I’ve something of a weed problem. I can’t see, you see. Face down in the dirt, this humble weed has become a skyscraper, rising from the filth to fill my entire world. What lies beyond I dare not imagine. Something was shambling around earlier; is it still there? The weed isn’t telling. I hear the whir of a windlass beside me as my companion loads her crossbow. We’re both on tenterhooks as the the vicious looking bolt slides into place. “Ok, you go.” she says in a masculine whisper. Sighing, I raise myself to one knee. Nothing. We move forward together. Our goal lies not 20 metres ahead: the gaping wound of an open door. Still nothing moves. “Chance it?” I ask. “Fuck it.” she replies. We do. We run. Two seconds, three. The distance seems to expand. Six seconds…seven. We burst through the opening, all rasping breath and hammering hearts. “Clear!” I shout. The relief is palpable. We made it.
My vision blurs. A zombie glitches through the wall and punches me in the face. My comrade disappears before popping up 20 feet away. Both my legs break for no discernible reason and as I fall clumsily to the floor my undead assailant begins to rotate slowly on the spot.
Such is the life of a Day Z survivor.
Day Z is amazing. Day Z is genius. Day Z is a hugely obvious scenario that’s completely original. Day Z is horribly, hilariously broken. Despite, or quite possibly because of the latter Day Z is the most fun I’ve had in a game for years. This is made all the more amazing by the simplicity of its premise: you spawn on a beach in the fictional Soviet state of Chenarus. You have some beans and a bandage. You have no goal. You have no directions. Your objective is to survive. That’s it.
You’re not alone however. There’s been something of an outbreak you see. Each of the many, many towns littering this 200km squared landmass is swarming with undead and worse…other survivors looking to survive at any cost. Day Z is a consistent multiplayer world where up to 70 people can exist at once, all of them scavenging, scrabbling and screwing each other over for an advantage. How you deal with them is entirely up to you: do you attempt to team up or do you take them down? Do you stick to the forests and live off the land, or do you risk infiltrating one of the bigger cities? Do you lose your humanity (an actual ingame measurement) or choose to live by a code?
For a massive zombie fan like myself a game like this seemed almost too good to be true. Plenty of games have featured zombies in the past but none have really nailed the atmosphere of the zombie-fiction classics; Romero’s Living Dead trilogy, Max Brook’s World War Z or Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Across other media zombies aren’t simply bogeymen to be gunned down, they’re reflections on human-kind as a whole. They’re a force of nature to be avoided. They’re a consistent, never-ending threat. Games on the other hand use zombies as shambling cannon-fodder, an excuse for poor AI routines and false difficulty levels. The inherently linear aspect of most games meant zombies were forever the lowest rung on the baddie ladder, about as scary as a mid-level dental procedure.
Not in Day Z. Hoh-no. Attracting the attention of even a single “zed” is cause for hurled expletives and much frenetic button pressing. Many a time I’ve abandoned a potentially lucrative scavenge due to the presence of one too many undead lurking around. Although they may appear to be your standard Romero variety shamblers, when activated by unruly survivors they burst into frantic, screaming life (so to speak). They’re 28 Days Later-style runners, and will overtake any player moving at anything less than a full-on run. Due to engine scripting they zig and zag furiously on approach making them difficult to target. Due to the bugs of said engine they possess the ability to see and hit through walls, teleport and to randomly materialise from thin air 2 feet in front of you. Although Rocket, the game’s developer, is working on correcting these faults many now view them as distinguishing features of Day Z’s undead assailants.
Despite the unique take on zombies,despite the huge landmass to explore and despite the completely freeform gameplay, the single defining feature of Day Z has to be death. Death is everywhere. Death is one wrong turn away and crucially, death is permanent. If you die in Day Z you lose everything and must begin anew. No saving your equipment, no loading a quicksave. When you die, you die. The strapline for the game is “This is your story” and it is. It really, really is. Each play session produces a dozen anecdotes, from the time I rescued a survivor from a helicopter crash, to my encounter with bandits who robbed me at gunpoint. But the stories all end the same: I die. If the zombies don’t claim me, other survivors will. Death is inevitable, unavoidable and final. But I keep at it. Each new game is a different character to play; he’ll act differently, make different mistakes and, god willing, be granted different minor victories. But eventually, he’ll die.
As I lie on the floor desperately wishing I’d picked up a bone-healing morphine shot, my undead murderer ceases his rotation and finally sees my friend. She panics, misfires and before she can reload she’s on the floor next to me slowly bleeding out. As the rest of the horde approach and we arrive finally at the end, she turns to face me. Our eyes meet across the ever growing pool of blood beneath us and she seems to reach for me. I hear the crackle of her microphone in my ear.
“Fuck.” she says. “Go again?”