One of the best things to happen in the history of computer gaming is, without a doubt, modding. For the uninitiated, a mod is a player-created addition to an existing game. In the beginning, modding was crude: replace some sprites, put in new music, and voila, you have Star Wars Doom. Thankfully, over the years developers have made it easier and easier to modify their games. Where once it was just overwriting files, now it’s possible to change the way the whole game operates. It has become so normal to mod games that, if a game doesn’t have a creation kit or dev workshop, people ask, “What’s wrong with those guys?”
Every now and then a mod comes along that blows the doors wide open on the game it is modifying, even surpassing it entirely. Games like Team Fortress, Counter Strike, and Defense of the Ancients all started off as player-created mods and custom maps. Fast forward to a few days ago when, thanks to everybody talking about it, I picked up DayZ, a mod for Bohemia Interactive’s Arma II. I had barely even heard of Arma, but thanks to Steam putting it and its expansions on sale for less than 20 bucks, I bought the game and installed the mod.
DayZ takes place in the fictional post-soviet state of Chernarus, where a zombie outbreak has laid waste to the area. It basically transforms Arma II into a zombie apocalypse MMO. Who could resist? Your character washes up on a beach with nothing but a flashlight and some Advil. For this reason, the game has a very steep learning curve. Invariably, the first five minutes can decide the rest of your experience. You spend most of the game being very scared. When I first logged in, I walked over to the nearest town to see if I could find a gun, and bumped into my first zombie. Imagine my dismay/terror when I discovered that these were fast zombies, and not the shambling kind. My first 10 minutes playing DayZ were spent sprinting across the beautifully crafted countryside with a dozen zombies in tow. Bad start.
The beauty of DayZ is in how true it is to the genre. Initially, there is great terror, running, and dying. But then you begin to wise up and the zombies (or Zeds) become little more than moving obstacles. Looting towns is akin to playing Frogger, and if you have a way of silently* dispatching zeds, it’s all too easy to sneak up on them. Like all good zombie movies, their real purpose is to provide conflict to move the larger, human drama, and act as a metaphor for human nature or consumerism or something. They’re also super useful for eating the bad guy at the end**.
Your real problem in DayZ is other people. The naive may log in with the “we’re all in this together” mentality, but that illusion is shattered as soon as that shifty guy in Balota decides that he really wants your gun. I’ve managed to avoid most people. My most daring escapade was when I followed a couple of players back to their “base” (a ruined parking garage) and stole some of their supplies. My victory was short-lived however, as my next stop was to a nearby city where the sniping in the comic took place.
That’s not to say that people don’t band together, most do. Groups of friends or online clans will explore the countryside together. They build forts in the woods, fix up vehicles, or even raid nearby towns—Arma II’s robust engine makes for some really immersive gameplay. Finding a crashed helicopter could net you a high-powered sniper rifle in which to mercilessly pick off new players. Doing that all day may net you an axe in the back when somebody sneaky pinpoints your location. The cards get thrown in the air in DayZ, and life can be very short. The fun is in picking up what cards you can and running like hell.
*I emphasize “silently” because a gunshot will undoubtedly bring a swarm of zeds upon your now-soiled self. Players have taken to calling the Lee Enfield rifle the “dinner bell” for this exact reason. (Thanks Anon)
**There are delicious stories floating around of DayZ players who were saved by zombies because their assailant foolishly rang the dinner bell.