A lot of games contain an onslaught of right hooks, high kicks and hot lead, but few manage to make each individual encounter with violence meaningful, tense, exciting, important. NEO Scavenger manages to do all of the above through a turn-based RPG with permadeath, and it has offered more memorable fights than any other game this year.
Graham: I could happily give every one of this year’s awards to NEO Scavenger.
It’s one of the best RPGs I’ve played in 2014, owing to an inventive skill system and the wealth of meaningful decisions packed into every playthrough. It’s one of the best written games I’ve played this year, revealing itself over hours to not just be a systemic, permadeath survival game, but to also take place in a fascinating, Fallout-style world of cults and cannibals, quests and questions. I’m not sure how I’d justify giving it Best Collectible Card Game, but I’d find a way.
If I had to pick just one award, Best Combat is perfect. Its brawls aren’t smoothly animated like in Middle-earth – they’re not animated at all, described only via text. They’re not designed to make you feel skilled and powerful, like in Revengeance. Instead, NEO Scavenger’s fights are what would happen if the staff of RPS got drunk, took off their shoes, and decided to fight to death in a muddy field.
They’re one of the only game fights I can think of that are grim, messy, clumsy, desperate – and as a mechanic, combat in NEO Scavenger is a nexus point for every other idea the game is trying to express.
You start every game by waking up in a cryo-facility wearing only a hospital gown, the survivor of some unknown apocalypse. You wander out into the world to find out where you are, who you are, what’s gone wrong, but also in search of some trousers, comfortable shoes and a plastic bag to carry food in. This is the Scavenger part of the title. You’ll find materials in fields, in mobile homes, in collapsing office buildings, in dust-filled storage lockers, and in the pockets, bags and on the feet of other Scavengers wandering around the mostly barren landscape.
Those Scavengers will sometimes come for you and sometimes you’ll go for them. If you meet, you’ll enter a combat screen telling you what you know about your opponent – can you see them, are they hurt, what are they wearing, how far away are they. The actions you can perform during each increment of time are context-sensitive. If you can’t see them at night, all you can do is search for them or swing blindly in the dark. If you’ve taken the Strong and Melee skills at the start, maybe you’ll get an extra attack move allowing you to headbutt your opponent.
In most instances, your moves will be the same: punch, tackle, kick while on the ground. The roll of a dice will determine whether you hit, whether you trip and fall over, whether the rifle your opponent is carrying has any bullets or whether it’ll only be used as a club to beat you with.
Very, very occasionally, with enough hiding, sneaking and luck – and a heavy weapon in your hand like a wrench – you’ll end a fight in a turn or two. The rest of the time it’s a slog. They’ll swing and swing with a tree branch they found. You’ll punch and kick with your naked fists. You’ll hit their head and crack their ribs. They’ll pummel your arm and you’ll drop your plastic bag full of pebbles and novelty tshirts. They’ll bleed internally and try to crawl away. You’ll finish the job, you need their shoes.
Even if you win, it’s unlikely you’ll come away unscathed. Maybe you’ll be able to nurse your wounds with another stolen tshirt, a bottle of water, some painkillers. Or maybe some small scratch will become infected and you’ll die screaming three days later from fever. NEO Scavenger puts you on a knife edge between life and death, and small things can tip you over that edge so easily. Simply being exhausted after a fight will make you vulnerable.
NEO Scavenger has the Best Combat in 2014, then, because it makes you want to avoid its combat. Better to not fight and run away, and live to find trousers another day.
NEO Scavenger can make you feel like predator or prey, depending on the circumstances. And circumstances can change in a moment.
In this case, as in life, being a predator isn’t a case of stalking, hunting and getting a target in your sights. To survive for any length of time, a predator needs to pick prey carefully because retaliation can be fatal. It’s all well and good to take down a wildebeest but even the slightest graze received during the struggle and the kill can lead to infection, weariness, weakness, exhaustion, the inability to hunt the next time hunger scrapes at the innards. Starvation, death.
As a hunter, your task is not simply to kill, it is to kill while remaining intact. Self-preservation is a case of putting food in your belly today and retaining the ability to put food in your belly again tomorrow. NEO Scavenger is one of the few games that treats the hunt and the kill as potentially irreparable disasters. It’s never enough to stalk and corner your quarry because as they lash out in self-defence, they have the capacity to end your life – not then, in the moment, but the next day or the day after, when a wound starts to fester or the need to rest leaves you sleeping on sodden grass, soaked to the bones and surrounded by snarls in the darkness.
The hunter must determine whether the reward matches the risk and, in NEO Scavenger’s blighted world, that’s rarely the case. It’s bad enough having to break someone’s bones to earn your daily bread, but when all they’re carrying is a handful of pebbles and twigs, it’s enough to make you deflate so rapidly that you give up the ghost by accident. A punctured balloon wheeling into an empty sky.
As prey, your task is to survive. In some ways, it’s an easiest task than the hunter’s struggle. Punch, kick and stab with that shard of broken glass and your assailant is likely to think twice about the wisdom of attacking you. You’re not necessarily aiming to kill, just to make a statement – “You can strip the meat from my bones but you’ll be walking with a limp for the last miserable days of your life.”
Survival is a struggle, and whichever side of the struggle you find yourself on from one hour to the next, NEO Scavenger will make you dread the consequence of your actions. How often does a game make you want to back down from combat, holding your hands up and demonstrating that you mean no harm, hoping with all that your heart can summon that the stranger at the other side of the street will agree to do the same? How often does combat feel like a last resort rather than the primary solution?
The mechanics of the combat occasionally fail to match the vision, but since such a large part of that vision is clumsy desperation, imperfections easily fit the fiction.
As Graham says, NEO Scavenger is the top contender for many of our named categories but the combat is almost entirely unique and its beats are the pulsing heart of this particular shade of dark.
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