Day Z: The First Days

Surviving in the world of Day Z alone is no easy task. Starting off without any sort of weapon except for your wits and perception demands a player to be cautious of their surroundings at all times. Zombies roam the countryside and towns, littering the streets, moaning and growling, looking for their next meal. But, while always a lingering threat, zombies can be avoided with patience or through sheer agility. The real danger lies within fellow man.

While Day Z is a multiplayer mod for ARMA II, playing with others is merely a question of trust. Players can either be only in it for themselves, choosing to shoot you on sight, or they can team up to survive. The most dangerous entities comes from those who do both, luring unsuspecting players in with goodwill, only to callously murder them after a decent loot run. It becomes unsettling knowing that the person who was betrayed learned a harsh lesson, no longer trusting anyone else. They soon become the betrayer.

This was my experience through the first several hours of Day Z. The first was when I was trying to outrun some zombies chasing me through the forest, when I heard a voice over my speakers. He tells me to run to him, and that he will help. I foolishly believed him. He gets rid of the chasers then proclaims a half-hearted “Sorry,” before taking one shot to my head. He presumably loots what little supplies I had left. I was never quite the same after that.

Until, the next spawn.

After an hour of finding a few weapons, some food and supplies, I was feeling good about my chances. Though, while running from a pack of zombies, I ran into a small shed. The monsters were able to open the door and give me a few good lashings, resulting in a broken limb. I was down. I popped a few shots into them with my Makarov, but there were too many. I began crawling through the back door. Crawling for my life. There was a hospital somewhere nearby, and maybe if I could reach it, it would be okay.

Then another player appeared, and took out the rest of the zeds with his 1911. We exchanged a few words and he gave me a shot of morphine. I was able to stand again, but what was his game? I came to find, that this was a decent person. For another hour, we explored the city, and the countryside on the outskirts. We hunted for some food, and killed a few other players trying to pick us off.

On top of a building, a few zombies had followed us up. My only ammo was for a Lee Enfield rifle. I shot one round into the gut of one of our pursuers. My new friend turned to me and said, “Alright, don’t fire that gun in the city anymore.” I asked him why, and he told me to look down. A crowd of zombies were parading towards the building.

But it couldn’t have lasted. Some bandit sniped me while I was getting meat from a lamb, and we never saw each other again. But now was the time for me to go lone wolf. Explore the island and find the treasured loot.

It was about this time where the mod really started to shine. I was cautious and hardened from previous experiences. I knew how to avoid zombies. I figured the best places to find supplies. I took shots carefully, thinking about how much sound they would make, and what kind of impact it would be. I found a map, and routed where I was going to go next, using a compass to find my way. I was a man on a mission and I had survived for a long, long time. But I knew that it could end at any moment.

A sniper could be lurking in every town. Zombies could corner me. I could run out of food or water. Unsavory characters could hunt me down for my precious loot. Distant gunshots induce fear rather than comfort or hope. Every step could be my last. It was unsettling.
Needless to say, that I eventually died, though extremely far into the island in the town of Gorshino. I won’t say how I died, but I will say that it was due to a glitch, which is the most upsetting part. All of the time, just wiped away because of the game’s bugginess.

The mod is buggy, in some part because ARMA II is inherently buggy as well. It is still in alpha and being updated quite a bit, but it is janky. Zombies hit you through walls or hit you from dumb distances, they walk through closed doors, and they rubber-band to you when you’re running away allowing them to be on your ass most of the time. Then, players also take advantage of some of the quirks. Because your location on the map and your personal equipment is consistent from server to server, it makes sense that if a player is getting messed up on one server, they can disconnect before death grips them, switch to different server, load up and they will be perfectly fine. It’s a little cheap, but as long as players can do it, it will happen. So expect that if you don’t kill someone with one shot, they could very likely just log out before you finish the job.

Still, the mod is beautiful in its simplicity. Scatter randomly generated zombies and loot in places on a giant map. Have various unique locations, like a helicopter crash in the middle of a field. Then let sixty players roam around and see what happens. It’s almost a crazy social experiment.

