DayZ Early Access Review

Survival of the patient.

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GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.

DayZ claims to be a zombie game, and it's true that you can occasionally find the undead scuttling about like drunken ravers looking for double high fives. If you have a weapon, you can slice them up like so much sushi, or you can try to outrun them in a high-stakes match of cross-country racing. (That's usually the smarter approach.) But they're about as common as smiles in Dark Souls right now, and oddly enough, this works in DayZ's favor. In fact, DayZ's emptiness renders it about as close to a video game version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road as there's ever been, because the current emphasis is on interactions with people rather than with putrefied riffraff, though sometimes I think I wouldn't mind if the former were taken out altogether.

In this frightening, desolate landscape, your goal is simply to stay alive by scavenging for food and weapons, finding proper shelter, and fending off anyone who threatens your survival. There's no easy way to orient yourself if you've forgotten Arma II's fiddly control scheme; mMere seconds after my first spawn into the world, I found my poorly customizable avatar being slapped around by a zombie, and he died an undistinguished death around 30 seconds later while I dug around in the escape menu reacquainting myself with generally nonstandard button maps for pulling out weapons and hitting things with them. DayZ lets you use a controller if you wish, but it's even more cumbersome and not worth the effort.

Later spawns dumped me in the middle of broad fields near the coast that led to crimson barns, towering construction cranes, and deserted buildings. The colors and textures for the post-Soviet nation of Chernarus are far richer here than they were in the original Arma II mod, and the derelict beauty serves as a nice contrast to the dangers it conceals. New, too, is the ability to enter almost every building and rummage for weapons, food, and the occasional antibiotics. No music distracts you from the desolation, and the sound design manages to evoke the fear that every creek of sheet metal might be death on the way. Chancing upon a town can be terrifying; for all the promise in those once-cozy homes and their picketed yards, there's a chance they'll deliver deaths that you never see coming.

DayZ works so well as a survival sim because it puts few barriers between you and the world around you. Gone are the tidy health and stamina bars that sneak into the corners of similar first-person games; instead, DayZ gnaws at your confidence with little nags like "My stomach grumbles" or "I feel like having a drink." And then there are the messages you never want to see, such as "I feel nauseous" or "I can feel warm blood on my clothes." There's a system behind all this--get shot, and you slowly lose blood unless you bandage it--but the numbers stay hidden.

DayZ wisely reserves its menus for essentials like its inventory, which now sports a drag-and-drop option in an improvement over the mod. The inventory itself expands greatly once you discover items with pockets like knapsacks and hoodies, thus delivering some of the satisfaction the discovery of these items would likely yield in real life. Bohemia Interactive knows it has made a game that's chiefly about foraging, and it usually gets the experience right.

Zombies number so few that it's possible to go half an hour without seeing one, and when you do, there's a good chance you'll see it running through doors or even vanishing under the terrain. The low population lends an air of reality to DayZ; many games feature zombie populations more suited to New York City than to cozy rural villages. The sparse undead populace is just as well, given that dealing with them is rarely a rewarding endeavor. Zombies tend to rush you from hundreds of yards away the moment you enter their line of sight, and shooting at them with the laughably few guns available only attracts more.

But it's not really the zombies you have to worry about. They're stupid things, usually killable with a hefty axe blow if you happen to have an axe on you. (Provided, that is, that the axe doesn't bug out and fail to make contact.) It's the other players who instill the most fear. Sometimes you come across a nice one, and a sense of camaraderie emerges as you scrounge through buildings and take out the undead together. Most of the time, however, they're out to kill you. Some play nice at first, and then lead you into ambushes where unseen snipers shoot you down. Still others may trick you into coming near, and then try to bury an axe in your face because they like the look of your hoodie and want it for themselves. Attempting to hide from and survive against humans with actual intelligence elevates DayZ to new heights of tension and unpredictability.

I suspect most of those players are bored. DayZ presents some memorable moments in its current state, and when you do find people who are willing to work and survive with you, you could create bonds so deep that your friendship might carry over into the real world. But DayZ loses its edge many hours in. You learn the tricks of finding new gear and weapons, and you learn which towns to avoid and which to ransack. Each respawn leaves you more experienced and thus stronger, and that confidence seems to encourage a desire to harass the newer players and loot their pitiful belongings. By the time you've put in around 20 hours, you know the secrets to crafting and making bandages out of old T-shirts. You're a survivor.

You're a survivor, that is, with no job but to survive. That's the appeal of the alpha; since there are no objectives--and thus no hope--your only option is to keep surviving until death inevitably overtakes you. It's bleak, yes, but in many ways, it delivers a sense of realism you don't get in many zombie games (or open worlds in general, for that matter). Given time, there's a truly great and memorable experience waiting to be explored, one that will come into its own with new and better weapons and more interactive elements such as vehicles. But as Bohemia makes so clear from the moment you boot up DayZ, this is an alpha. It's incomplete, and it shows. Yet Chernarus is well on its way to growing into the clothes that the developer has stitched for it, and if you feel you've got the steely will necessary to survive, DayZ is ready to test it.

What's There?

A vast, explorable (but seriously unfinished) Eastern European map that captures the experience of living in a postapocalyptic zombieland.

What's to Come?

More zombies, animals for hunting, greater variety of gathering opportunities, cooking, better server architecture.

What Does it Cost?

DayZ costs $29.99 on Steam, although the developers discourage paying for it unless you are "prepared to handle with serious issues and possible interruptions of game functioning." And, yes, these things exist.

When Will it Be Finished?

There's currently no concrete release date, and Bohemia Interactive has repeatedly spoken of DayZ as a work in progress.

What's the Verdict?

DayZ oozes with potential, though some elements are either bugged, unfinished, or unimplemented. That said, it delivers uncommonly appealing survival experiences and risky player interactions that lend credibility to its pretty environments. It'll probably be great, but for the time being, it requires uncommon patience.

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