Tuesday, 24 December 2013

DayZ: And ConfuZ

This land is your land, this land is my land
from Zelenogorsk to Skalitsy Island
from the searing mind-controlling emanations of Green Mountain, to the Black Lake waters
this land was made for you and me

Zed. Zed zed zed. A stripy horse is a zed-bra. A patch of land is a zzzuhone. The undead aren't zeembies, are they?

Today we're going to look at DayZ, a new-ish game from the mind of Dean "Rocket" Hall and top Czech developers Bohemia "Peach Girl" Interactive. I say new-ish, because it has had an unusual development cycle stretching over a year and a half. It originally began as a fan-made modification for Bohemia's Armed Assault II, a serious military simulation, and has only recently been released as a standalone game, in a process not dissimilar to that which produced the standalone versions of Team Fortress and Counter-Strike, fourteen years ago.

This is, coincidentally, how I dress in real life. No doubt there will one day be a market for downloadable outfits at £14.99 a pop - official North Face tops, genuine Brasher boots, Colt-licensed AR-15 uppers, Black Talon ammo, etc. That's what I would do.

Fourteen years ago Dean Hall was embarking on a career as a Commissioned Officer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. After a near-disastrous jungle warfare course whilst on secondment to the Singaporean Army - his nails turned a funny colour and a biscuit made him cry - he decided to release his frustrations by creating DayZ, a mod which took the tactical military aspect of ArmAII and replaced the enemy soldiers with zombies. The heavily-armed soldiers were replaced with ordinary people, and they entered the game equipped with nothing more than a bandage and some flares (of the illuminating variety, not the trousers (e.g. they had trousers, but not flared trousers)). And by gum it was hard. The game was unforgivingly difficult and unsentimental. Almost everything was lethal, albeit that some of those things - doors, rocks, ladders - were lethal because the mod was full'o'bugs. But then again so was ArmAII, so it fit right in.

DayZ, the mod, was unlike anything else before or since. The ArmAII engine was distantly related to Bohemia's early-2000s army game Operation Flashpoint, which I remember fondly. At a time when most 3D games obscured the terrain beyond a few dozen feet with fog, OpFlash operated on a much larger scale. The game took place on a series of islands and you generally weren't constrained in your movements. The earlier voxel-based game Delta Force had expansive terrain, but it felt like an arcade game and was very blocky; for the first time I felt that I was almost out in the open air. Even then the engine felt more interesting than the game, and I remember playing it more for the user-created missions and equipment than the stock levels.

The mod was released in late May 2012, and quickly developed a passionate fan following. Its popularity was totally unexpected. In order to run DayZ players needed to have ArmAII, which was three years old at that point and not particularly popular even when it was new, and the installation process was initially irritating. Although DayZ was free, ArmAII was still £20 or so. But enough people persisted with it to push ArmAII to the top of Steam's sales charts on the strength of DayZ alone, an occasion that even prompted mention by the BBC. "Within weeks of it being released, it had 4,000 players on 90 servers. Numbers have continued to climb since then and now the game has almost 150,000 regular players who control 1.8 million characters." Most of whom were dead within a week, because the game was a meat grinder. I can't think of a similar example of a mod so many driving sales of a not-particularly-popular game (Team Fortress and Counter-Strike were built on two of the most popular games of their era).

Some crucial items were surprisingly hard to find in the mod - the matchbox and compass, for example. The standalone has this can opener, which is probably no more rare than anything else, but difficult to spot because it's so small. The objects are now consistently rendered as actual, life-sized objects in the game world, rather than the odd mixture of real-life objects and icons in the mod.

So popular was DayZ that it inspired a Roger Corman-esque knock-off, The WarZ. This was rushed into development and released on Steam a year ago - and then almost immediately pulled, because it was unfinished. It was subsequently re-released under a different name. I haven't played it. The game has a tonne of pay-for-play DLC. Of course, this new standalone version of DayZ is unfinished as well, but there is a prominent disclaimer at the outset, and Dean Hall and his merry band of brothers seem above-board chaps. If you can't trust an Officer in the Royal New Zealand armed forces, who can you trust?

