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DayZ is still broken, still beautiful, and still unfinished

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed

Bohemia Interactive
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

For a few minutes this week, DayZ almost got its claws back into me. Almost.

Then the official game server booted me out to the loading screen. It’s a recurring issue that I’ve been running into all week. These kinds of structural problems, along with a handful of other bugs and litany of imperfections, have not so completely destroyed my immersion in the game as they have prevented me from becoming immersed in the first place.

DayZ is a disaster and, at this point, I’m not even angry. I’m just disappointed.

The original zombie-themed multiplayer survival game, DayZ burst onto the scene in 2012 as a mod for Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead, a niche infantry simulation game. The conceit is simple enough. Dozens of players are scattered around a 225-square-kilometer chunk of semi-rural Eastern Europe. Any built-up area is likely to contain loot. It’s also definitely infested with zombies. There’s no end game to speak of. It’s sandbox, pure and simple.

Today, after more than five years of proper early access development, it’s still only barely playable.

At times, though, it is also breathtakingly beautiful.

Bohemia Interactive via Polygon

Early one in-game morning, after making my way a little ways from the coast where players spawn, I decided to set out for the airport. It’s a 10-kilometer trip, as the crow flies. I’ve made the journey dozens of times, leapfrogging from Kamyshovo, through Mysta to Dolina and and on to the larger town of Berezino. Then the big push north to the airport at Krasnostov.

If I was lucky, at the end of my trip I’d have some decent body armor, an AK or an M4 assault rifle, some decent optics and enough food and water to go exploring. I gave myself four real-world days to get there.

It is perpetually autumn in this part of Chernarus. The leaves are always turning and the trees are full of apples. There are sheep in the fields now, and deer are in its forests. These packs of wildlife are a relatively new addition to the game and they behave realistically enough. The wild ones scatter and the farm animals bunch up. But the map itself feels entirely new compared to the original.

On the morning of my third in-game day I found a little stream that I didn’t remember being there before. Following it I found a dam and a trio of secluded cabins in the woods. That’s where I also found binoculars and a compass, treasures when you’re navigating without a map. I continued on, my feet crunching the trail beneath me.

Somewhere nearby I could hear a wild boar was rutting in the leaves. Cascades of crepuscular rays chased me down the side of a hill, then from tree to tree into a small valley. It was perfect.

Then the damn thing crashed. It was the third time that night.

Roasting a bit of mutton inside a barn.
Bohemia Interactive via Polygon

The server stopped responding completely. Adding insult to injury, the error message itself was clipped off. All I could see were the tops of red letters and what looked like a timer ticking off the seconds since the server last sent my computer a signal.

When I arrived back on a new server — one that I plucked manually from a list that looks like circa 1998 — the illusion was broken. The sun was gone. The sky was gray. There was a cold wind whipping around me, causing the trees to bend menacingly on the horizon.

Before long, my character caught a cold. He began coughing and sniffling every 10 seconds. Night came soon enough, an inky dark so black I could barely see my hand in front of my face. So I logged back out to find a daytime server.

It didn’t work.

For the rest of the evening I logged into a dozen servers claiming to be running daylight. Every time I showed up, it was dark. I closed down the program. I rebooted my computer. Nothing worked. I was trapped in an endless, impenetrable night even when it should have been day.

DayZ is broken. Not as broken as it used to be, that’s for sure. There are no longer invisible human players stalking you across the map. AI controlled enemies do not regularly pass through walls. But there’s still something very, very wrong with it.

You can see it in the zombies.

Once you arrive in a built-up area, be it a small hamlet or a city-sized urban place, they’re absent. It’s only after a few minutes of poking around in drawers and cupboards that they begin to spawn in. You’ll turn a corner to see the coast is clear. Then you’ll hear a sound and look again only to find a zombie standing where there wasn’t one before. Sometimes you’ll open a door and you’ll find one trapped in the geometry of the floor. They’ll look at you. They’ll howl and lunge, but be unable to move.

A typical melee in DayZ.
Bohemia Interactive via Polygon

But eventually they accumulate. Stay in one place long enough and the only way out is to fight. Using firearms inside city limits will only bring more of them, so the best course of action is to use a crowbar or a sledgehammer to bring a few down. Punch a hole in the perimeter and run like hell.

Trouble is that using melee weapons in DayZ is like trying to hammer a nail into a wall with a piece of cooked spaghetti. The animations are perfunctory, with the shambling dead and the player flailing at each other like a pair of pinwheels. Hits are slow to register, with zombies flinching a half second after you connect. The only way to tell if you’re being damaged is if the whole screen flashes red. It’s absurd that a game that’s this high stakes, where one mistake can mean the loss of hours of playtime, has combat that feels this awful.

But, of course, it’s always felt this awful. Even when it was just a mod in 2012, it felt just like this. And that’s a shame.

If there’s a bright spot in the whole thing, aside from the scenery, it’s the crafting system. There is so much more to do now. You can break down clothes into rags, rags into rope, rope and sticks and burlap into a backpack. You can build a fire fairly easily, toss a bit of meat on a stick and roast up a steak. You can use a hacksaw to cut the barrel off a rifle to make it easier to carry. You can skin animals and make leather. You can build a car or a camp with a tower.

The animations for performing simple crafting tasks, like opening a can of beans or making a backpack, are all the same. It vaguely looks like your avatar is shooting craps.
Bohemia Interactive via Polygon

But it’s the simplest things that make it such a chore. Take the inventory system; it’s awful, and it would ultimately lead to my death.

Late last night I got trapped in the dark again, unable to find a server with daylight of any kind. Rather than complain about it, I busted out a glow stick and pushed on through Berezino, trying to find a police station and a few more rounds of ammunition.

In a stroke of luck I stumbled upon a massive hiking backpack. I took off my current pack, put on the new one, and then manually transferred its contents as quickly as possible to the new bag. I’d tried the same maneuver earlier only to have the server kick me out, leaving my inventory behind.

If only I had taken my time.

Before long I heard a zombie shuffling toward me. I ducked out the back door, but in the darkness I stumbled directly into a second zombie. It started, and I took off running with two of them hot on my heels.

Because of my illness, my stamina was low and I wasn’t able to outpace them. Every 20 yards or so they would get a few good hits in. So I started hammering the keys to bring up a weapon.

I tried the crowbar. Nothing. I reached for my the Scorpion automatic pistol I’d found a few days before. But I couldn’t get the weapon out. Or, rather, I couldn’t put my compass away.

Butchering an animal creates a pile of floating viscera. It’s challenging to get the game to let you pick up certain bits. At one point the items in my “vicinity” cue — ostensibly only those items on the ground at my feet — bugged out, letting me interact with items hundreds of meters away. The game regularly reminds you that you are playing the stable version in bright red letters.
Bohemia Interactive via Polygon

When I’d snuck out of the building, I hadn’t arranged my pack to fit an item the same size and shape as the compass that I had in my hands. So my character was unable to put it away. They were unable to even drop it. There was simply no room left in my inventory to fit it, and no way to let it go.

DayZ simply isn’t capable of moving items around to make room, and I didn’t have time to take a knee and sort things out.

So I died. A fully-loaded firearm on my hip. A pristine blunt object slung across my back. Both useless because of a compass stuck in my hand, and a game so unfinished that it was unable to help me do something as trivial as put something into my pocket.

I died in the dark with my screen flashing red.

I couldn’t see a thing.