Note: Early Access Reviews are critical appraisals of games still in development which are charging money for player access to their alpha and beta stages. This review is intended to give you an idea of whether the game is currently worth investing in, but without offering a final verdict.
Take a cursory glance at DayZ and it appears little has changed in the four months since release. The major content Bohemia are planning for the mod; namely vehicles, craftable bases, and broader communication channels such as radios, are still a long way from being added. Investigate a little further, however, and you'll discover that significant changes have been made, but they're many and small rather than large and few.
For example, rain was added about a month ago, and now players can catch the water droplets in their canteens, making it ever so slightly easier to acquire this vital resource. In addition, players can aim their guns while sat down, enabling them to sit around a campfire with friends without completely compromising their safety, or keep watch over player prisoners in a more casual, more disturbing manner.
There are lots of different little channels that feed into DayZ's remarkable success since it debuted on Steam Early Access at the end of last year. But one of them is this detailed way in which players can interact with their environment and the other players they encounter in post-apocalypse Chernarus. It's this granularity of experience which Bohemia have been chasing since the Standalone release.
To understand the importance of this, it's necessary to grasp the basis of what DayZ is, and the developer's intent behind it. For all its layers of complexity, your ultimate goal when playing DayZ is the most basic possible. Stay alive. Do not die. See that bucket? Avoid kicking it. This is done by seeing to your needs, avoiding the zombies scattered around the environment like organic litter, and performing the delicate and potentially deadly social dance with fellow survivors you'll inevitably encounter during your travels.
Your objective may be simple, but achieving it is anything but. Resources are scarce, and you require lots of food and water just to keep your body functional. The first hour or so of a DayZ life are a half-terrifying, half-gleeful rush as you frantically scour the nearest village for supplies, interspersed with moments of bravely running away from the prowling zombies.
If you're very lucky you might find enough food and water to keep you healthy. More typically you'll either bleed to death after being attacked by your first zombie, or find nothing but rotten food, eat that in desperation, become sick, and spend the next half hour hopelessly searching for the right medication before ultimately collapsing. This is of course an entirely hypothetical scenario and definitely not what happened to me in my first and second lives.
Learning how to cope in this extremely harsh environment is a big factor in what makes DayZ so compelling. So is learning how to navigate it. Modern games are obsessed with keeping the player oriented, ensuring they always know where they are and where they are going, and there's something about the challenge of being lost in a wilderness that is paradoxically liberating. The moment you first find a map in an abandoned car or inside a petrol station is breathlessly exciting. Then comes the puzzle of figuring out where you are on it, googling the Russian alphabet so you can translate the town signs written in Cyrillic to match them with the map names scribed in English.
It helps that Chernarus is an incredible foundation for a game like this. Its sweeping vistas, highly realistic terrain, foreboding climate and dilapidated Baltic settlements all contribute to the sense that this is a world where nature has wrested control back from humanity, but also as a place where hope still lingers. Trekking through one of DayZ's many forests, watching the sunlight shaft through the canopy, listening to your plodding footfall and the twittering birds in the trees is an oddly relaxing experience, providing relief between frantic zombie combat and tense encounters with other survivors.