Players needlessly killing others is not inherent to the mod though. It just becomes necessary when you never know the intentions of these people, and with little consequence for doing murder (in fact it’s one of the major stats being tracked), it’s bound to happen. It seems that if players come into the world wanting to be friendly, they quickly learn; that isn’t the name of the game. Unless you have friends that you trust, it’s killed or be killed in Day Z.

 

*Screenshots from: http://deadendthrills.com/

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat Mod Thought: Misery

How does one survive in this misery?

There is something to be said about taking a difficult game and taking the challenge as far as it can without becoming cheap, unfair or hard enough to just be a bully. The Misery mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat comes close, and even crosses the line on some aspects. But barring a few minor tweaks, it can become one of the most immersive and daunting mods for any game that I have ever played.

My journey into the Zone started differently from the start. I first had to choose between three different classes when I installed the mod, choices being Sniper, Recon or Assaulter. I decided to go with the sniper class, as I was accustomed to sniper style tactics of taking enemies out from long range. When it loaded I was met with a completely different game than I was ready for. Unlike normal Call of Pripyat fare, where I spawn into the Zone on a clear, bright day, this time I was faced with a dark, impenetrable wall of misty fog. In my backpack, I had only a rifle, which included no scope and a mere five bullets, a pistol with only fifteen bullets, and tawdry amount of supplies. I was painfully unequipped for the Zone ahead of me, so my first objective was to find the land-locked ship where many Stalkers had called home.


Immediately apparent is that Misery incorporates the stunning AtmosFear mod, which makes significant changes to Call of Pripyat’s weather and skies. Rainstorms can range from mild showers that give the world an almost calm and serene feeling, to violent thunderstorms and pitch-black nights, upping the intense dread already in the game. On clear mornings, the sun shines light through thick mist and casts a warm glow on the new high resolution buildings. New ambient noises have been introduced as well and the sounds of far off gunshots or creatures can be heard in the distance, wrapping a player with an auditory blanket of immersion. Call of Pripyat is suddenly a beautiful game, if only in a dreary sort of way. Travelling across the landscape is no longer a chore, but a journey.

Still, it is an extremely dangerous journey. Misery tweaks gameplay heavily, including much more meticulous inventory and resource management to force a player to make some pretty tricky decisions. You can really only carry the barebone essentials, lest your energy drain at a nauseating speed. Generally it’s best to carry only one or two guns along with food rations, ammo, and medical supplies. Any extraneous equipment is best left in your personal locker. However, your energy is bound to drain no matter how hard you fight it, sooner or later. I had to sleep regularly, keep my hunger down, and heal any wounds that I had been afflicted with, or it made the game quickly go from difficult to impossible.

The mod is called Misery for a good reason. There are times playing where the game just beats you down with some incredibly misguided balance issues that all sort of feed into each other. Firstly, the fatigue happens too quickly, too unexpectedly and affects far too much. There are three movement speeds in Call of Pripyat; normal speed, sprinting and walking. At normal speed, if you’ve had enough sleep, food and you’re inventory is not too heavy, energy drains very minimally. While sprinting it drains a little faster, obviously. If you are hungry or tired, energy drain so rapidly that a few steps could force you to stop and wait for the gauge to refill. Take another few steps and wait again. This happens a lot.

The immediate response would be to just eat more food. Sounds easy enough if food was not so scarce, or if eating it actually took hunger away. Forget paying rubles for food because the economy is a farce. One loaf of bread costs 300 rubles, which is not much especially in the beginning of the game, and barely satiates hunger. If you wanted to get enough to fill you up, you wouldn’t have any money left. I’m all for realism, and I believe there are some great ideas here, but they seem so disproportional to any sort of common sense. The beginning of the game states that you play as a military agent, and I find it hard to believe that someone trained in the military succumbs so easily to these trivial mechanics.

With the unfortunate items accounted for, Misery still takes a step in the right direction. The above complaints are easily fixable with a couple number changes in a game file, which I happily tweaked. This is a mod after all, so fixing minor issues like these seems par for the course. After that was settled, I was able to enjoy a breath of fresh, radiated air and lose myself into the Zone once again. There are enough positive changes here, that it is worth the effort to fix the negative ones.

