In recent weeks, the internet has been afire with blog posts and articles praising DayZ. For those of you uninitiated with the project, DayZ is a mod (currently in alpha testing) for the otherwise forgettable first-person shooter ARMA II. The mod takes the gritty military-themed game and transforms it into an even grittier online zombie survival simulator. Being a huge fan of zombie cinema, I was ecstatic to dip my toes into DayZ’s post-apocalyptic playground.
The goal of DayZ is to survive as long as you can. The challenge of this objective is threefold. First, there are zombies behind every corner ready to munch on your brains. It’s best to stay low and quiet to evade the undead menace as ammunition is a luxury you’ll rarely be able to rely on. Second, you’ll need to scavenge for food, water, and medicine. Run out of any of these, and you’ll fall prey to injury or fatigue and become a sitting duck. Third, other players need the same supplies and may be eager and willing to fight you for them. On paper this sounds like a gripping scenario, but in reality rising to these challenges is frustrating due to a few bad design decisions.
The most immediate complaint I’ll levy against DayZ concerns the movement speed of your character. It’s glacial. For those accustomed to the freedom of movement present in Valve-developed games such as Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2, you’ll find the walking pace in DayZ agonizing. Running is always an option of course, but it feels pointless to be forced to hold down the sprint button perpetually to move at a satisfying speed. My advice to the developers: double the walking speed but make running more taxing to the player. There’s already a small hunger penalty for marathon running, but I’d rather have to rummage for more food than be forced to walk like a 90-year-old man.
The hamstringed movement speed is a shame too because one of the major selling points of DayZ is exploring the game’s world. Chernarus, a sparsely developed coastal region draped in autumn foliage, is the perfect backdrop for a zombie game. It’s reminiscent of the settings of The Blair Witch Project and other horror films where a lone band of teenagers gets picked off one-by-one during a night in the forest. It’s also unequivocally massive. Chernarus is a world best measured in kilometres, and very little of it feels bland or randomly generated. Secret stashes are hidden everywhere, and zombies are able to exploit a cornucopia of hiding places. Gripes about movement speed aside, exploring Chernarus is a joy and likely the main reason I’d recommend the game to a friend.
Likewise, the first thing I’d warn my friend about before playing the game is the abysmal control scheme. Performing the simplest actions in DayZ is a chore. The game forfeits many established conventions of the first-person shooter genre, binding standard actions such as sprinting or switching to a third-person view to atypical keys – or even sequences of keys. The inventory system is a particular mess; transferring items from a stash into your own inventory is so unintuitive a task that I had to query that game’s forums for advice when I attempted to do so for the first time. I recognize that the awkward controls are largely a holdover from ARMA II, but they act as the largest handicap to my enjoyment of the game.
DayZ has potential. It’s a spectacular concept for a game that demonstrates a scope dwarfing that of any zombie title preceding it. That being said, it suffers from numerous control and interface problems independent of the technical issues one would normally expect from a game in alpha. Although DayZ is already being heralded as the next indie sensation by gaming publications, I see it as a title that won’t come into its own for another year or so. Until that time comes, I’m planning on shelving my copy and playing The Binding of Isaac: Wrath of Lamb instead.