Considering just how important DayZ has been in the grand scheme of things, with its fertile soil giving birth to PUBG and the battle royale genre as well inspiring a myriad of other survival games, it's hard not to think that Bohemia Interactive hasn't turned up a little bit late to its own party.
Without wanting to turn this review into a history lesson, it'd be rude not to contextualise that last statement a little. You see, DayZ first came into existence as a mod for Arma 2 designed by Dean 'Rocket' Hall. The mod-friendly community that had built around Bohemia's stern-faced military shooter quickly warmed to Hall's zombie-filled survival mod, and pretty soon people were buying Arma 2 just so they could play DayZ, venturing onto its servers to see how long they could stay alive through the bleak and relentless zombie apocalypse the mod offered. Eventually, the Arma-studio got the message that this player-made content had taken on a life of its own and Hall was recruited to turn it into a standalone game. This was back in 2012.
Fast forward to the game's launch on PC at the end of 2018 and here we are a couple of weeks later with the final version of the title. The question is, then, what has happened in the intervening six years? The answer: not a lot and absolutely everything.
Upon jumping back into the game it's immediately clear that some work has gone into upgrading the visuals, although it doesn't look as good as you would expect from a game that has spent so long in development and that has been funded so extensively via its time in Early Access. Weighted down by expectation perhaps, the project has struggled over the years and the game was rebuilt partway through the development process using a new engine. Over the years a selection of new and more complicated features have been added with improved audio effects, dynamic weather, a refined survival simulation, and there have been a number of revisions to the map. That said, for all the changes that have been implemented, it doesn't feel like that much is fundamentally different.
Now don't get us wrong, we didn't boot up the game expecting to see a story campaign greet us at the main menu, but the fact that nothing has been done to formalise the scenario that DayZ has been based on is rather startling. A bit of story to explain the location you're in or something that explores what has caused the dead to rise would have been a great way to add a bit of much-needed flavour and distinguish the finished version of the game from the one that has lumbered through Early Access for half a decade. DayZ is supposed to be a blank canvas for players to experience in their own way, so a single-player campaign and cutscenes wouldn't make sense, but leaving so much unauthored still feels like a misstep to us.
It just about gets away without a defined overarching narrative because DayZ is, at its heart, about creating player-driven stories with the undead apocalypse being the background that gives those stories weight and consequence. You're not here to win the day, rather your chief goal is to survive no matter the cost. When it's reduced down to this basic core, then, Bohemia's survival sim still has the power to create engaging moments, and it's not without merit as an experience. That said, a lot of DayZ players are way past scratching a living in the mud, and for them the game has become more about the sandbox experience, about base-building in teams, and much less about survival on a granular level. The zombies that look so imposing to newcomers are more like friction to more organised players working collaboratively.
There's a lot going on under the hood, and players have to keep an eye on their thirst and hunger levels, eating and drinking and keeping themselves as warm as possible. That's easier said than done though, because unlike PUBG and its empty buildings filled with lovely loot, there's a distinct lack of useful resources to be found here, and you have to scour the place to find the basic resources you require. Even then you'll often have to take what you need from another player... or they'll take it from you. Or you'll simply let each pass with a weary nod. The tension that hangs over these player encounters is one of the game's true highlights.
Once you're organised and well-armed things get significantly easier, but a lone wolf in this world is vulnerable and often it's just a matter of time before a zombie spots you and chases you down. Even if the undead don't find you, your environment will work against you at times and you're constantly thinking about the basics of survival - there's something very primal about the decision-making in DayZ. Of course, the real danger out there isn't the undead nor the barren environment, it's your fellow players, and if you go looking for trouble you'll almost certainly find it.
When that happens the game's biggest failings come into sharp focus. The combat, particularly the melee combat, is lightweight and unsatisfying in DayZ. We found the controls when handling weapons to be needlessly fussy and in a game where so much has been simulated with great care, it's a little baffling that this core part of the experience has been left so unpolished and floaty, especially when you consider just how much more engaging the game would be with more visceral physical combat. Worse still is the finicky traversal mechanics - hopping over a knee-high fence should be contextual and effortless, but here it's an immersion breaking chore.
There's a bleakness to the environment that's undoubtedly by design, but an unfortunate side effect of that is that it's just not an exciting place to explore. There's not enough loot to keep things interesting, and most of the time you're just running in and out of rooms looking for resources, discovering there's nothing there - or worse, finding yet another jumper just like the one you're wearing - and then leaving again. You can't look in drawers or rifle through cupboards, and there's no tactile relationship between the player and the space that's being explored. There are some interesting details to be seen in the environment such as blood splatter on the walls, but the devs didn't go so far as to add any meaningful environmental storytelling and you never get a real sense of the people who once lived here, meaning that it's not long before the various buildings start to blur into one (though we should add, Chernarus is pretty huge and we've not seen everything it has to offer).
To get the best out of DayZ you either need a friend or two to play with, or you've got to be happy role-playing. Co-op play means safety in numbers and a bit of breathing room, but you lose much of the threat that characterises the solo experience. Role-playing, on the other hand, means you're lacking the context that we mentioned before, and you're dropped by the shore and left to fend for yourself with no direction or objective beyond mere survival, all the while contending the immersion breaking quirks, a clunky UI, the odd bug or crash, and the subpar combat. In both cases, Bohemia Interactive is relying on players to come up with their own fun, at least to an extent, and while fun is there to be had and DayZ is still - after all these years - able to offer up uniquely intense flashes of quality, it's not enough to make this an essential survival experience in 2019. So many games have taken the aspects pioneered all those years ago in the original mod and have improved upon them, and so despite the fact that DayZ has only just come of age, it has already been left behind by its offspring.
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