Enemies in Misery are of no laughing matter. They are tougher, smarter and don’t hold back. The world is still a living thing in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The world has no immediate interest in your life, but will lash out if you mess with it. Hazards are everywhere and with Misery they can become much deadlier. Zombies can only be killed with a headshot or two, though, they are unfortunately crack shots as well, able to snipe you from across a field with only a few shots. Anomalies are not as obvious and will pick you up and kill without a moment’s hesitation, as you search deep for their valuable artifacts. Creatures roam the countryside and will attack if they feel threatened. Mutants hide out in strange radiated caverns and buildings waiting for unsuspecting Stalkers to waltz into their territory.

The most frightening powerful force in the game are the random blow-outs and emissions that occur. They can suddenly light up the night sky while sirens blow in the distance. A player has to find good cover quickly or be blasted away into oblivion by a twisted, apocalyptic thunderstorm of doom. Misery has given these events a face-lift as well, making them look as eerie and intimidating as ever.

There are plenty of more fantastic features that culminate into what makes Misery such an immersive mod, it would be foolish to list them here. Suffice it to say, Misery is one of those experiences that you remember if you allow yourself be taken in by S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s Zone. While it is at once beautiful and frightening, while forcing a player to think about their actions, Misery holds a special place in my heart for bringing me even deeper into such a fascinating world. Turn down the lights. Turn up the sound. Get that bottle of vodka ready. It’s time to enter the Zone, stalker.

Here is a link to the mod, to read more about it, or download it if you have Call of Pripyat, which you should anyway.

The Alpha Protocol Dialogues

I’m going to get the obvious out of the way. Alpha Protocol is not a great game. The combat is clunky and unintuitive. The story is far-fetched and overly complicated for a resolution that feels like it was not really worth the effort. And there is little to encourage actually using stealth. This is all easy to surmise from a short time with the game, and this isn’t a review. But there is something about Alpha Protocol that developers Obsidian did astoundingly well and kept me completely engrossed in what was happening. So much so, I would like to see the level of quality for this aspect of the game done in other games with important character interaction. The conversation mechanic and the effects of player’s decisions in this game are the absolute most fun I had with Alpha Protocol.

The main conceit is something you can see in games like Heavy Rain, or earlier seen in Indigo Prophecy. Conversations need answers, and the game is not going to wait while the player sits idly, thinking too hard about each consequence. A little progress bar quickly grows smaller, forcing split-second choices. These can range from getting another character to like you, or dislike you, to just flat-out executing a character if the player deems it fit. In other role-playing games like Mass Effect or Fallout: New Vegas, you can wait around for a while in a conversation; Alpha Protocol waits for no man.

In the setting, this mechanic is perfect. As a role-playing game about a super secret government agent gone rogue, quick thinking and smooth talking are all part of the job. The game was great at making me feel like I had to think on my feet when faced with difficult social situations. Should I shoot this guy right now? Is what he is saying the truth? How much information should I give away about myself? A lot of information can be thrown in your direction at once, and it becomes a huge part of the experience to have to piece it all together, fast.

At first, the conversations seem arbitrary and inconsequential. The player’s first taste is to just try and decipher some obvious character traits and either pander to or oppose them. Darcy likes a player who appeals to his joking and somewhat confident side. Parker admires a straightforward man who doesn’t play around. After a few missions, however, these conversations become something a bit more. Where you were just answering petty questions before, now you have to decide whether to believe a known terrorist faction leader about possible double crossings in your government. Will letting him live help you later in the game? Will killing him hurt you? Is it the other way around? You have two seconds to decide what to do, and what you decide can easily effect the rest of the game.

Most of the decisions are located in the grey of morality as well. There is usually never a good choice or bad choice, making the time limit all the more intimidating. You have to choose your allegiances and the best way to keep them. The choices the player is given is more of an emotional. The type of response you want to give. Some characters I purposefully tried to piss off and gave snarky or obtuse answers to everything they said. Others, I gave honest answers to and had nothing but respect for. It showed where my true allegiances lied and who had my back through the latter parts of the story.

