’s “rawness” and technical hitches, bugs and incompleteness. There was a fundamental genius to the game which made it so compelling that no bug or hitch could steal enough from it to stop us playing it, literally for days at a time.
Roll forward a decade and if you’re at all interested in FPS games, Zombies or battle simulation games you’d have to have been living under a pretty big rock for the last month not to have heard of Day Z, the modification for the relatively niche ARMA II combat simulator, written almost completely by one crazy Kiwi which has successfully grabbed an obscure game and kept it pretty much constantly at the top of the Steam sales charts.
The reason? It’s the CS beta effect all over again.
Day Z is an alpha. It’s clunky, it’s buggy, it’s missing many of the sexy trappings of the big games of this era but it’s without doubt one of the most compelling games I’ve ever played. So compelling in fact that it’s almost compulsive.
One of the reasons for this is the ARMA II engine itself which has a very strong focus on accurate simulation of the combat experience even down to weather effects and ballistics but equally, if not more so, is the fact that the design of the game is about elegant simplicity and stripping back the game experience to a very fundamental core which resonates not only with our intellects but also with the deep rooted “lizard brain” instinct within us to survive, just survive.
The premise is fairly simple. There’s been an infection which has turned most of the population into cannibalistic lumbering savages who will chase you down and eat you if the so much as hear or see the tiniest indication of your existence (and most likely bring some of their buddies along for the buffet). Here and there in the world are some supplies which can be salvaged to help keep you alive amid dangers which not only include the zombie masses but your fellow humans (other players) who as you, desperate to live, may well see your death (and subsequent looting) as an easy way to provision themselves for the next few days.
The setting for this scenario to unfold is a map from ARMA II called Chernarus which takes an accurate simulation of a central european area and transposes 225 square kilometres of it to a fictional post-soviet costal state.
The game is played out on servers of up to 50 players each of whom may turn out to be an ally or a foe (or could be both depending) but the clever backdrop is that the servers are all connected together using a central “persistence” layer meaning your character can leave one server and join another and be in the same place with all the same gear etc.
The other thing that makes this game unique is that you have one life (more or less). If you squander it then while you can respawn, you respawn as a new survivor potentially on the other side of the map (10oKm+ away) from where you died, losing everything you have gained (all your gear, scores etc.) to date. This adds a unique sense of peril to the game which contributes to a much greater sense of tension and attentiveness on the part of players than in almost any other game you can think of.
These elements come together to form an astonishingly compelling gaming experience which is at the same time equally engaging, tense, scary, careful, considered and slow (in a good way). This is no run-and-gun zombie massacre. In fact, this is probably the first game I’ve ever played where I’ve been given a gun and tried my darnedest not to ever fire it. It’s also the only game where I’ve deliberately eschewed bigger calibre, more powerful weapons for lower ones simply based on the fact that bigger calibre means more noise, hence more likely to bring Zombies down on my backside, or worse, other players…
There are many other great features to DayZ which I could describe, such as the ways in which you can, theoretically, live completely off the land if you wish to stay as far away from urban areas (where the zombies and the other human players tend to congregate) but ultimately the only way to truly appreciate the genius of DayZ is to play it.
To answer the original query: Is it the best mod since CS beta 5.2? Unquestionably (beating Natural Selection One v2.0 and Day of Defeat v1.3 down to a close 3rd and 4th respectively on my list). Despite it’s flaws and unfinished feel (or perhaps because of it) it’s one of the best games I’ve ever had the joy to experience.
A resoundingly deserved 10/10.