[one_third]Harcore military sim ARMA II’s zombie apocalypse mod, DayZ, offers some of the most compelling stealth gameplay we’ve ever seen. And it’s only in alpha…[/one_third]
No doubt you’ll have heard of DayZ, the mod for ARMA II which washes players up onto the beaches of the 225km² map of Chernaus, an Eastern European province that already seemed to be decaying before being hit by this mod’s zombie apocalypse. Despite being just over a month into alpha, DayZ offers some of the best stealth gameplay we’ve ever experienced. It moves away from simple sneaking, stealing and killing, to subtly fold in more abstract social dynamics explored through more overt systems in Assassin’s Creed and Spy Party. Weighting every action is the game’s character persistence; loot may respawn, but death is permanent, and you carry nothing into the next life.
In a country with fifty other players and ten times as many zeds (apocalyptic lingo for zombie – you’ll learn it soon enough, along with how to read the Cyrillic road signs), DayZ asks one thing of you: survive. This turns players – not the zeds – into your biggest threat, and thus the motivation to tread softly and stay out of sight.
This is a natural fit for the mod’s military sim scaffolding; a genre which has always exhorted players to keep their heads down and stay out of sight until prepared for confrontation. It introduced us coordinated squad-based ambushes, taking on night missions with silencers and infared goggles, and creeping over hills with the sun at your back. By nature of how quickly one can lose the reins on a mission, players adapt to these survival concepts themselves – without need for tutorials, or on-screen direction. And DayZ’s character persistence has stretched these concepts further by making your time more valuable and the experience utterly personal.
Playing DayZ with slow, deliberate purpose comes so naturally that it almost defies being analysed. There’s nary a clumsy game mechanic to deal with. No obscure shadow system or ambience meter – just your human senses and awareness, and a basic graphical approximation of your current noise and visibility relative to zombie AI, but not players. What this means is that the effectiveness of one’s stealthiness is dictated not by gaming the system, but by gaming each other. Fortunately, ARMA II’s engine provides DayZ with the environmental realism necessary to support stealth-play.
The effectiveness of one’s stealthiness is dictated not by gaming the system, but by gaming each other.
Sound is arguably the most important aspect of one’s survival. Player’s audible footsteps travel a moderate distance. When dealing with zombies, footsteps should be lessened by crouching, or even crawling forward while prone. The aforementioned sound gauge shows your current audibility and keeping that low avoids most zombie encounters, as their eyesight is beyond poor. However, sound becomes truly important when engaging other players. If footsteps can give away the position of nearby enemies, gunshots are one level below running riot with a lit flare and breed much of the player-defined goals that manipulate the ebb and flow of conflict in a server. A single shot alerts anyone around of human presence, often spurring bandits – those who have chosen a life of relentless player-killing – into action. Playing off this knowledge becomes a key source of stealth in DayZ. Much like using flares to ensnare gullible survivors, players have begun firing off rounds then running for the hills – hoping to catch inquisitive pursuers in a trap. Gunshots have such an impact in DayZ that players often trade a better weapon for a less powerful, yet less audible one.
Visual cues go beyond that of typical stealth games, too. Any movement on the edge of your periphery requires investigation. It could just be a leaf in the wind, billowing dust, a texture glitch – or, it could have been a bandit, survivor or zombie stalking you. DayZ demands constant vigilance.
The night and day system has a massive impact on how players move through the world. At night, the moon can provide light – but for those few hours before the moon is fully out, the world lives in pitch darkness. Horizon lines, flares and chemlights help you navigate and find other players, or get you yourself spotted. During the day, it’s best to stick to cover and trees, watching your flanks at all times. At night, one becomes much more free, and the stealth play much more dynamic.
These mechanics compound in urban environments. Main cities provide a physically dense, visually cluttered battlefield where players are forced to employ every tool at their disposal or risk a quick death at the hands of patrolling bandits. When travelling with a group, the tension is palpable. Any accidental sound could be your last. You’ll hug buildings to lower your profile, hold position to ensure nobody is following you, throw flares as distractions, and lay ambushes, all the while relaying to your teammates anything your senses pick up.
When outnumbered, merely seeing another player is a cause for caution. Until you can establish their motives, approaching them is a grave risk. You can try and communicate with them, but that risks exposing your position. If they catch you tailing them or watching them – then they might assume that you have ill intentions.
This is where DayZ’s human side comes to the fore, in an entirely player-driven social stealth environment. What other game has had you bluffing in the chat window, trying to throw potential bandits off your trail, while drawing out information from others? Or using the mechanics of the ARMA engine (you can always free-look, turning your head regardless of what the rest of your body is doing) to keep your weapon pointed at the ground while approaching someone so as not to appear threatening?
Teams are transient things. Some are groups of friends, standing together against all comers; others are ad hoc alliances of need. Players cannot do certain tasks alone – transfusing blood to regain health is the most notable example – so there is a need to find another player, determine their motives and then, in the ultimate act of trust, place your precious equipment into this person’s control and effectively surrender your fate to them.
How is all of this stealthy? Because of how you get to that point. How do you find another player without being found? How do you assess their trustworthiness? Every good stealth game offers some form of planning phase. DayZ offers something closer to voyeurism.
Every good stealth game offers some form of planning phase. DayZ offers something closer to voyeurism.
Despite its player-driven stealth gameplay, DayZ is not an emergent game. Emergence is something defined by the interaction of systems, whereas the ones that govern DayZ are as basic as can be. It goes beyond emergence, appealing to and being a reflection of raw human behaviour. Like EVE Online, but with less ship-spinning and more cross-county hiking, DayZ is a bastard simulator; one which richly rewards the sneaky approach with the permission to continue to exist.
But it’s that simplicity which is key. Future versions of DayZ would be careful to add more familiar, game-like elements, for anything that becomes bound to a system is something that is taken out of the hands of players. And currently, the 225km² country of Chernarus is entirely at the mercy of any sneaky bastard with a gun and the wits to survive.
No matter how DayZ changes, no matter how complex its defining systems may become, or how expertly players may adapt to them, stealth will always be the game’s lifeblood. Whether prone in the grass or playing your cards close to your chest, it is the means of persistence in this base and primal hunt. It is the most dangerous game.