Because there is a reputation with each character, they can come to your aid in various ways, from giving you extra intel in missions, to selling you black market items, to even coming in and fighting along side you, providing distractions while you sneak in for the objective. All of this because you knew how to talk and made quick decisions about your standing with them. There are some missions that are purely conversations, and depending on the outcome, change the face of what is to come. I met with a Triad gang leader and because I was cautious and polite, his gang eventually showed up in some warehouse to take on whoever was trying to stop me. Then he gave me valuable intel on a shady corporation and even sold me some weapons. I could have just shot him, and not bothered with any of that.

For a game to hook me in with its dialogue mechanic is a great feat. Especially for an action game. If other developers incorporated similar mechanics in their role-playing action games, they would be better for it.

Here is a bit more on the game’s conversation mechanic straight from the developers. http://blogs.sega.com/2008/09/04/alpha-protocol-round-table-discussion-part-1/

The Elder Scrolls: What is CHIM?

So after playing an absurd amount of Skyrim and getting pretty deep into the lore of the Elder Scrolls, I came across an interesting theory of a sort of meta-narrative throughout the games. I started reading more and more about the metaphysical concept of CHIM, which is detailed through some of the in-game books and expanded upon by fans on forums. From what I gathered through the dense language of the discussions taking place on the subject, CHIM is basically a character realizing that he is in fictional world but somehow still keeps his identity, and therefore becomes able to control the world around him…I think. In terms of the Elder Scrolls lore, it is like gaining complete enlightenment, and having the world become much like a lucid dream, where you can change what you see in whatever way.

The cool part comes in where it seems like the fans, though it could be inferred that the designers wanted the idea out there, have come up with idea that CHIM sort of breaks the fourth wall of the game, where characters that have achieved CHIM, reference the Elder Scrolls modding tools and other crazy notions. Even main characters, the ones you play as in the games, reach CHIM, allowing you to do all the stuff you do. Yeah, it gets a little crazy. Who knows, everything I just said could be incorrect. It is all a pretty neat idea though, and I would not be the best person to convey the meaning of it because I don’t really understand it all myself, but if you want to know more about the cool meta-narrative that might be happening you can read more about it here:

http://fallingawkwardly.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/the-metaphysics-of-morrowind-part-3/

The Binding of Isaac: Mastering Your Luck

Isaac is a young kid with a wild imagination. The opening animation to Binding of Isaac presents the dark story of a religious, crazed mother out to sacrifice her child, shown through crude drawings by Isaac himself. It catapults the player into a fantasy world that can be disturbing yet funny, full of grotesque monsters and a multitude of strange hidden treasures. Story and style aside, the Binding of Isaac becomes more of an engrossing exercise in resource management than twitch shooter. While playing the game, it first comes down to luck, and secondly is how the player deals with that luck. The choices could doom them or save his pathetic, little life.

The Binding of Issac is an unlikely shooter from the minds of Edmund McMillen, of Gish and Super Meat Boy fame, and Florian Himsl. It incorporates the concept of the roguelike, or dungeon crawler, for its structure. Some of the main conceits of a roguelike is that when the player dies, they die for good. No saves, forcing them to start the game over. Another is the random, procedurally generated dungeons. The replayablility comes from never knowing exactly what you’re going to be handed next. This is where some of the joy and, sometimes, frustration of The Binding of Isaac comes in.

Now, I have very limited experience with roguelikes myself. They are an oddity to me. Games on the outskirts of my gaming knowledge. I have tried to play a few, but usually get stuck on the basic ACII interfaces or basic tiled graphics and sometimes high learning curves. The extent of my expertise with roguelikes is that I know of them, and I know a little of how their design functions. There is perma-death, but with each death comes new opportunities with randomly generated levels. The Binding of Isaac does this with a gameplay design that feels a little more accessible. To be able to move freely through each room and line up active shooting gives the game a sense of motion and excitement.