But. I remember Armed Assault. After five years of work it resembled Operation Flashpoint but with lots of bugs and wonky controls, and bear in mind that this was the company's core product. Armed Assault II felt much the same, and my worry is that the standalone DayZ will flop onto the beach with a minimum of acceptable functionality before development slows to a crawl. But then again Bohemia didn't have Dean Hall and his merry etc on their side when they wrote the first Arma, and perhaps he will infuse them with youthful vigour. And of course they can simply port over features from the mod, which is still fun to play.

Time will tell. £19.99, that's $32. The problem is that although Bohemia now has a tonne of cash from strong sales of the standalone, all the hardcore fans have now bought the game; the company has milked those udders dry already, what will happen a year from now when they need more funds? Perhaps they could have charged a token sum for the Alpha and a discount for long-term players when version one is launched. But I'm digressing here.

The standalone inventory screen is much less cartoony than the mod's, and now you can store equipment in your trousers.
For this an other screenshots I'm running the game with modest graphical settings - the game has steep system requirements but, more than that, if you turn the graphics down there are fewer visual distractions, and you can see the enemy better.

The new light effects are rather nice.

The compass is now a physical object rather than an icon. I'm headed north, to check out the large unfinished chunk of map in the north-west. You can drag items from your inventory into the soft-key selection boxes, and press the corresponding key to whip them out. The two bottles should be separate objects, but the game's handling of this is iffy at the moment.

Unlike OpFlash, DayZ doesn't take place on an island. Instead, it occupies a chunk of an Eastern European country called Chernarus, encompassing 140 square miles of terrain. Dotted with numerous villages and small towns, plus some reservoirs (oddly no rivers), a couple of offshore islands, some mountains, lots of forest. There is an ocean to the east and south, trackless wasteland to the north and west. And it's all one single map. You can run from one end to the other without passing through a loading screen or hitting an invisible barrier.

The north-west of the map has a lot of concrete blocks set into the ground, and a dried-up lake. Not much else. Perhaps there will be buildings here in the future.

You might however die of thirst before you cross the map, or hunger, because your character has to eat and drink. Later in the game you can hunt and cook animals and sterilise pond water, but at the outset your only option is to raid the towns and villages, looking for cans of beans and fizzy pop (real-life brands in the mod, generic ones in the standalone).

Therein lies a problem. The towns are infested with zombies who are upset with the living. Technically they're ordinarily people who have been infected with a virus, World War Z-style, but let's call them zombies. If they see you, they'll run after you; if they catch you, they'll assault you; if they draw blood, you'll bleed to death unless you can bandage yourself. And there's a chance that the zombies might infect you with the plague, in which case you have to wash your wounds, or swallow some antibiotics. In practice, you might as well jump off a tall building - antibiotics are very rare. The zombies can hear you, too, so if you start shooting off your rifle you'll only attract more zombies.

Rah, I'm a monstah! The zombies in the standalone can hurt, but they're not much of a challenge. One whack with an axe kills them. Unlike the mod, their bodies evaporate immediately, so you can't loot them.

I had killed a man. A man who looked just like me.

Worst of all, there are other players. The mod can support several dozen players per server - the standalone is currently restricted to 40 - and they tend to congregate around certain key locations. Amongst the loot are some of the rifles from ArmAII, and as a consequence the game often feels like a less forgiving Call of Duty, with zombies as a minor background threat. One shot to the head or a couple to the chest and your character dies, and there are no save states; you are sent back to the coast and have to start all over again. On the one hand your body remains on the server, so you can in theory re-equip yourself if you can remember where you died, but on the other hand the person that killed you is probably expecting that. Spawn camping can be a problem, but the lack of save states mean that the putative spawn camping sniper has to put himself at risk of being shot by a new player with a Lee Enfield.

This only scratches the surface of the mod. In addition to the above players can mend and drive cars and trucks, and even helicopters. They can plant tents, create fortifications. There's a day-night cycle, although in practice most servers play in daylight only, or a kind of pseudo-night where everything is desaturated but still visible. The infantry weapons are modelled just as realistically as they are in ArmA, to the extent that players can use the mil-dot markings in the rifle scope to aim effectively at distant targets. In a concession to playability the game doesn't model wind. Most of this is temporarily absent from the mod - the cars and vehicles are absent, there are no fortifications, and only a handful of weapons.

