DayZ has sold over five million copies. And no one has ever played it - or at least they've never the played the game as was it envisioned and promised to buyers. Finally however, we're seeing some of how it could be - is it too late?
When DayZ first came into the collective gaming consciousness back in 2013, it was met with huge excitement. Promising a challenging sandbox survival PC game across a large, atmospheric and detailed map strewn with aggressive zombies, it was something new - and promised to push boundaries.
Fuelled by numerous excellent videos showing the fun players had enjoyed in the DayZ mod for ARMA 2 - which was the inspirational starting point for DayZ Standalone - and excited by the energy of then project leader Dean Hall, I was one of several million people to part with hard cash for early access to this frightening wonderland of Chernarus.
And now, five years have passed.
It's not the place of this piece to go into the whys and wherefores of what happened - and what didn't happen - in that time. The full story is there for the curious on the DayZ subreddit, or in numerous YouTube videos either attacking the game, or offering hope to those survivors who kept the faith. Everyone can agree that so many deadlines (undeadlines?) were broken, that they had as much value as the Venezuelan Bolivar.
In short though, the key delay was the decision to move the game to an entirely new engine. Not a new off-the-shelf engine, no, an entirely built-from-the-ground-up engine. And that was a bold decision, possibly bold bordering on the insane. However, it's what developer Bohemia Interactive felt they had to do - to give both DayZ and some of their other titles a firm future. Importantly, this engine has been built with modding in mind - but that's outside of the scope of this article.
Firmly within the scope of this article though, is what the latest version (version 0.63) of DayZ is like to play, running on the Enfusion engine. We've put in a good number of hours - as many as we could given the somewhat fragile nature of the 60 player capped 0.63 Experimental servers, the limited numbers of the same and the number of people trying to play on them.
And we've loved it.
Without wishing to be ironic, it's not the finished product. But let's forget the past. What DayZ is in 0.63 Experimental is fun. It's atmospheric - the kind of atmospheric that makes running through a distant forest in the dusk, with owls hooting, the wind blowing and the sound of distant gunfire feel like you're alone in the world. A survivor of an apocalypse. That was always key for me with DayZ - how it felt.
Each encounter with another player, or group of players, can go many ways. Yes, frequently there is an exchange of opinion in the form of bullets - but equally you find people to team up with, or simply exchange food and water. That was true of pre-0.63 DayZ of course, but with the improvement to movement, inventories and the ever-present drive of thirst and hunger, displayed now in a new UI, it feels more survivor-y than it did before.
And here's the thing - DayZ in its old form rapidly became a PvP shooting match. In fact, fog was eventually implemented in the coastal spawning areas as a reaction to geared players heading down there from the north of the map - with its military equipment loot - and massacring every single "bamby" they could find by sniper fire. People in games are assholes right? That's a given.
Weaponry in 0.63 Experimental doesn't seem quite so plentiful, and ammo is short too. At least in my experience. More than that though, the hunger and thirst metrics are demanding - you're going to die within 20 minutes of spawning if you don't drink, and drink a lot. These survival requirements aren't fine tuned at all yet. And the disease/infection and body temperature features aren't present at all. But they will be. And for me, they are what I wanted as well as the ability to shoot people if I had to.
DayZ must be a survival game first - with hunting, fishing, crafting, the threat of zombies and infection, camp building, creating a stash of equipment - all those things. Then PvP is a layer over that - and not the primary part of the game. Most people who bought DayZ and have played it on and off in this glacial Early Access period don't want PUBG without a clock.
We do want vehicles to repair and drive - but fuel must be a precious commodity. We'd like bicycles. Man, I want to be a zombie hunter on a pushbike. We do want our zombies to be dangerous and somewhat intelligent. We do want the weather to affect our choice of clothing. We do want some base-building - but no Ark-style impregnable fortresses please. And, while we're on the topic of Ark - I'd like servers not dominated by a single "tribe" of players. That's a tricky one, we know.
The proper calibration of those survival metrics are all-important. If the developers get it right, then DayZ will be challenging enough to make each decision to fight someone an important decision. Sure, you can't stop someone buying the game and immediately going on a punching rampage in a tracksuit - but they won't last long. The more intelligent players are after the tension and fearfulness an open map populated by undead and potentially hostile humans can bring. This might be too much of a big ask, but Bohemia can at least give us the world to make this possible.
There's another factor in the potential success of DayZ reborn. Five years is a long time in gaming. A long time. While there will be many of the Early Access buyers who remain bitter, there's a whole crop of new players who've probably never heard of it. Some of those will be ready to graduate from Fortnite or PUBG, wanting a more immersive experience. And yes, there are other games that scratch a similar itch to DayZ, but none have done it so well for me.
When will it be ready? That's a good question my altchar friend. But if the new engine is the bulk of the work, then maybe I can see you in Severograd before 2019 is done. Bring some Tactical Bacon.