There is considerable skill involved in the game with the real-time shooting and moving. However, the player’s victory can merely come down to pure luck of the draw. The different permutations of dungeons and room and loot drops can either severely hurt a player, or make the game so much easier. From the treasure rooms that can hold any selection of the hundred items, to the pills, whose effects are never consistent from one playthrough to the next and hold no significant markings to help identify what they will do. It’s always a gamble on if you will be lucky enough to get a item drop to actually help you along your path. There is even a special room containing a slot machine and shuffling cup (or skull) game. You could come out of there with great items, or absolutely nothing.

Ah! The choices...

This is where the crazed genius really shines through, however. At first, the Binding of Isaac seems like a tricky Zelda-esque shooter with a Metroid style maze of dungeons, but the real strategy comes from managing your luck. You start to think, is it worth your hearts, or your items, or bombs or keys to go on through the next room? Do I need to see what items are in the shop, or can I push forward? Should I use this bomb to get those hearts, or should I try and find the secret room? Will I get more bombs later? What in God’s name will this pill do to me?!

It’s a deeper strategy than you even think you are employing. The quick use items need to be used at precisely the corrects moments, or they are wasted.  You should how many rooms it takes to recharge a off-hand item, and if the one you just found will work better for you, and if it will work well with the upgrades you currently have equipped. Some of the items you pick up can be detrimental to how you like to play. Take the chocolate milk “upgrade” for example. Instead of holding down the shoot buttons so tears automatically plop out one at a time out, the chocolate milk lets you charge tears. So for someone like myself, who prefers to hold down the buttons, that item sort of sucks. I have to be either tapping away or running around holding the button for just the right amount of time.

The one and only time I refuse chocolate milk.

Experimentation and trying your luck is just another part of the game. Whenever I get a pill that has the “???” as the description, I just instinctually gulp it down, hoping for the best. Any new item I haven’t seen before, I take, and haphazardly use it to see its effects. Experimentation with the, admittedly, unique and clever items is half the fun. A run could go a completely different direction because you sacrificed two hearts for something, like the powerful Brimstone upgrade, even though you had no idea what it was just from looking at the vague icon. When you try your luck and it works out, the run can become incredibly satisfying.

The layout of the dungeons are equally as harrowing. With each new game the placement of rooms is shuffled and rearranged into a completely new maze. Then, with each new placement, the rooms themselves become a mystery. You could easily walk into a room with nothing but a coin, then march into a room that completely obliterates your health. The choice of trying to find the shop or the secret room soon becomes affected by your courage in tempting fate with the rooms on the way. Even if you do happen to find the shop, it could be occupied by one of the mini-bosses, Greed, who is just out to take your coins. Finding an item like the compass is extremely helpful in meandering your way through danger and deciding whether to throw caution to the wind.

No matter what items you pick up, or which rooms you stumble across, this is a game that can take risk vs. reward and shove it in your face. The Binding of Isaac has the ability to leave you distraught with how cruel the random drops can be, or jovial with streaks of good fortune. But even with all the luck in the world, or the Lucky Foot, it still comes down to a player choice on how far they wish to push that luck.

Minecraft: The Adventures of…

That's what it is!

I  appeared in a brand new world, completely conjured from blocks. I don’t know where I came from but I suppose my first natural instinct is to survive. I looked around this brave new world and see the normal aspects of nature. Hills, mountains, trees, water, and animals. I started where any naked human would start. I built myself a shelter. The question first in my mind was: out of what, and how? The trees could provide me with lumber for a nice house. Something that would sustain me for the coming days while I figured out my destiny. Fortunately I was much stronger that any normal human, and was able to break apart the tree trunks merely with a few strokes of my hand. After destroying a forest for my materials, I set to making my shelter.

The blocks seem to stick together quite nicely without the need of an adhesive or nails. This made the construction go much smoother than I anticipated. After only a few minutes, my quaint wooden hut is complete. Though it felt somewhat dark inside. I could punch out a hole for a window, which I did, but how much can a window do when the night has fallen. I needed torches. However, I had only wood. I needed to find a source of fuel and fire.

The world before you, is yours for the taking...

