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Early Access Later On: DayZ revisited

Early Access Later On: DayZ Revisited

Welcome to the inaugural installment of Early Access Later On, a new series where we’ll be taking a look at Early Access games that have had time to ferment. To kick things off, we’re once again checking in with DayZ, Bohemia Interactive’s zombie survival sandbox. 

Got you in the mood? Check out our list of the best sandbox games on PC

If, for some reason, you’re not familiar with Early Access, it refers to in-development games that you can already buy – often, but not exclusively on Steam – and ostensibly assist in their creation by providing feedback and searching for bugs. 

DayZ arrived on Steam Early Access during the program’s first year, and it was one of the most high profile games to take this approach. It started out as a popular mod for Arma II, long before the days of Early Access, and its popularity led to the development of a standalone sequel.

Upon launch, Bohemia Interactive made it clear what players should expect, adding a big disclaimer to the Steam page. It still exists.

“Warning: This game is in Early Access alpha. Please do not purchase it unless you want to actively support development of the game and are prepared to handle with serious issues and possible interruptions of the game functioning.”

Presumably the hope was to avoid the barrage of complaints that so many Early Access games received from players who didn’t quite understand that they were purchasing an unfinished, sometimes barely functioning game. The same complaints were made, all the same.

What was the pitch?

The game was pitched as a large, zombie-filled sandbox ripe for emergent shenanigans. Players would start with nothing, attempt to scavenge for supplies and equipment, and try not to die at the hands of other players or hungry, shambling corpses. The only goal would be survival, and everything else would be left up to the new denizens of Chernarus, the fictional Eastern European country where the game takes place.

In some ways, DayZ had an advantage over other Early Access games. It was, even before it launched, a known quantity. Both Bohemia Interactive – who made the Arma games – and Dean Hall, creator of the original mod, had a proven track record, and the core concepts of the standalone game were already familiar to the many people who played, had heard about, or watched the many YouTube videos of the mod.

What are the numbers?

DayZ is now in its third year of Early Access, and despite the long road to launch, it remains popular. Over three million players have dipped their toes into the zombie-infested world, and in the last fortnight it’s been played by over 300,000 people, at least according to SteamSpy. It might be full of the dead, but the game is very much alive.

What was it like on release?

Ineffective, small numbers of zombies; a very limited number of guns; the constant, looming threat of servers restarting without warning; and bugs galore – DayZ was every bit the early alpha the Steam page warned prospective players it would be when it first launched. But the promise of a gargantuan world full of explorable buildings and rich emergent gameplay was fulfilled from day one. Sure, it often felt like it was being held together by Sellotape, but it was also bound by the countless players who filled Chernarus. It’s people who drive the game, working together in roving, sociopathic groups of bandits, kidnapping, murdering, robbing and sometimes even helping their fellow players.

What have the devs said?

Since its launch at the tail end of 2013, Bohemia Interactive have been consistently communicative. Initially this took the form of dev blogs, streams and a slew of updates and changelogs, but since September 2014 they’ve also been posting detailed weekly status reports, as well as quarterly reports, annual reports and roadmap updates. The full list of changes can be seen here.

Not that the roadmap has always been stuck to; obstacles crop up. Animal companions, aerial vehicles and predators, for instance, were all expected in 2015, in the third and fourth quarters, but all of them were pushed back to 2016. A feature-complete beta with a single-player mode was also being touted last summer, with a release window of the end of the year, but that too has been postponed until later this year.

How much has changed?

Still, there have been a gargantuan number of changes and additions since it first popped into existence. Archery, hunting, vehicles, zombies that you actually have to watch out for, loot persistence, cannibalism, new diseases and even gardening are just a few of the improvements and game-changing systems.

In particular, Bohemia Interactive have greatly expanded the number of weapons and bits of gear that you can stick onto your stalwart survivor. In December 2015 alone, the FN FAL rifle and Glock 19 pistol, among others – including a craftable spear – were added to the roster of weapons, along with new clothes like a lab coat and nurse uniform for the medically inclined, and even a big steel helmet from the Middle Ages, of all things.

Chernarus itself has evolved considerably, as well. Again, just in December, ten new enterable buildings were added to the game, and whole new areas have been crafted, while older ones are frequently being updated with new buildings and places to explore. And if you fancy being a proper post-apocalyptic tourist, ten lovely holiday camps were placed in the game back in April 2015. Perfect if you just want a break! They serve a practical purpose as well, because you won’t need to set up your own camp and will immediately have a defensible area to hunker down in.

How does it play now?