After the initial success of the mod, Dean Hall and his small team were given jobs at Bohemia in order to work on the mod and develop a standalone version as well. It's to the credit of Bohemia that they decided to jump on this new development and nurture it rather than ignore it into oblivion. Ironically, DayZ went on to overshadow the launch of Armed Assault III, which would otherwise have been Bohemia's next big thing. It's also a credit to Dean and his merry band of etc that so much game could be produced by so few people.

The standalone introduces breathing, which can be a tactical hindrance

The mod has a vast array of infantry weapons. The standalone slims this right down, in favour of a bolt-action rifle, an assault rifle, a pistol, and a shotgun. You can add components to these weapons - implausibly I've managed to find a modern rifle scope and bipod that attach to a 19th century Mosin-Nagant. The mod had a Lee-Enfield in its place, an odd choice for Eastern Europe.

The scope. I'm not complaining, although it seems to have no more magnification than the in-game "peering" command (you can zoom your vision in a little bit - your player can also lean, crawl, and crouch, but not jump).

Sniping in the mod was great fun, but tricky because the graphics engine had trouble rendering distant foliage, so you were never truly undercover.
In the words of Sun-Tzu, "the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined for defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory."
Follow his advice and your victories will seem easy, and boring, because you won the battle long before you pulled the trigger. But you won.

History will always record that Erwin Rommel was a daring military genius who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat time and again, but who was doomed by a lack of resources, and that Bernard Montgomery was a stodgy old racist who won only because he waited until he had overwhelming force on its side. Montgomery's victories seemed easy, and boring. But he won. Sniping in the mod is going to be a major issue.

In theory DayZ was a survival game. Never mind that the realistically-modelled M16A4 with its ACOG scope and the M40 sniper rifle and the Mk48 Mod 0 machine gun were almost utterly useless against zombies*; the official line was that DayZ wasn't an infantry combat game (with zombies). In practice everybody played it as a combat game, and sales were driven by this. With the standalone the developers seem to have scaled the arsenal back. Time will tell whether they scale it forwards again. On the other hand it's refreshing to run through the countryside without being in constant danger of instant death from a sniper's bullet - the in-game scope has very modest magnification - but on the other, other hand, there is only so much scenery a man can look at before he succumbs to an insatiable bloodlust.

* The game had silenced ammo, which was theoretically much more practical - but what was the point? The zombies spawned endlessly, in the long run you were going to end up with the axe.

DayZ (the mod) was notorious for its oddities, quirks, and bugs, some of which are almost game-breaking. OpFlash was never designed to model indoors combat - most of the buildings were just solid blocks, and only a few had interior spaces - and DayZ feels like that sometimes. The zombies walk through doors as if they weren't there, and they are unable to run indoors, so you can just nip into a house and axe them to death at your leisure. Speaking of axes, the infantry weapons in the game are almost entirely superfluous against the zombies, and so the most useful weapon of all is the axe, which makes for dull gameplay. DayZ has no real goal beyond surviving, there's no scoreboard, and almost no way to "save" your game. You can plant tents, but they're visible for miles around and are quickly looted.

The biggest problem is that the ArmA engine is wide open to scripting hacks, to an unusual extent. Players quickly found they could magic up huge quantities of munitions, or they could teleport across the map, or teleport other players into the air, make things blow up, etc, view the location of other players on the map, the end result being a game that was often very frustrating. After spending half an hour amassing a matchbox and some survival gear, you could die without warning because a hacker had decided to teleport everybody into the air. At the very least, it meant that most players on any given server were kitted out with ghillie camouflage suits, night vision gear, .50 calibre sniper rifles, and enough food and drink to cater for a wedding.

Most of the map appears to have been ported straight across - this floating tree just south-west of Gorka is shown here in the mod (top) and the standalone (bottom, where it seems to be knighting my character).

In theory the standalone should eliminate most cheating, at least of the object spawning / person teleporting variety. Aimbots will presumably still exist, although the game's realistic ballistics will require at least a little bit of maths in order to guarantee a hit at longer range. It remains to be seen how effective the anti-cheating system is. In a game with instant permanent death and realistic bullet damage, aimbots are pretty much game-breaking.