Before I set out, I fashioned myself a workbench for tool making. There I created a pickax made of the excess wood in my inventory. I then ventured forth into the wilderness to find precious coal. The world was strange, yet somewhat familiar. The landscape changed so rapidly sometimes, and I feel that I could walk forever. I passed endless trees and lakes before I approached a large cliff. I looked up the daunting face and there I saw a peculiar deformity in the rocks. Can it be? I had found a small pocket of coal right in front of my eyes. I knew I must reach it somehow. I looked around, yet all I saw was dirt. At the time, it would work. I broke apart the nearby hillside collecting mounds for my excavation project. I finally had enough and began piling the dirt under me, higher and higher, until I finally reached the coal. I pulled out my wooden pickax and smashed the bricks to reveal bits of coal everywhere. My search was complete.

I found my way back to my humble abode just as night began drawing near. The squarish sun was setting to give rise to a rectangle moon. The night was cold and unforgiving. The only light came from the torches in my hut. It was quiet that night, until…they, came. I never saw them at first. I could only here them. Their sounds were terrifying and cold. They were the sounds of pure evil. The sounds of creatures who wanted nothing more than to kill. I heard a hiss in the distance and peered through the hole I deemed a door, when I saw two red eyes in the distance, slowly drawing near. I hastily went to my workbench and made a makeshift wooden door. I bolted the door immediately to the frame before a disgusting and grotesque spider lunged for my throat. Had I not been as quick, I would have surely been destroyed. All night I saw them through the windows. Standing there, waiting for my flesh. There were some more spiders. Others were creatures who might have been human once, but are no more. All I could do was wait for the safety of day. I stood and I waited. I held my ground.

OH FUUUUUCK!

The next morning I exited my home. The creatures were gone, but  I knew they would be back by night, so I had to work quickly. The day before I had seen what looked like a cave, not far from my hut. I decided to explore. I had my torches and my pickaxes. I had found some stone earlier and made new, stronger pickaxes. I approached the mouth of the cave, when out of nowhere, a musical queue of horror rang through my eardrums. I don’t know where it came from or what it meant, but it was not going to stop me from going in. I went as far as the light from the opening would go when I placed my first torch on the wall. The torches would be my light, and my ball of yarn to escape the labyrinth if need be. I ventured further and further, finding coal as I went. My hope was to find other materials as well, but after quite a bit of time in the cave, I heard the most gut-wrenching, heart-stopping sound. It was the sound of a zombie. So, this is where they hid when the light of day burns their rotting flesh. I had to be careful.

Well, hello cave. Ready for me to penetrate you?

I pushed a little further, the sound of the zombie echoing through the corridors. I placed yet another torch, and, as the light illuminated the walls, the zombie that had been haunting me suddenly appeared, dragging its decaying body along the floor. It crept towards me with surprising speed, lunging for my brains. I took out my only weapon, a stone pickax, and swung at the demon. It hit, but it did not kill. I swung again. And again. And again. Finally, with the blood of the creature dripping from my face and hands, the monster disappeared in a puff of dust. This was my first trial. I had defeated my greatest fear. There was nothing that could stop me now. Nothing, except, for my own madness.

After the battle, the cave showed me its true wonders. I began to find vast amounts of iron, and even gold and diamond. I found my way back to the entrance with my inventory stock full of precious materials. I went back to my hut as night fell, and began to plan what I was to do with everything I had found that day. I was going to change the world. I was to build myself the most glorious of courtyards. With a castle and a royal mine. I was going to build towers as high as the sun, in memorial of myself and my greatness. There was no limit to what I was going to do. I would conquer the land, the sky and the oceans with my power. I would start immediately.

After much timed had passed:

What...are...you?

What am I to do with this place. I am constantly building. Constantly adding. My city stretches far and my mine deep, and there will be no point at which I stop. This is where I believe I am to be mad, for only a madman would continue. Then I accept my madness. I shall be called the Duke of Madness and I rule over all that I see. I suppose I just long for another human. To witness that which I had created and to help with my building. To give input and ideas. We could rid the earth of monster and go on many adventures. We could sail into the sunset finding the wondrous of lands. Lands we have never seen before. That no man had ever seen. We could change the world together.  Someday soon, someone will be dropped into this maddening world as I have.

Fortunately the creator will add multiplayer any day now.

My kingdom. My land.

The End.

http://www.minecraft.net