Two possibilities: Either you're excited about DayZ, or you haven't heard of it.
This is an Arma II: Combined Ops modification that's only in alpha at the moment, and with the current crush of users smothering the master server, you probably shouldn't try playing it for at least a month. All the same, you should know about it, because it's probably the best zombie video game ever made.
Using Chernarus, the soldier simulator's 225 km2 of believable Eastern Europe, each 50-player DayZ server simply tasks you with surviving in a vast, zombie-strewn landscape of settlements, valleys, beaches, castles and petrol stations. That's the game. Zombies wander the world's towns and villages, but it's only there that you'll find food, water, bandages, and maybe even assault rifles, night-vision goggles, a map, a compass or a dozen other things.
But there's a problem.
The problem isn't the zombies, despite them being the horrible breed of running zombies made popular by 28 Days Later. Zombies also come running at the sound of gunfire, but that's not the problem, either.
The problem isn't the meticulous plausibility of the Arma 2 engine, which is a sluggish theatre of broken legs, iron sights, bullet drop and orienteering. Neither is the problem the engine's famous inability to handle interiors, making exploring a house a bit like steering a forklift through a hedge maze. At night. While drunk.
The problem is the other 49 players on your server. Every one of which could kill you for something as petty as your box of matches.
More improbably, they might also die saving your life. This is DayZ, one part glacially paced horror game, one part riveting social experiment. And simply put, it's a stunning zombie game because, like every half-decent zombie flick, it's not about zombies. It's about panic, who you are, and what you're willing to become.
Here's a true DayZ story. A group of five players are hiking through the thin forest beside a coastal road. You do not walk on the road.
It's raining. The men are tired.
Suddenly, a shot rings out. Physics being the jerk it is, by the time they've heard the shot and hit the deck, the bullet's already killed one of them. They look around. There's a lighthouse in the distance, sheer and ominous in the evening haze. The shooter must be perched up there.
"WHAT THE HELL," one of the party types on the server-wide chat.
"sorry! crap," comes the response. It seems the shooter took the shot because he had the chance. It's an easy mistake to make, and arguably not a mistake at all. If you hesitate when you have another player in your sights, you are prey to every player on the server that doesn't.
"hang on, i have some canned pasta," says the sniper, profoundly apologetic. "you can have it."
"OK," say the group.
So the party of five, now four, goes walking towards the lighthouse. And you know what? This wasn't even a trap. With heroic bravery, the sniper appears in the doorway, ready to hand out his tins of food. He needs absolution for his mistake. He's torn a hole in the fragile trust between survivors, and must repair it.
Then, without sharing so much as a look, all four travellers open fire. Both sniper and doorframe are shredded in a storm of automatic gunfire. Entire clips are emptied. It's unfathomably loud.
This done, the travellers pat down the sniper, taking everything he owns. The travellers go back and search their friend, loading up on any relevant supplies. Then they continue their journey.
It doesn't cut it to say that DayZ is a game of fragile alliances. What's important about DayZ is what this game of survivors/zombies does to the world itself. It turns it into a devastatingly evocative apocalypse - the world gains a sense of place so fierce that simply waiting out the night in an old school, or being perched on a hilltop, watching a nearby town through the scope of your gun, is riveting.
So if the mundane is already exciting, imagine how it feels to actually see something happen. Imagine shrinking into the bushes as you spot a team of players roll into that town in one of the game's rare cars, or even better - imagine they come thundering in on a helicopter, hovering above the town and flattening zombies with a mounted machine gun. Such vehicles must first be repaired, speaking of a certain level of player skill. You check your revolver - four bullets left. Perhaps they'd be willing to help out a newbie, if you walked out there? Maybe they'd toss you a can of coke, or a dose of morphine.
Unless, of course, they stole that helicopter, and the happy mechanics who repaired it are dead in a gulch somewhere.
Or imagine the tables were turned. Imagine you see somebody sprinting through town, tearing it down the high street, with a riot of slavering zombies chasing them down. This was the exact sight a friend of mine experienced the other day. He could start gunning down zombies in short, controlled bursts, maybe saving the man's life. Or, with a single bullet, he could kneecap the desperate survivor, letting the zombies swarm him like teenage girls on a pop star, then pick over the corpse himself.
I won't say which my friend actually did. Just because he might be EMBARRASSED at being a BASTARD.
But this is DayZ. Better still, it's only just beginning. Since the modders work at Bohemia Interactive, developers of Arma, and since last week DayZ caused Arma to spike to the top of the Steam sales charts, we can look forward to all kinds of fresh terror down the line.
One feature they're talking about is diaries. Just simple notepads that let you jot down where you are and what happened on each day, being as terse or prosaic as you like. Just so that when that bandit is standing over your body, unfastening the watch from your twitching wrist, he can also read the diary and discover the man he shot dead on the roof of a technical college was a pessimist, raconteur or mass-murderer.
Even now, though, with DayZ as laggy, unstable and awkward as it is, it's immediately apparent that something special is being discovered here. Something that taps into the same zeitgeist as Dark Souls or EVE Online (whose subscriber numbers have been growing for almost a decade); that desire for heroism to be heroic, for villainy to be villainous. I'm not sure when the AAA developers are going to start heeding that desire, but it'll be a great step for gaming when they do.
Until then, I'll see you in DayZ. Assuming we can get into a server, anyway.
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