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.