I don't usually like zombie games. As a general rule, they are a little lazy. But there is one glaring exception: DayZ.
Starting as a mod for Arma 2 - created by Dean "Rocket" Hall, a fellow kiwi and Bohemia Interactive employee - it took the independent community by storm last year. Its alpha code was downloaded thousands of times and gamers around the world immersed themselves in the fantastic online world that Dean and his colleagues created.
At its core, DayZ is a zombie survival game. You play as a survivor, alone in the unfamiliar eastern European inspired region called Chernarus. You need to search your environment to survive, scavenge for food and water, escape from or kill the zombies that roam the wilderness, and even defend yourself against other survivors who you might have the misfortune to run into.
But what made DayZ great was its complexity. The game has no set rules or objectives, so the gameplay is almost entirely user generated and the world of Chernarus quickly became a cauldron of intense gameplay experimentation.
Bohemia Interactive soon realised that they had a goldmine on their hands, so have been working hard on updating DayZ to be its own stand-alone title. Based on the new Arma 3 engine, DayZ's alpha is now nearly complete - and its looking really, really good. I had the chance to play through some developer code at E3 and talk with Dean about what Bohemia have done to improve and refine the DayZ experience.
The first major change is that DayZ's gameplay systems have been completely rebuilt from the ground up. DayZ's first form was as a mod for a tactical 1st/3rd person shooter. It still plays that way, but now its been built around an MMO architecture. This has a range of added benefits. Inventory management is now far easier, for example, and the game's engine can more easily deal with environmental objects.
This is a big deal - in the first iteration of the game, weapons and ammunition were crudely found in "packs" in specific locations. Now, loot spawns organically throughout the environment. Soda cans can be picked off tables, morphine tubes litter the floor. It's a much better manifestation of Dean's original intention when developing the game, and the new MMO architecture helps it happen.
It also improves the options available to players. Clothing is an important part of the DayZ experience and the new MMO architecture lets you kit yourself out in blue jeans, white shirts - or even motorcycle helmets. And, as you'd expect, the kit you are wearing improves your chances when coming face to face with zombies or other players.
The combat and core gameplay experience have also been refined. There is now a quick-bar at the bottom of your screen that you can drag items into (like water cans or bandages) but it is unobtrusive, keeping that minimal feel that fans of the original love. The AI for zombies has also been refined and worked on. There is still some way to go (it being developer code and all) but Zombies are now even more aggressive. I asked Dean if they would stop chasing you at any point. Not a chance - if they have line of sight, they won't stop. And if they can track you, they will. The zombies are also more agile. They can leap at you from a distance and knock you down.
The amount of work that has already gone into the animations and combat options is impressive. Bohemia have used motion capture technology to make character animations more realistic and more "civilian". They have also introduced a whole suite of new gestures that players can use to communicate visually - including waves, and the classic "hands up."
Finally, Bohemia have looked at the experience gamers had with last year's DayZ and have tweaked the title to improve its balance - both in the gameplay itself and on the server side. Dean said that this focus was the major reason behind the delay for the next iterations of the game. But the wait appears to have been worth it.
Crucially, it appears as it DayZ is going to be moving to central item servers, meaning that players will no longer be able to cheat by collecting good loot from empty servers. The type, amount, and variety of loot will be persistent across all servers that exist. If you've got the only leet haxor DMR sniper in the game, that means you have the only leet haxor DMR sniper in the game.
This is crucial for two reasons: first it should considerably improve balance the game. Second it gives items real value, enabling a properly working in-game economy to grow. Both should markedly improve the DayZ gameplay experience.
And finally, Dean hinted that zombies would also be controlled from a central server. This means that they will no longer give away the presence of spawned survivors, and you will be able to keep particular regions of the map free of zombies (as long as you maintain it). This will hopefully bring an entirely new level of gameplay to DayZ, that goes beyond the "get a helicopter and murder everyone" choke-point that the early builds inevitably fell into. I'm really excited about what gamers will decide to come up with and I'm pleased Bohemia have given gamers the freedom to explore.
From what I saw on the show floor at E3, DayZ already looks really impressive - even if it was just rough developer code. Despite the obvious bugs that need to be worked through, the experience was smooth, rich, and still true to the style of gameplay that early fans have fallen in love with. I'm amped for the finished product and can't wait for DayZ to be released through Steam's Early Access program. Dean didn't have a firm date yet but did say that gamers would get their hands on the alpha builds in the next few weeks, or at least "very, very soon". I can't wait.
The Good: The experience was smooth, rich, and still true to the original
The Bad: There were some obvious early bugs
The Ugly: Some player's clothing style, to "protect against zombies"