I've been waiting a long time for this one.

As strange as it may sound, despite playing damn near every zombie-survival game I could get my hands on this year, I didn't spend any time with the DayZ mod during the roughly two years between its own release and the Steam Early Access debut of DayZ Standalone. You see, I stumbled across the DayZ mod late last year, just before Dean Hall confirmed DayZ Standalone wouldn't be ready by the end of 2012 as planned. So I did what many in my situation did. Desperate for what I hoped/believed to be a similar experience from an existing standalone, I bought a copy of The War Z (now Infestation: Survivor Stories).

Don't worry, I won't bother wasting anybody's time describing how much of a shit show that game turned out to be but, suffice it to say, I was pretty stoked when the DayZ Standalone finally hit Steam Early Access this month. I've burned through a number of zombie-survival games over the past twelve months, including fantastic projects like Undead Labs' State of Decay, but none offered the extensive personal survival mechanics that I'd already been exposed to while watching regular DayZ streamers like Soma and Sacriel. So I was pretty excited that I'd finally get a chance to check out DayZ Standalone for myself.

I finished up the article I was writing at the time, and immediately swapped over to the profile I use for gaming - please don't judge me for not having the willpower to stay focused on work with a Steam icon glaring at me from the taskbar - and began downloading the game I'd waited more than twelve months to get my hands on. A few minutes later, I stood up and took my first steps on Chernarus.

They were glorious.

I woke up on a beach, with nothing but the clothes on my back, shoes on my feet, a flashlight and a single D-cell battery to power my only guaranteed light source. After poking around a couple of cabins near the shoreline, I managed to find some cargo pants (hooray for extra storage space!) and an axe to defend myself against the various dangers waiting for me farther inland. It was at this point that I heard the voice.

"Hey...you in the house," the unseen survivor called out, "I know you're in there. I'm unarmed."

I'd seen enough streams to know how this could end. Saying you're unarmed and actually being unarmed are two very different things in DayZ, and I didn't want my first play session to come to such an abrupt end. I took a quick second to evaluate my breathing, thankfully slow and measured after several minutes of relatively-leisurely strolling through my early surroundings, and looked for an exit facing the forest. Just then, my fellow survivor stumbled into the house, forcing immediate action on my part.

Naturally, I ran.

And ran.

And then ran some more.

DayZ Standalone DayZ Standalone (PHOTO: Bohemia Interactive)

For those who (like me) have no real idea of just how large Chernarus really is, the 230 km2 island* is roughly 23-times the size of Infestation: Survivor Stories' 10km2 "Colorado" environment and more than twice the size of Grand Theft Auto V's 49-square-mile world map. The massive game space means player encounters aren't quite as frequent as some entries in the genre, but the necessity of exploring Chernarus myriad cities, towns and villas does inevitably lead to the occasional encounter with your fellow human.

Unlike the mod, DayZ Standalone also incentivizes exploration far more than its previous incarnation, thanks to a new set of semi-randomized loot tables, designed to spawn gear and supplies in places that make sense - but with enough variety in its placement to force survivors to search every nook and cranny of any building in their proximity.

Of course, that still means you'll need to travel to all sorts of dangerous locales (like barracks and airfields) for some of the game's best gear, but it does help prevent longtime DayZ players from gaining too quick an advantage on those getting their first taste of the game via DayZ Standalone.

Things aren't as simple as running from town to town though. Like any zombie-survival game, DayZ has a few reanimated members of the Recently Deceased Club who are more than ready to take a bite out of anyone that alerts the undead to their presence. For the time being, Bohemia Interactive is keeping each server's infected count relatively low; to gauge the game's performance as both the number of players and number of zombies continue to rise. Eventually, the DayZ Standalone team hopes the undead will (occasionally) prove to be just as deadly as your fellow player.

DayZ Standalone DayZ Standalone (PHOTO: Bohemia Interactive)

Despite the relative lack of zombie hordes, and the ease with which the game's few lingering walkers can be dispatched, DayZ Standalone remains one of the most nail-biting gaming experiences of the year, thanks almost entirely to the heart-pounding nature of encounters with your fellow survivors.

Unlike similar "survival" titles, which eschew most survival-based mechanics in favor of the same sort of boring/repetitive shooter gameplay that's somehow made Call of Duty into a billion-dollar franchise, DayZ forces players to actually use their brains when coming in contact with a fellow human. Sure, players will regularly bludgeon one another to death with whatever weapon(s) they have on-hand, but not without damaging some/all of the loot that the victor might have otherwise claimed from their downed opponent. Likewise, the game's ultra-realistic physics engine forces players to account for wind resistance, bullet drop, player movement and more if/when firing on their fellow survivors.

However, I've yet to actually need to take any of these game mechanics into account. For starters, I've yet to find a fully-functional weapon, virtually eliminating my chances in any significant PvP scenario. But, more importantly, the community just seems a bit friendlier than the crowds gathered around similar titles. I've yet to be killed by another player, or even (succesfully) attacked for that matter, and have regularly received extremely useful advice from more-experienced players that I've encountered while traveling some of DayZ Standalone's "starter" towns. From what I understand, DayZ Standalone does already have a thriving PvP scene as well, but I suspect I'll be waiting until I find a bit better gear before running off to lose it all and begin my search anew.

Those considering a purchase of DayZ Standalone should know that the project will apparently remain in Steam Early Access for quite some time. In fact, Hall has suggested that DayZ Standalone might not even enter beta until late 2014, meaning it could be 2015 (or later) before the game's "official" launch. Still, the content already present in DayZ Standalone is tremendously engaging, easily worth its $30 price tag, and quite possibly my favorite Steam Early Access title of 2013.

Be sure to check back with iDigitalTimes.com and follow Scott on Twitter for more on DayZ Standalone and occasional dispatches from the zombie-infested island of Chernarus in the months following DayZ Standalone's long-awaited debut.

Have you spent any time on Chernarus since the DayZ Standalone hit Steam Early Access? Disappointed with what Bohemia Interactive has delivered thus far? Planning to buy DayZ Standalone, but want to wait until it's received a few more updates?

Let us know in the comments section!

*An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that DayZ Standalone's Chernarus map was 260 square kilometers instead of 230 square kilometers. That fact, and the corresponding comparison to Infestation: Survivor Stories' 10 square kilometer map have been updated to reflect that fact.