I don't like most zombie games because, well, they're not really zombie games. They're action games using the texture of a walking corpse as your opponent. From Resident Evil to Left 4 Dead, they don't really capture the essence of a good zombie yarn like Dawn of the Dead or The Walking Dead manage.
So it was with a little bit of excitement this week when I sat down with DayZ, a new zombie mod for ArmA II, a hyper-realistic combat simulator that also happens to be one of my favourite PC games of all time.
If you've never played ArmA II, it's an open world shooter where you control a single character who can...do whatever they want. Shoot a rifle, fly a plane, drive a tank, whatever. Only catch is nearly all those things handle and react as they would in the real world. So shooting somebody from 100 yards away, a mundane act in Call of Duty, becomes something to celebrate in ArmA. Especially since damage is also realistic.
So, into this framework comes DayZ, a multiplayer experience which has you taking the role of a zombie apocalypse survivor, stranded on an island that's populated with hundreds of zombies and dozens of other humans. Some of whom are there to help you, while others are there to kill you and take your stuff.
It's a bleak, brutal game, playing like some strange hybrid of STALKER, Fallout and Left 4 Dead. There's no map until you actually find one. No prompts showing you the location of other survivors. All you hear is the wind and the birds. Because it's built on such a realistic engine, if you want to go somewhere, you have to walk. If you want to pick stuff up, you can only take what you can carry.
If that wasn't making things hard enough, the mod's developers have added extra survival elements, like the need to eat and drink water. Two things which you'll want to do, since you take the role of a persistent player; leave a game and, if you're still alive, you'll come back in the same spot with the same gear. Die, though, and that's it. The weapons and tins of beans you worked so hard to get are gone.
If that doesn't sound like fun, it's not! Fun isn't the right word to use for this. It's scary, definitely, especially if you're stupid enough to walk into a large town by yourself. It's also boring, a game full of long sequences where you're doing little but walking around an island with nothing but the wind and birds to keep you company. What I felt most though was a sense of fascination. The game wasn't in killing zombies. It was in interacting with the other survivors.
While there's no map, group chat functions are still available, meaning rudimentary directions can be given. Naturally, this usually entails survivors broadcasting their location so others can join them. Sometimes this means they'll do just that, and help each other out, sharing bandages, ammunition and food. Other times, it's a trick, and they're arseholes luring you into a trap so they can take you out and steal your stuff.
In my first game, I'd managed six kills before dying. I wasn't killed by a zombie, or another human; I'd been helpfully told where a rifle was, but before the veteran could say "DON'T CLIMB THAT LADDER WITH YOUR PISTOL DRAWN OR YOU'LL DIE", I'd climbed that ladder with my pistol drawn and, thanks to a bug (the mod is still in alpha), fell and died. Regrettable, but still, he was just trying to help!
The second time? A survivor told me he was down at a dock. I rushed to join him, met up, exchanged awkward hellos and went off to find others. Two seconds later, we're both dead, another veteran having overheard our conversation, hunted us down and stolen what little equipment we had worth salvaging.
It can be very frustrating the first time it happens, but then, isn't this exactly what would happen in a real zombie apocalypse? Some people would band together, sure, but others would certainly try and tear us apart, a selfish desire to survive overriding their need for safety in numbers.
There aren't really sides in this conflict. You just assume the role through your behaviour in the game. It's so damn simple, yet it's what transforms this from being a bleak and interesting mod into something compelling. So compelling I've been playing it almost non-stop. So compelling it's sitting minimised on my taskbar right now, waiting for me to finish writing this so I can get back to it.
If you've got ArmA II and ArmA II Operation Arrowhead, head here to get the mod. If you don't, you should maybe look into it. This is definitely worth it.
DayZ [Official Site]