DayZ used to feel a lot like the first part of the survival game – the bit where you’re tense and desperate and only concerned with staying alive for another day. Progression often just meant going from scavenging empty buildings to robbing or murdering other players. That’s all still very much part of DayZ, but you can now go further.

As a new player, you should still expect to go through that tense survival phase, moving from building to building, trying to avoid conflict, slowly gathering better gear and more inventory space, subsisting on old cans of soda and scraps. But after that, the game really starts to open up. You’re no longer just surviving, but becoming self-sufficient.

Take feeding yourself, for instance. Instead of filling your belly with rubbish found while scavenging, you can turn a derelict greenhouse into a thriving one, or even create a small farming plot yourself. With seeds, fertiliser, a bit of effort and, more importantly, time (but only a little bit, thankfully) you’ll end up with some tasty vegetables. Not only will they keep you well-fed, but you might be able to trade them with your fellow starving players.

You can hunt, as well, which provides you with more than just food. Using traps, snares, ranged weapons and stealth, you can track and kill animals and use their meat for food and their hides – after tanning – to create new clothes. With crafting and cooking, you can kit yourself out and keep yourself fat without risk to yourself.

Getting around is theoretically easier, as well – at least if you’re lucky enough to find a vehicle that works, or can at least be repaired. Not only do they make it simpler to get around the massive post-apocalyptic wilderness, they are handy mobile storage, and if you want, can be used as weapons, smashing into humans and undead as you drive off into the sunset. They can be damaged, though, and need to be refuelled, forcing you to be conservative, and to make excursions to find more fuel. Flitting around in a fancy vehicle is also like wearing a giant sign that says: “Rob me, I’m rich!”

As DayZ has allowed its survivors to do more than just live on the edge, its potential has become clearer. It’s not hard to envision communities being formed that do more than hunt and dabble in banditry. Farming enclaves, fortified villages, trading outposts, hell, even car dealerships – all these things are just waiting for the final parts of the puzzle. And in the meantime, there’s an enormous amount to do, whether you want to go it alone as a hardcore survivalist or travel the world like a post-apocalyptic tourist, complete with tour bus.

In terms of content, DayZ is starting to feel like a full game. Yet the issues that cracked its illusion way back at launch persist. It still feels like a building site, and still has countless bugs and flaws and performance issues.

The anti-cheat software has some problems, leading it to kick players out of games as it attempts – and fails – to update, requiring users to delete it from the game directory and then download it directly from the developer’s site. Characters might abruptly reset, transforming grizzled veterans into vulnerable new spawns. Important notifications informing players of their hunger and hydration don’t always work, leading to unexpected deaths. And you never really know when something that normally works will suddenly break.

Poor performance is maybe even more problematic. It really doesn’t matter how monstrously powerful your rig is; chances are, you’re going to have an inconsistent or simply very low frame rate. Sometimes it won’t even have anything to do with you or your rig – it might be down to the server settings as well as bad optimisation. Regardless, most of the graphics options might as well be completely ignored in favour of just running the game with all the bells and whistles off to get a tolerable frame rate. DayZ is just not optimised, and that’s unlikely to change until Bohemia Interactive fully implement the new Enfusion engine later this year.

Until then, aside a few lucky players, most have to decide what’s more valuable: graphics or performance. Given than permanent death is only a few bites or bullets away at any time, then I suggest the latter. At least for now. If you don’t mind digging into config files or even using third party programs, then there are several FPS guides out there that might help you increase your frame rate, in some cases substantially. This creates new problems, however. For instance, you don’t want to turn down object detail or view distance too much, or you won’t be able to see potential enemies and zombies off in the distance.

What’s the plan going forward?

Future plans for DayZ include items from the 2015 roadmap that were missed, like companion animals, predators, flying vehicles, and the construction of watchtowers and fortifications. Producer Brian Hicks mentioned the latter in a recent status update, noting that the gameplay design was being finalised. A new renderer, the Enfusion engine, is also in development, along with a new animation system, improved UI and inventory, and Steam Workshop support.

Anyone remotely interested in survival romps or emergent gameplay will still find a lot to keep themselves occupied in Chernarus, even if there remains a lot more for Bohemia Interactive to do before it’s considered feature-complete – this is expected later this year – and finally leaves Early Access. Importantly, it’s tense and challenging and with the right group of people it can be the source of many memorable adventures, or just the senseless slaughter of new spawns. That giant warning on the store page, however, should still be read and taken seriously.

What other Early Access game do you want us to investigate? Leave your suggestions below.