Still, though, the thing I enjoyed most about the mod was the flexibility. With a full server you could play it as a nerdy CoD with zombies. With an almost-empty server it became a tense collect-em-up in which you were free to scout for components of a helicopter, with the constant risk that one of the few other players might spot you. On a totally empty server it became a decent but dull zombie dodge-a-thon. I like to think that a well-finished standalone would be entirely playable solo, with the zombies as a decent challenge as you try to build a base with running water and perhaps fortify a mountaintop. The lack of true role-playing elements (your character has no stats, really) and the large-but-still-learnable map would limit its Second Life / sandboxy-ness in the long run though.

The Standalone
After much speculation the standalone version of DayZ was released on December 16, and sadly no amount of dividing and multiplying the numbers 16 and 12 and and 2013 and 350 (it was the 350th day of the year) can justify a "Half-Life III Confirmed" gag at this point. I spawned in Kamenka, ordinarily a waste of time, but the new map has added a lot of buildings, including a supermarket in Kamenka in which I picked up an axe and a backpack and something to drink. Whereas most of the buildings in the mod were solid blocks, the standalone has lots of explorable houses. On the other hand, there's much less loot, and it's harder to find.

"A particle of FILL IN LATER"

I'll reiterate that the standalone isn't actually finished. It's an "early access alpha", for which you pay £19.99. This includes all future updates of (presumably) what will become DayZ V1. Is it worth paying £19.99 for the game, as it stands? Sales have been brisk but after playing it for a while I'm unconvinced; I assume that once it has been patched a few times, whatever equipment you amass early on will be thrown away and you'll have to start again. If you're new to DayZ I would suggest getting used to the mod first. You'll be absolutely baffled by the standalone otherwise.

Standalone servers are restricted to forty players during the testing phase. As far as I can tell the map is the same size as before, and forty players was plenty beforehand, but with all the new hiding places I suspect that it will seem a deserted place until there are a hundred or so people running around. I'm writing this whilst listening to Pop-Shopping on a loop, by the way.

By default the game runs on a day/night cycle tied to the server's timezone, which had the odd effect of making most of the early players start the game in pitch darkness, because it's dark in the evenings in Europe in winter. You can either increase the brightness and gamma (as per the first screenshot above, a trick often used to play the mod) or use a torch (as below), or switch servers. In its alpha state the game has no real mechanism to prevent you from switching servers, and so if you're about to be gunned down you can simply leave. In theory this is wrong - server hopping is a sin - but this is an alpha, and apparently loot doesn't respawn until the server is restarted, so what are you going to eat, hmm? I have to say that using any light source outdoors is a bad idea, and even indoors you're risking death from a sniper's bullet.

After spawning at Kamenka I headed north, to Zelenogorsk. In the mod I usually try to head north, either up the east coast or in big loop that goes up the west edge of the map and then east along the top. By coincidence this is where long-time players stash their loot. Zelenogorsk is a dull place in the mod, with a supermarket and not much else. In the standalone it has a barracks, where I found an M4 assault carbine and some ammo. And a magazine. The game has a pedantic approach to your inventory. You can't load a magazine-fed weapon until you have a magazine; you can't load a bolt-action rifle until you remove the cartridges from their packaging. If you want to check your bearing you have to put the compass in your hand and hold your hand up in front of your face. What on Earth was Minikillers? Are there any German readers who can answer that?

The small shipwreck from the original has been replaced by a much larger vessel. Which raises the possibility that the players started off as the ship's crew, and were washed ashore after it lost control.

Surprisingly, you can explore the interior without falling through the floor, although it feels buggy.

It has a small quantity of loot - I found a plastic case that holds six objects but only takes up four slots in my inventory. Presumably, if I found several of these cases and stacked them inside each other, I could carry the entire game in my backpack.

After a while I noticed a torch beam in the other barracks (there are two). Another player had warped in and was also gearing up. At the moment there's not much to do in the standalone - no vehicles, no tents, even less of a long-term goal than before - so collecting ammo seems to be the main pursuit. I hid behind some nearby shipping crates and waited until the other chap left the barracks, at which point I fired off eighteen rounds of my thirty-round magazine at him. There was a grunt and he... vanished. Did I kill him? I have no idea. Perhaps he quit; perhaps the bodies of slain players don't stay around.

My subjective impression is that the shooting side of things has been simplified. You seem to hold your gun more steadily than in the mod, and the overall impression is of something closer to CoD than an infantry simulation. You have to hit the space bar to bring your weapon to bear - the same applies to the torch and the compass - and once you do so, you enter "stealth mode", and walk with a more measured pace.

