How long does it take to die of thirst? I keep turning the thought over as I creep through the small village of Kozlovka. A short way ahead in the bright sunlight I can see several figures lurching around the abanoned houses: zombies. I am looking desperately for water, the flashing red icon on my screen reminding me that terminal dehydration is near. I used to have a full water bottle, but somehow along the way I’ve mislaid it.
I sneak past a wrecked army Humvee, and enter a small house beside the road. By the wheezing groans coming from inside I know there’s another zombie within but I need supplies that are only found indoors. I risk it. Just inside the door is a small pile of loot: bandages, flares, and—jackpot!—a water bottle. Empty, but I’m sure I can find a pump to fill it at. I move through to the next room to look for more supplies.
The zombie is in there. It sees me and screams, staggering towards me. A headshot from my 9mm Makarov puts it down, but that was my second mistake. Another scream sounds outside the house—another zombie alerted by the noise of the shot. I leave the house just in time to see it running zig-zag towards me. I shoot at it twice, miss twice, and my magazine is empty. As I reload, the slobbering monster reaches me and rakes me with its claws, drawing blood. Now, bleeding heavily and shaken, I panic, and make another mistake. I run.
I thought I’d be able to get some distance so I’d have a few sceonds to bandage my wound, but the zombie runs as fast as I do, howling all the time. His noise and my movement rouse the nearby gaggle of undead, who scream in chorus and join the chase. I turn around and backpedal, firing in panic at them. One goes down at the same moment as another catches up to me. In my weakened state his heavy blow knocks me down. I see all the zombies gathered around me, tearing at my body, and wonder how I got into this mess. And then I die.
This is DayZ, a post-apocalyptic survival-horror FPS, and a free mod for Arma 2. Created by developer Dean “Rocket” Hall, the game sets you down on the shores of the fictional post-Soviet state Chernarus, with only a pistol, a water bottle, a couple of tins of food and some rudimentary first aid supplies to your name, and a single, simple goal: survive. When you fail—when, not if: the web site shows an average player lifespan of just over four hours—your death is permanent. Your corpse remains where it fell, all your painstakingly scavenged gear with it, and you respawn as a new character, once again on the south coast with barely more than a pistol.
DayZ doesn’t give you any sort of missions to do, but rather leaves you to choose your own objectives, whether simply finding that water bottle you desperately need, or raiding the northern airfield for its valuable automatic rifles. After you spawn, you set off in whatever direction takes your fancy. The world is enormous: over eighty square miles of hills, forests, towns, and cities to explore and it is fully open and continuous, with no invisible walls or loading zones. You can run from one end of it to the other—and will probably have to. While cars and helicopters can be found, they are exceedingly rare, and need parts to repair them and fuel to get them going. If you’re going solo, as I am, you’d better get used to walking instead.
However, you don’t have to go solo. DayZ is multiplayer with most servers hosting 40 or 50 players. It seems a small number given the size of the map, but with everyone spawning along the same coast and naturally gravitating toward the better quality loot in the cities and airfields, you can find other players easily enough if you want to. Teaming up offers obvious advantages—someone to watch your back, and share supplies with—but teammates can also bandage you or even give you a blood transfusion when you’re badly wounded. Just don’t expect everyone you meet be friendly: some people play bandits, prefering to take their loot from the corpses of players rather than scrounging for it through the towns. There are others who are just out to survive at any cost, and will shoot you first rather than risk you doing the same. And some just enjoy preying on newbies and newly spawned players, especially in the cities on the south coast, Chernogorsk or Electrozavodsk.
It was one of these last type that I’d encountered a while before my unlucky end. It was night—the game’s clock runs in real time, so the dark outside my window was mirrored by the dark in the game—and I’d taken advantage of the limited visibility to raid the Balota airfield in the south. It’s another likely place for good weapons, if sparser than the northern bases. I approached it cautiously, fearing other players more than zombies. It was lucky that I did: in front of the hangar lay five or six player bodies, nearly invisible in the moonless night. I crept slowly into the hangar from the opposite side, at first seeing nothing. Then something moved in the corner ahead of me: a player was there, prone, aiming at the other side of the entrance than I’d come in. Camping like that, he was obviously up to no good; so I shot him.
I still had only my Makarov, so one shot didn’t do much damage. He saw me then, and returned fire, but as luck would have it he too only had a pistol. We traded fire; he wounded me heavily, but I prevailed. And after looting his body, I left the airfield much richer: plenty of food and ammunition, a toolbox, a compass and a map (no more getting hopelessly lost in the countryside!), and a shotgun I’d found in the next hangar. I thought I’d been doing pretty well—but luck never lasts.
DayZ gives you a brutal, uncaring world, and challenges you to make it yours. Its persistent open world feels very much as I imagine a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. MMO would do, albeit without that game’s mutants or anomalies. Though still only an alpha, there’s something really special here. Its dedication to persistence and bottom-up, player driven interaction gives a real weight to your actions, and the game is uniquely rewarding as a result.
To play DayZ, you will need Arma 2, and Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead (often sold bundled together under the name Combined Operations), and of course the DayZ mod itself. Installing the mod is fiddly—if you’re using the Steam version of Arma 2, this video will guide you through the install. And due to the game’s huge rise in popularity, finding a open slot on a server at peak times can be hard. But once you’re in, the game is easily worth these hurdles.