I returned to DayZ after almost 4 years, but it feels like I never left

DayZ standalone was released in Steam Early Access in late 2013. I bought it a month later in January, and spent over 250 hours with it before I stopped playing in October of 2014 (for reasons I'll explain below). Other than to get a gif for this incredibly important article about how much I hate chopping down trees in games, I haven't set foot inside DayZ in nearly four years.

DayZ is planning on a 1.0 launch in 2018, and recently began testing its new engine on version .63 experimental servers. I decided it'd be a good time to revisit Bohemia Interactive's open world survival game, to see what's changed and what hasn't, and give the new engine a spin.

What's it like leaving a game in the midst of its development, and returning to it years later to find it, well, still in the midst of its development? There have obviously been some changes since 2014, but in ways both good and bad, DayZ feels pretty much like the same game I played years ago.

Zombies are still completely unpredictable

I know it's the experimental server, and it's currently missing a lot of features as they're being brought into the new engine. But it's still just so weird that when I left four years ago, the zombies were in the same state they currently are on the .63 experimental server. They're more or less completely unpredictable. It's honestly like I never left.

I put a little compilation of some of my zombie encounters above. As you can see, sometimes they respect things like doors and walls, while other times they ignore them. Sometimes they'll get stuck on fences, other times they leap over them. Sometimes they try to claw me to death, sometimes they run over and just sort of stand there until I kill them. Bullets can be instantly fatal or have absolutely zero effect.

I'm not really judging. Games take a long time to make. I imagine switching engines midway through development means having to re-do a lot of work that was already done once. But it's still hard to see a zombie walk through a wall in DayZ all these years later and not be left with a sense of disbelief.

Also unpredictable: the hotbar. In the last clip above, where I run out of ammo and seem to just give up defending myself, I'm really trying to use the hotbar to switch from my gun to my axe. Sometimes I can easily flip between weapons, other times (like this one) it's completely unresponsive. But hey, that's what happens in an experimental build of an Early Access game.

People are still unpredictable, too

Toward the tail end of my original 250 hours of DayZ, I'd begun to sour a bit on the experience of running into other players. Originally, it was my favorite part of the game because players were wonderfully unpredictable. Some would be nice and helpful, others completely indifferent, still others deadly or cruel. There were times I spent days running around far inland without ever seeing anyone, only to open a door in a random village and find myself face-to-face with another player. I loved it: meeting someone created an incredible amount of tension because you never knew what to expect. I met monsters, saints, roleplayers, serious players, and complete goofballs. I even had a little tumblr set up to keep a record of my encounters.

DayZ seemed to change, though, slowly throughout 2014, into a game where nearly everyone just shot first and asked questions never. That's fine: all's fair in the post-apocalypse, and no doubt due to being burned one too many times, being tricked or trapped or tortured or just gunned down, it no longer made sense to risk your life and loot by approaching and talking to other players.

But the tension of not knowing how someone would act was my favorite part of DayZ, and with just about everybody adopting a kill-on-sight philosophy, it lost a lot of that tension and mystery.

This week on the experimental server felt a bit more like the DayZ I loved. One guy greeted me and made chit-chat, which turned out to be a distraction for his two pals who ran up behind me and punched me to death. A few players said hello but ran by without stopping. One guy invited me to come with him as he looted, and shared his spoils with me. And once I was taunted and mocked by several players hiding in a locked police station before I found one of their pals AFK outside, at which point I hacked him to death with a machete before being shot in the back when I fled.

I don't know what the regular DayZ servers are like these days, but on experimental there's a healthy mix of people who want you dead, people who want nothing to do with you, and people who are interested in hanging out and working together.

The sprint meter is more realistic but I still don't like it

I've written before about my dislike of sprint meters in open world games: when it comes to running around, stamina as a resource is anti-fun. I even talked to Brian Hicks about DayZ's new sprint meter recently, and now I've gotten the chance to try it for myself. It doesn't ruin the game or anything, but I'm still not a fan and I honestly hope they remove it before 1.0.