It seemed that my new bovver boots were quieter than my old pair of worn trainers, but I wasn't prepared to test this out objectively in case this pair vanished when I took them out.

The most north-westerly water source is in the middle of a big patch of open ground, potentially a death trap.

No sense hanging about, so I explored the Green Mountain numbers station - nothing doing - and then headed north-west, to check out the curious installation on the map. But there's nothing there, just empty space:

Empty space. I need to find some better place. And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain.

The mod desaturates the colour palette if you're hurt, and I remember being hit by a couple of zombies earlier on, so after necking down some food I decided to head back to the well, and then east, skirting north past the north-west airfield. The north-west airfield is one of the major locations of the original game; a collection of military barracks and hangars filled with guns. Some players spend most of their time either running towards or trying to assault the north-west airfield, I generally avoid it. The man I shot earlier had no idea I was there until the bullets started hitting him. And then it was too late. That could so easily have been me.

After refilling my water I decided to head south for a bit, and explore a train yard:

Those garages (the low building to the right) are a great source of loot. The wrecked cars and buses now have open-able doors and bonnets.

A reverse angle - the crane in this shot is the crane in the shot above, and here the garages are just in front of me. When you spawn in the game you spawn standing up, with your weapons holstered, which really needs to be fixed.

Eventually I stumbled on a Mosin-Nagant, which seemed a better deal than my M4. Twenty shots of 7.62mm versus twelve of 5.56. Oddly, despite the general air of verisimilitude, the Mosin takes the wrong calibre (7.62mm NATO) and the packet has the wrong label:

Still, crack on. Head east. My impression is that the lootable buildings from the original game are either empty this time around, or they have already been stripped bare; most of the loot I have found has been in the new building interiors. The engine still doesn't feel solid enough for proper indoors shooting but it's a lot more solid than ArmA.

The shadows can occasionally make you start - you see a figure! And it's you.

Trousers, they're trousers. Available in a range of colours. The game has handcuffs, and in theory you can tie up other players before you kill them. Perhaps you want them standing still so you can off them silently with the axe. The mod only lets you butcher and cook animals - but people are animals too, right? Hint, developers.

Still, proceeding east I found another train yard. Alas, it was mostly empty, except for some rotten fruit. You can eat rotten fruit, but it's no good for you, just like in real life. The original game treated all food as more or less the same, but in the sequel certain foods (cereal, powdered milk) make you thirsty, and there are vitamin pills, so perhaps the game will pay more attention to a balanced diet in the future. Also, despite eating a dozen cans of tuna, two whole boxes of cereal, numerous apples, and having drunk more than ten litres of water, I have yet to go to the toilet.* The game has toilets, but they don't seem functional.

* In the game, I mean.

"There was one girl who had a beautiful voice
and they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans
and when she stopped singing they said 'More, More', and they applauded"

You can now actually get in, or at least make a show of getting in, awkward comma cars. Instead of just teleporting inside them.

And that is where I've got so far. £19.99 is steep for a "game" that isn't finished yet, and so far there's not much to do. The few zombies I have met were no threat, the enemy players few and far between, and it's generally easier to ignore them. Lots of running in darkness, and I can confirm that the experience of running in rainy darkness in DayZ is surprisingly close to reality except faster, because you never fall over. But no more entertaining. So far I haven't broken my leg or died, but that's because I'm very cautious. And lucky, but luck doesn't last. If you're a non-fan of DayZ... but the problem is that if you pay for ArmAII in order to get the mod, you're going to have to pay again to get the standalone. Argh. If you're a non-fan of DayZ I suggest you hold off. You'll be very disappointed unless you don't mind exploring a mostly empty but varied wilderness for several weeks or months until Dean Hall sorts out some gameplay.

If you're a fan, however, and provided Dean and his merry etc can get on top of hackers, DayZ has the makings of a fantastic game. The fact of having so many more buildings to explore, and smarter inventory system, a more back-to-basics approach to the weapons, and all the OCD customisation you can do to your outfit feel like a great foundation. Perhaps you could treat yourself to the game if you have a birthday coming up, or if there was some kind of anniversary or special occasion or something.

You will find my body somewhere between here and the eastern sea. EDIT: In the end it was a bug that killed me. I simply logged in one day and found myself right back at the coast. Now that's the DayZ I remember.