Review: NEO Scavenger

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There is a special place in my heart for collecting junk in video games. I know it’s not just me, either, because big titles from Fallout to The Long Dark have made their fortunes on letting people scrounge shell casings and old candy bars out of wastebaskets. I think it touches on the appeal of collecting, how you hoover up all kinds of garbage, sort the useful garbage from the actual garbage, maybe make useful garbage OUT of actual garbage, and eventually outfit yourself in the best garbage possible. It’s no surprise there are now games built more fully around this concept, and NEO Scavenger has it right there in the title. But you may be surprised at how much it does with the concept, how rich its world is, and just how compelling it can be.

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You awaken in a cryogenics facility, with no memory and only a medical bracelet to tell you who you are. Outside, the world has very much changed. Cities lie empty, strange creatures roam the wilderness, and your fellow man is just as likely to kill and eat you as wave hello. Yep, the world sure has ended, and you’ve got to figure out how you fit into all of this. But before that, you should probably find some pants. You might also need fresh water, a weapon or two, maybe some tools to fix all this old-world tech you’re finding, and a sleeping bag or something for when the cold, ominous night falls.

Like I said, it’s right there in the title. NEO Scavenger starts you off in the post-apocalyptic wilds of Michigan with nothing, and expects you to survive. Actually, “expects” is probably the wrong word, because you’re sure to die more than a few ignoble deaths to hypothermia and dysentery before you figure out how to get anywhere. But to do that, you’ve got to comb through the ruins of the past, turning up clothes, food, and all kinds of actual junk to bash together into useful junk. What you find will inform your options, and you’ll have to use those options to their fullest to start unraveling the mysteries here.

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There are a lot of tantalizing mysteries here, hinted at through newspaper scraps, strange landmarks, and unfamiliar creatures hounding you. But first, you have to learn to survive off of literal junk. I’m not kidding here, most of what you find early on is very much rocks, sticks, string, dirty rags, and grocery bags. And because this is such a robust simulation, you’ll need to use those to make kindling, storage solutions, and weapons. You have all kinds of slots on your character to hold things or sling them over your shoulder, and carting around those grocery bags will indeed be your first real storage option in the game. The crafting system will be one of your biggest hurdles, requiring such specifics as medium-length flexible shafts and rigid sharp-edged objects to make a simple wooden spear. It took me awhile just to figure out how to clean rags for bandages, since a few of the interactions are less than obvious like how you have to “empty out” a bottle to get the liquid in your inventory to use or craft with.

Turning all this stuff up is a major part of the gameplay, too. Unlike the isometric maps or first-person perspective of the many Fallout games, NEO Scavenger is entirely menu-driven. You navigate the world on a hex map of fields, forests, and ruins, with each hex marked with icons representing items present, scavenging opportunities, and campsites. To scavenge, you identify a building or location and then choose skills or items to use in your search. The skill system is a clever have-it-or-don’t think that allows you to use abilities like Strong or Mechanic in crafting and scavenging, while items like crowbars and lighters can help you improve your odds, for a cost. Each time you hunt junk, you have a chance of injuring yourself or alerting nearby presences, so that risk/reward relationship needs to be managed carefully.

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You have a ton of options for avoiding attention, too, besides simply looting quietly. Your character leaves tracks as you traverse the world, and you can spend action points covering yours if you’re afraid of being found. You can hide, you can move stealthily, and you can spy on others to prevent ambushes and such, and the more threatening your foes get the more practical this becomes. Camping is another system to take seriously, since if you get found while asleep you are utterly at the mercy of your visitor. You pick places to camp, what items to use like sleeping bags and improvised alarms, and so on. And when night falls your vision on the world map pretty much blacks out, so you need to be ready to take shelter after dark.

This remarkable spread of options extends to combat as well, in one of the most impressive systems the game has to offer. Encountering another being (or group) puts you both in a menu where you take turns choosing actions. You have a distance between you (measured in paces, I think), and at the most basic level you can choose to advance or retreat. But then you get options like charging, which moves you further but makes you vulnerable and confers a chance to trip, or advancing under cover which keeps you hidden and unidentified by your opponent. You can tackle people to the ground, pull them down with you, kick them while they’re down, or dodge roll past them. There are even dialog options included, since not everyone you get put into “combat” with is hostile.

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At this point it should be clear how absurdly robust the simulation is in NEO Scavenger, and why it ends up being so compelling. There are thousands of items, hundreds of crafting combinations, all kinds of encounters and challenges to overcome with them, and a mysterious story to uncover once you learn how. But most of all, it’s fun. In your very first encounter of the game, beating it through sheer might gives you the option of saving a recording of your awesome deed. That goofy humor caries through the rest of the game, even when special encounters turn grim or deadly. Really the only thing that might hold anyone back from enjoying this one is the learning curve, but it’s more strategy to suss out than mechanics and that should be a fun adventure to take. If you want some of the best wasteland scrounging and adventuring around, then trust me, you want to give NEO Scavenger a chance.

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