There's a lot of running in DayZ—at times, it feels like there's nothing but running. It's not so much the specifics of the speed of travel that concerns me, but the disruption the meter lends to it. Having a meter deplete and then have to refill as you trot for a while is just kind of a nuisance. Sprint restrictions are one part of realism games could do without, and DayZ is no exception. Just let me run full speed all the time. Less real, but more fun.

The UI is a big improvement, mostly

Back when I played DayZ you were informed of your status with a series of text messages in the corner of your screen. It was useful and no-nonsense information, but there was something that felt annoyingly low-fi about it.

"I feel thirsty."
"I'm thirsty."
"I need a drink."
"I feel like having a drink."
"I want to drink something."
"I really need to drink."
"I'm dying of dehydration."

These status messages arrived for everything from thirst, hunger, bleeding, sickness and food poisoning, and pain in various parts of your body. They could also get annoying when it came to body temperature, especially when it also dealt with the dampness of your clothing, how much you were moving, and if you were in the sunlight, meaning new messages could appear every few seconds informing you of fractional changes to your comfort level.

Now represented by icons for health, sickness, blood loss, temperature, hunger, and hydration, you can see your status at a glance. Some of it feels unnecessary: when running and sprinting at top speed, I can kind of assume I'm burning through calories and that my hydration levels are falling and don't really need those downward arrows to point it out constantly. But it's a more elegant and appealing system, even if it doesn't give you quite as much specific information.

I no longer fear ladders

Ladders: the silent killer. I mean, the ladders were silent, but players would be screaming with rage. In my DayZ days they were simply a no-no. You did not climb a ladder for any reason, because ladders would kill you. You'd reach the top and then you'd fall off. You'd reach the top and somehow continue climbing, and then you'd fall off. You'd climb off and move away, then find yourself rubberbanded back on again. And then you'd fall off. DayZ's ladders were the worst.

But no more, it seems. I haven't had any issue climbing ladders on the experimental branch. I even climbed almost to the top of the radio tower at Altar, and then climbed all the way back down. No problems. Ladders, at last, are not the most dangerous killers in DayZ.

I'm not sure if the guns are good or not

The experimental server, as far as I could tell, didn't have a whole lot of guns on it yet, or at least didn't have a whole lot of different kinds of guns. Plus, half the time I had a gun I had the wrong ammo or mags for them. So, I can't really speak to how the shooting is on the new engine yet.

I love the fiddly nature of the guns, though. How you have to manually open a box of ammo, load the mags one bullet at a time, then stick the mag into the gun. Even if I don't do a lot of shooting in DayZ (and when I do I don't do it well) I've always enjoyed the level of simulation put into the weapons.

Eating and drinking takes a lot longer

My memory isn't perfect, but I don't remember eating and drinking taking quite so long in DayZ standalone as it does in .63. If this is a change, I think it's a great one. Realistically, no matter how hungry you are, it's going to take more than a few seconds to consume an entire can of beans or spaghetti. The process of opening cans, filling bottles, and everything else around eating seems to take longer too.

I know, Mr. Anti-Sprint Meter hates being told how long he can run for but is happy to crouch in a bush for a solid few minutes to eat canned pasta and tinned sardines realistically. What can I say? I like what I like.

It's great to be back

As for why I quit the game in the first place, it was due to writing a piece for Rock Paper Shotgun back in 2014, where I promised if I died during a session of DayZ I would never play it again—a sort of perma-permadeath. It was a dumb idea, and naturally I died dumbly (and almost immediately). Returning to DayZ is pretty much me breaking my dumb promise, though if I'm looking for a loophole, I'm only playing it on the new engine. Perhaps a different engine means DayZ is now a different game?

Despite the changes and a new engine, it definitely doesn't feel like a different game, so maybe I'm just a lousy lying promise-breaker. Either way, I'm happy to be back into it again, warts and all.